When the democracy of ancient Athens dissipated into uncertainty, political instability, and eventually collapsed under encroachments of Macedonian autocracy in the fourth century BCE, ending one of the first and most successful experiments in mass direct democracy, there were few states in the world capable of carrying forwards its program of nascent liberty.
The Romans contemporaneously created a republic in which the separation of powers and the representation of the public in government constituted humanity’s next experiment in curtailing autocratic impulses, giving voice to the many interests in a complex society. But when it too eventually succumbed to imperial tyranny and the iron fist of its dictators, the experiment in accountable government ended.
For all intents and purposes (although democracy could no doubt be found, even in those heady end-of-republic days, in small tribes and societies elsewhere in the world), the idea of a free state at a large scale, across substantial geographical areas, did not resurface for over a thousand years. Out of the mists of the medieval eventually came new ideas about freedom, and challenges to absolute monarchies, that laid the foundations of our modern representative democracies.
What is startling about the early experiments in democracy is that they were single-point failures. Once they had gone, there was no alternative center of freedom that would buttress decline into authoritarianism.
The so-called “Dark Ages” between Roman collapse and the rebirth of freer political thought has always been regarded as a bit of a cliché, since it wasn’t as if Europe was devoid of cultural advance during that time. In fact, it was during this period that universities were founded. But it’s a fair generalization to say that the collapse of the Roman republic presaged a millennium of relative political illiberalism, the stagnation of political discourse on the state, and the dominance of autocratic regimes across the European continent.
Lessons of history
Is there is any lesson to be learned from this history of relevance to our current situation? Surely it is that if we value the ideas of freedom, we should never rely on a single power to defend them. Like designing a car or a space rocket, engineers will always tell you to avoid single-point failures; in other words, single parts or mechanisms upon which the function of the whole machine relies. So too, in the global political sphere, if you value a certain set of arrangements, it’s a good idea to ensure that one nation is not the lynch pin of the entire design.
Today, the ideas of representative democracy, accountable government, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly – that concatenation of characteristics we might call the basis of a free state – are yet again being protected by a central player, the United States.
The defense of freedom during the Cold War against the global ambitions of Marxism-Leninism was dependent on US military power and political influence. Thankfully, we never got to find out whether Europe could defend itself alone. We do know that during the Second World War, although the island of Britain put up a good show until 1941, defeating the Luftwaffe single-handedly, the liberation of the western continent was ultimately dependent on the mobilization of the enormous industrial power of the US.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has brought into the open the continuing value of the Pax Americana, but it has also revealed the unlikelihood that Europe could act alone without the US. It remains the brute fact that as a continent, Europe, despite more than 80 years to implement the lessons of the Second World War, remains woefully incapable of defending itself against tyrants. The single-point failure remains.
The future of America
Can we be sure that American liberty will endure? Can we ignore the single-point failure because its rupture seems so unlikely?
There are reasons to be sanguine about the US’s capacity to long endure as a beacon of free thought; the culture is deeply inwrought in the very personality of individual Americans. However, the US is not exceptional, in the sense that it does not defy the tempests and storms that have wrecked even the best ships of state in our distant past.
A glance at the US today shows all those chestnuts of tyranny on right and left alive and well there, as in any other peoples on Earth. A recent president tested a litany of checks and balances in the republic, even to the point of an insurrection. Yet he holds the talismanic power of a demagogue over his supporters. Ask the ancient Athenians and the Romans in the end-republic days about that.
Universities casting opprobrium on individuals, even their own faculty, whose political views and outlooks do not conform to claimed objective criteria of ideological purity. Ask those who experienced the European and Asian tyrannies of the 20th century about that.
And then, in the here and now, a motley collection of politicians, technologists, and others, who seem unsure whether the defense of freedom is worthwhile if it means extinguishing that little glint in their eye for autocrats and power.
The success of the US republic is constructed on the wisdom of its Founding Fathers, who knew that in every American lurked the seeds of autocracy, as it does in all of us. They built a state that has cleverly shackled and channeled these natural tendencies to an extent that has allowed democracy to prevail on that part of Earth for a good while. The US Constitution and The Federalist Papers that led to it are the most remarkable documents, establishing the most deliberate design of a free state ever conceived and written.
But Pericles would have been dumbfounded to know that the glory of ancient Athens would eventually crumble. Anyone who thinks that the US is an eternal and immutable fixture of liberty, without hard effort and work to hold back corrosive currents within its social and political edifice, might read more history.
A new axis of liberty
If we want to heed the lessons of Athens and Rome, then it behooves those who value freedom to work towards the construction of at least two axes of liberty in the world. I say ‘at least’ two, because the more the merrier. But I’m interested here in suggesting we avoid a single-point failure.
A serious second axis of liberty should be Europe. Here a collection of representative democracies has conjoined into a larger political and economic union (of course, in the form of the EU, but I mean more generally as a way of life across the whole continent). The project to strengthen European political and economic capabilities should continue apace. Most importantly, Europe must achieve the capacity to defend itself alone, self-sufficiently. It must mature to understand itself as an ally of all free states, but see itself as a self-enduring axis and pivot of liberty.
The idea of building a self-sustaining center of liberty in Europe, especially in the defensive sphere, should not be seen as an antagonistic challenge to the US (although, of course, it likely implies gentle economic rivalry). Instead, a militarily, politically, and economically powerful unified Europe can strengthen freedom everywhere.
With multiple centers of liberty, there is more chance that if any axis in the world should temporarily fall prey to despotisms, other axes can provide encouragement, succor, and, in the last resort, military assistance. Not least, the possibility of another axis of liberty shining more brightly than another, keeps us all on our democratic toes. We can inspire and help each other to root out the little buds of tyranny that sprout from left and right.
Thinking beyond, a third axis of liberty could be democratic India; on the African continent, Kenya or South Africa could lead yet a fourth axis. In my view, to emerge as stable axes of liberal democracy, they need to feel less squeamish in supporting other liberal democracies, especially in the West, no matter what the memories of the past.
If the war against Ukraine can do anything for Europe, it should awaken us again to the fact that we remain weak and unable to defend freedom on this continent alone. Europe must change this. If the war can do anything for humanity, it is to remind us of the fate of Athens and Rome and to rally us to take this opportunity to build a second axis of liberty, a stronger buttress against the possibility of a modern authoritarian dark age that eclipses the ideas of free states across most of the world for long stretches of time.
The Pax Americana has been an enduring feature of the last hundred years. Let us continue to support it. But we should not tire or be diffident in constructing an expansive planetary Pax Libertas.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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