The Foundations of our Freedom
How global institutions uphold our international order
By Sally A. Painter
As the European Union celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, it is impossible to ignore that the fate of international institutions in the West is in question. Whether in the form of Brexit, Trump, governments in Hungary and Poland, or populist candidates across Europe, antipathy and distrust towards international institutions and multilateral arrangements has brought new calls for the re-nationalization of state authority, sovereignty, and local identity.
How did we get here?
International institutions and supranational governance structures have benefited millions of people by creating and maintaining the international order that has fostered transatlantic peace for over a half century. It was not long ago that Europe was mired in centuries of economic, political, and religious wars between nation-states. Attempts to establish a balance of power through peace agreements at Westphalia (1648) and Vienna (1815) proved fruitless as competing nationalisms and ideologies sparked two cataclysmic world wars in the 20th century.
It was from this searing experience with rampant nationalism that international governance and multilateral frameworks were born. The Marshall Plan, European Union, United Nations, and NATO stood up a stable post-war environment, knitting together the economies and security of countries on the basis of shared values. This resulted in an incomparable era of enduring peace and security, bolstering prosperity, social protections, and freedom on both sides of the Atlantic. Along the way, institutions such as the OECD and the OSCE enshrined economic standards and human rights practices, extending their reach into what was once a vacuum.
Together, America and Europe became global leaders and indispensable partners united by shared democratic values. So why are international institutions now under threat?
Perhaps it is in part due to their removed, far-away nature. It is easy to forget that democratic norms, rule of law, and respect for human dignity don’t just appear; they must be envisioned, enshrined, safeguarded, and nurtured if they are to endure. In this way, these institutions, however removed they may seem, serve as the very bedrock of our societies and communities. Fundamentally, this includes the freedom and safety to question and debate their value to society.
If the benefits of institutions are abstract, sometimes their apparent drawbacks seem all too tangible. For those who have been personally affected — lost a job that became obsolete due to technology, seen a local factory disappear to globalization, or been impacted by a bureaucratic ruling made in some far away capital — it is hard to see these institutions, blameless or not, as a force for good. When things go wrong, the need for a boogeyman can be overpowering. This, coupled with misinformation campaigns designed to undermine confidence in these institutions is an effective, bitter brew for anger, resentment, and blame — whether towards migrants, trade agreements, or that far away capital.
Yet despite our collective challenges, the Western world today is not ravaged by violent sectarian conflict within or across national borders. This should not be taken for granted, because international institutions are the infrastructure that seek to resolve problems with solutions that are sometimes imperfect but always grounded in values that we can all champion and support. Are we really ready to turn our backs on them and return to a world of narrow self-interest?
Many do not take these privileges lightly. EU and NATO members like Latvia and Lithuania and aspiring ones like Macedonia, Ukraine, and Georgia face external threats to their sovereignty and security. They seek economic and security integration with their neighbors, as well as stable democracy, freedom of movement, and open trade. But the commitment to common values is perhaps the most powerful attraction. As former Czech president Vaclav Havel said to support his country’s hope to join NATO in 1995, “We perceive that entity as being the sole functioning European security structure that is based on [our] same civilizational values…[and] we want to take part in protecting them.”
This community of values has fostered enormous practical gains as well as symbolic reconciliations and achievements. Germany, France, and Scandinavian nations have enjoyed transformative improvements to their economic strength, export and trade regimes, quality of life, and global influence. Through their EU and NATO accession protocols, countries like Romania and Hungary had to resolve thorny border issues, while others had to honestly confront their difficult human rights pasts in order to secure their membership.
When reflecting on these achievements, who can say how things would be without the institutions that supported them? Clearly, none is without need for improvement — but that cannot mean we must throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. For all their shortcomings, institutions have helped create and protect worlds of benefit for their member states and societies. This fundamental fact needs to be clearly articulated in each new generation.
So how do we reassert belief in these values and benefits and demonstrate their basis in these institutions? How do we show that true freedom can sometimes require voluntarily giving up some things in return for something far more important: The security and liberty to exist and to pursue our dreams?
More than just a country, the identity of the United States of America is an idea. This idea — based on the uniting of different peoples from distant geographies — never demanded the total subjugation of local control or the denial or loss of regional or cultural uniqueness. Instead, it is the big ideas that Americans subscribe to that unite us — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So too can international institutions exist and thrive only if they are united in their values. This doesn’t mean that reforms and course corrections aren’t warranted along the way — we simply must never forget or underestimate the benefits that they have given us and the freedom, security, and order they represent. We are each fortunate to have been born into a world where such institutions exist and which serve as an inspiration for our shared values.
Let us resolve to magnify their positive impact and meaning for our future.
Sally A. Painter is co-founder and chief operating officer of Blue Star Strategies, LLC, senior advisor to the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, and a board member of Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are her own. Jeremiah Baronberg contributed to this article.