Acceptance of the Committee for the Republic’s Defender of Liberty Award
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By video link from Bristol, Rhode Island, 20 October 2021
Few of us get to hear ourselves eulogized while we are still alive. I thank you, John Henry, Boyden Gray, and the Committee for the Republic for this rare privilege. Reports of my advancing decrepitude are not greatly exaggerated. We all die slowly and then suddenly. That finally silences us. But I have no intention of shutting up anytime soon.
In addition to being — with John, Boyden, and the late Bill Nitze — one of the founders of the Committee, I am the originator and still the principal contributor to its listserv. Let me take this opportunity to thank Max Mohr for his congenial management of the self-regulated salon list and many, many others for your frequent suggestions of items of interest. You know who you are. I am in your debt. So are we all.
I post a lot of stuff I don’t agree with because I hope others will find it as stimulating as I do. I expect that those on the list can form their own judgments without hearing mine. No one is obliged to consider opinions other than those they find congenial. But no one who does not listen to and consider other opinions is entitled to claim that their own are balanced, rational, or justified. As the Committee had hoped, many pointed exchanges take place off list among its members.
It is in this context that I am deeply honored that the Committee has chosen to include me among the whistleblowers and truth tellers on whom it has previously bestowed its “Defender of Liberty” awards. The award is recognition that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism.
I grew up in the British colony of the Bahamas. I was at home there. I could have become Bahamian or British. Instead, I chose to reaffirm my identity as an American. My family has been in this country for four centuries. But I came back to it with all the wondering delight of a new immigrant.
America’s pretensions to be an idea rather than a country are inspiring, but its racial and ethnic diversity are for me a visual and cultural delight. As Herman Melville put it, to spill American blood is to spill the blood of the whole world. We Americans can make an honest claim to have aspired and striven to reduce the many gaps between our ideals and our practices in the 245 years since we proclaimed our independence. Our republic’s declaration of independence, its constitution, and its bill of rights require us to do so. These documents constitute the greatest artifact of political engineering the world has yet known. The constitution we adopted 234 years ago carefully balances opportunities for individual self-fulfillment with constitutionally constrained governance. As I rediscovered my homeland, like Jean de Crèvecoeur, I fell in love with it.
To love someone or something is to put her wellbeing and happiness above your own. I sought fulfillment in serving our republic and its people. I did so as a diplomat for thirty years. I never doubted that the personal and financial sacrifices this entailed were worthwhile.
There is an American cult of the warrior. Nobody fetishizes diplomats. But, at our best, we are both dedicated advocates for our nation’s interests and professional problem solvers with a firm eye on the need to sustain an international environment that bolsters the security and prosperity of our country. Like the military, our professional standards require us to respect the dictates of the government the American people have elected and to implement constitutionally authorized policies while setting our personal opinions aside. Also like the military, this sometimes involves putting our lives on the line in ways that folks back home can hardly imagine.
In my thirty years of public service, I worked in India, Taiwan and mainland China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, the “Middle East,” and Europe. I was fortunate to see a lot of history-changing events up close. I was even able to leave a beneficial mark or two on the last century and the first part of this one. That was gratifying. But I confess that learning from my mistakes, having the chance each day to be a better person and a more effective advocate for my country’s interests than I was the day before, and a second marriage with a wise and caring woman of character is what explains my current happiness.
I retired from public service nearly three decades ago. But even as I have belatedly pursued my own wellbeing, I have remained greatly concerned for our republic’s.
The Committee for the Republic came together as our country prepared to invade Iraq for no real reason other than that we could and then stayed in Iraq mostly to avoid acknowledging our failures there American militarism – the fiendish offspring of our four-decade-long Cold War – had grown to maturity. 9/11 gave it the opportunity to strut its stuff before new enemies. The Committee’s founders feared that such bellicosity would corrode our republic’s constitutional traditions and civil liberties. Sadly, these fears proved well-founded. The Committee sought to stimulate reflection about the need to reimpose the checks and balances the Founders designed to make the use of force the last rather than the first tool of American statecraft. Nearly two decades later, it is good finally to hear the beginnings of a debate about this.
But it may be too late. Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted doubts about whether we Americans could “keep” our republic may have been prescient. The world has seen republics lose their rectitude and decline before. The Roman republic became addicted to empire, gave up its citizen army in favor of praetorians and mercenaries, hollowed out the institutions of its representative government, and pretended to sustain a constitutional separation of powers while enthroning Caesarism. Rome’s famous devotion to the rule of law gave way to Ovid’s view that “the result justifies the deed;” undisguised venality replaced republican virtue; cynical resignation to odious practices succeeded aspirations for good government; and expediency displaced principle as the basis for policy decisions. So much for constitutional democracy and due process! I doubt I am the only one to detect something similar in progress here.
I am not a fan of mechanistic theories about historical cycles, but I can’t help remembering the lessons some have drawn from the rise and fall of dynastic or constitutional orders in China over the past two millennia. These orders appear to last for somewhere between 225 and 250 years, at which point they are so embarnacled by hubris and complacency, bureaucratism, corruption, and elite denial of unpalatable realities that they lose legitimacy. One of three things then happens. The people topple the regime and install a new one; the governing system renews itself in time to start a second constitutional cycle; or the nation and its political culture are overpowered by foreign enemies. It has occurred to me that we are coming up on the 250th year of our constitution and the republic it created. Just saying.
American decadence is amplified and buttressed by technological developments and their impact on popular morality. We now lack a consensus about the past as well as the present and the future. We are flagellating and dividing ourselves over past sins. We seem to be dissolving all the invisible bonds that have unified Americans in a shared national enterprise.
We are making more than our fair share of mistakes and squandering the tremendous advantages nature and history have bestowed on our country. I have spoken about these issues elsewhere. I will refrain from doing so tonight except in response to specific questions and comments about current trends and events. I hope there are many.
As a nation, we have made an apparent decision to confront and compete with a rising China and resurgent Russia and to do so by rallying an international coterie behind us. But, in our current condition, we are not fit to compete with either of these great powers successfully and ever fewer of our international partners think it prudent to link their fate to ours.
We have an executive that rules by executive fiat when it rules at all and that intervenes abroad without constitutional constraint. We have a legislature that rubber stamps defense spending but can’t pass laws, approve treaties, consider and confirm policymaking officials, or balance budgets, still less check the executive. And we have a judiciary appointed for its partisanship rather than its impartiality. It is not clear that our failing democracy can safely transit another national election.
These incapacities and doubts were made in America. They can only be cured by Americans. The Committee for the Republic remains a vital forum in which to consider how to craft a better future for the United States of America. I am proud to have played a role in creating it and sustaining it. It is needed now more than ever.
Over to you, John.