The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revived the concept of “the free world.” On the day the attack began, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to “free world leaders” for support. In his State of the Union address on March 1, U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized “the resolve of the free world.” “The free world is united in its resolve,” echoed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson three days later.

The return of the free world may have consequences that transcend the realm of rhetoric. From the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, the American commitment to free world leadership resulted in a series of unintended policymaking constraints. Before we once again become captives of the concept, it would be wise to consider how a free world foreign policy functioned the first time around.

A Brief History

On March 12, 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman called on Congress to support an aid package for Greece and Turkey intended to prevent the spread of Soviet influence in southeastern Europe. Truman posited a stark moral divide and declared that Americans must take a side. In a situation where “nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life,” it would be the policy of the United States to “help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes.”

The invocation of a pervasive communist menace helped rally support for the administration’s aid bill. At the same time, the apparently universal formulation of what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine suggested enduring and global commitments that the White House did not mean to meet. In the weeks after Truman’s speech, the bill’s backers sought to set clear limits on the scope of American intervention, emphasizing that aid to Greece and Turkey would not automatically lead to equivalent support for other “free peoples” in the future. Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and a key administration ally, made the point explicit: “I emphatically repeat that we do not here set a universal precedent.”

Nevertheless, Truman’s depiction of a universal contest between “free peoples” and “totalitarian regimes” opened the administration to charges that it was failing to meet the global challenge it had identified. In November 1947, Thomas Dewey, governor of New York and future Republican presidential nominee, emphasized the inconsistency of resisting communism in Europe while tolerating its spread in Asia. “The free world is now in the desperate position of a man who has gangrene in both legs—in Western Europe and in Asia,” he warned. “Our government is telling the world we have a very good cure for gangrene, but we will apply it to one leg only while the gangrene in the other leg destroys the patient.” The establishment of a communist regime in China in 1949 added political weight to this argument.

By early 1950, the Truman administration had begun to settle on a strict two-world vision. The top-secret U.S. strategy document, NSC-68, reflected this outlook, positing a zero-sum contest between “the free world” and “the Soviet world.” It declared “a defeat of free institutions anywhere” to be “a defeat everywhere” and called on the U.S. to conduct “a rapid and sustained build-up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world.” The administration’s decision to enter the Korean War later that year put theory into practice, demonstrating the United States’ commitment to defend the entire length of the free world’s frontiers. The doctor would not let the patient perish after all.

The return of the free world may have consequences that transcend the realm of rhetoric.

The passage of the 1951 Mutual Security Act institutionalized a free world foreign policy, combining the country’s ad hoc military and economic aid efforts into a single program. Truman explained that the legislation aimed to counter the three major aspects of the communist menace: “First, the Soviet threat is worldwide. Second, the Soviet threat is total. . . . Third, the Soviet threat is of indefinite duration.” Although the U.S. government would continue to draw distinctions within the free world, support for each part now required justification in terms of the whole. The implied universalism of the Truman doctrine had become official policy.

A Negative Definition

Perhaps the key feature of the free world was its negative definition. Government reports generated hard figures regarding free world trade and resources by listing the communist countries that were excluded. As Senator Richard Russell, a Democrat from Georgia, remarked at a 1951 executive session meeting of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: “I call everything outside of the Iron Curtain a free nation.” Senator J. William Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas, concurred: “Free means ‘free from the domination of Moscow.’”

The conflation of the free world and the noncommunist world led to persistent difficulties. For one thing, it effectively bound the United States to a policy of global containment, despite widespread concern about potential overstretch. A month into the Korean War, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a Republican from Massachusetts, asked Secretary of State Dean Acheson whether universal opposition to communist expansion was strategically sustainable: “Aren't we . . . going to have to cede some areas taken by the Soviets if we are not going to find ourselves hopelessly committed all over the world?” Acheson agreed. Yet over the next two decades, the United States would continue to resist the advance of communism everywhere in the indivisible free world.

Another flaw in the free world doctrine was the conceptual impossibility of nonalignment. According to the U.S. government, all countries outside of the Communist bloc belonged to the free world by default. Yet foreign states resisted the demand to take sides, risking a conflict with the United States. The Mutual Security Act, for example, stipulated that any country receiving military assistance from the United States had to pledge a contribution to the “defensive strength of the free world.” In early 1952, the United States suspended military aid to Iran after Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh refused to make a public commitment to the free world. That same year, when the foreign minister of Indonesia agreed to sign such, the domestic outcry against entering the “American orbit” led to the fall of the entire cabinet. In 1953, the U.S. and Indonesia reached an alternative agreement that excluded military aid, and the CIA and British intelligence officers orchestrated a successful coup against Mosaddegh.

The United States’ inability to devise a positive ideology to bind the negatively formed free world was another persistent problem. A 1948 congressional report stressed the need to counter Soviet propaganda with a clear message: “One factor in the weakness of morale in the non-Communist world, and in the strength of morale in the Communist world, is the clarity of their ideas and the vagueness of ours.” Increased investment in information programs under the Eisenhower administration failed to resolve this fundamental issue. As a field officer complained in 1955, “One of the chief weaknesses of a negative definition of free world philosophy . . . is that it offers nothing specific or concrete which can be conveyed to the targets.” Ultimately, the free world was a vast and heterogeneous collection of states united by nothing but noncommunism.

The United States’ inability to devise a positive ideology to bind the free world was a persistent problem.

The United States’ failure to foster a common faith in the noncommunist world put policymakers in the paradoxical position of fearing, rather than welcoming, any apparent reduction of the Soviet threat. A 1951 National Security Council report expressed grave concern over the success of the Kremlin-directed “peace campaign,” which charged the West with arming for war and demanded the criminalization of nuclear weapons. “By such wiles the USSR may yet lull the free world into a false sense of security, with adverse effect upon both its military posture and its political cohesion.” A 1956 NSC report issued the same warning after the start of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence” campaign. “If the USSR succeeds in improving its reputation for peaceful intentions, such efforts will . . . lead to gradual erosion of free world positions.” U.S. leadership of the free world relied on the apparent permanence of an external threat.

A New Iteration

Over the course of the 1960s, the free world fractured along three separate axes. The routinization of the Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split made the communist world appear less menacing and monolithic. The increasing importance of the less developed countries of the free world resulted in the recognition of a separate “third world.” And the growing countercultural movement in the West challenged the meaning of freedom within ostensibly free countries. After the end of the Vietnam War, the phrase “free world” mostly disappeared from government documents. Nevertheless, the legacy of the concept lived on in the United States’ commitment to global leadership and the maintenance of its military alliances.

Now “the free world” is back in circulation. In its current form, it often appears to overlap with the idea of the West. At the same time, the war in Ukraine has revealed a persistent gap between Western unity and Western universalism. Outside of the United States’ (mostly Western) formal allies, attitudes toward anti-Russian sanctions have been largely ambivalent. For defenders of the free world, such fence-sitting is hardly permissible, as pressure campaigns against India, Pakistan, and others have recently demonstrated. The insufficiency of “the West” as a synonym for “the free world” will become even more apparent after the acute phase of the European crisis passes and the United States seeks another pivot to Asia. As a 1951 State Department directive warned (following a previous reorientation from Europe to Asia): “Keep in mind that free nations are found in both the West and the East. The standing caution on East-West terminology is reaffirmed.”

Another possibility is for “the free world” to serve as a label for one side in a struggle (much invoked by the Biden administration) between democracies and autocracies. The problem is that autocracy appears to be an illness incipient in almost every country, including the United States itself. Such a free world would contain its own opposite. Efforts to externalize autocracy by circumscribing a group of good-enough democracies raises its own set of difficulties. Biden’s promise to renew “the shared purpose of the nations of the free world” resulted in a Summit for Democracy that was both muted and muddled. Membership criteria lacked clarity and the club’s future contours remain unpredictable. Moreover, if shared values rather than common defense represent the group’s reason for being, then the basis of U.S. leadership is hardly self-evident.

The simplest way to give form to the free world is to identify its opposite.

The simplest way to give form to the free world is to identify its opposite. A renewed free world will tend, once again, toward a negative definition based on an exclusion of the conveniently contiguous territories of Russia and China (as well as North Korea) with all other countries qualifying for at least potential membership. Liberal internationalists in Washington have long assigned paradigmatic status to these regimes relative to other autocracies. The war in Ukraine has cemented this distinction. Recent proposals to relax pressure on the oil-producing states of Venezuela and Iran in order to tighten the squeeze on Russia follow naturally from a free world foreign policy. After all, a long-term struggle against absolute evil requires the mobilization of all available resources. As Senator Tom Connally, a Democrat from Texas, exclaimed during a discussion of NATO membership in 1949: “I do not know how much democracy Portugal has, but I know she has the Azores.”

Perhaps the revival of the free world will be fleeting. Efforts to deploy the concept during the so-called war on terror never stuck. But rhetorical categories can create their own inertia. A renewed commitment to a negatively defined free world would produce a familiar set of problems: an insistence on viewing distant wars as decisive tests, an intolerance of nonalignment, an inability to formulate a common purpose in positive terms, and a reliance on the enduring evil of the enemy. It is not too late to devise a flexible and regionally attuned foreign policy that does not require a worldwide mobilization against a single, globally interconnected existential threat. Attempting to lead something called the free world is not a grand strategy. It’s a trap.

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  • PETER SLEZKINE is a Postdoctoral Fellow at East China Normal University. He is writing a history of the concept of “the free world.”
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