You take political freedom for granted if you are in the 20 percent of the global population that the nonpartisan think tank Freedom House defines as living in a country that is mostly free.

I certainly took it for granted growing up in the United States. I was very curious about the world but had never left its shores until just after I graduated from Duke in 1988. Within two and a half years of graduation, I had been expelled from a country in Asia after an anti-democratic coup, stood guard on the Iron Curtain in Europe the week it collapsed, and fought in a war of liberation in the most autocratic part of the Middle East. It was a baptism by fire on the meaning of freedom.

Some thirty years ago I wrote in this magazine about one of those episodes, being stationed on the inter-German border the week “The Wall” came down in November 1989. It was an extraordinary week in many ways. But what struck me then and remains with me now is the potent reminder from the East Germans about freedom’s fragility, rarity, and preciousness. That reminder often must come from those who have no freedom or are just emerging from repression into its embrace.

I have many memories of that week of the Iron Curtain’s collapse, particularly the disbelief and shock of East German and Czech families upon crossing the border into West Germany. They would stop and stare into shop windows, marveling at a society that produced a system in which two or three or a dozen different kinds of the same product were available. They would cast about for someone with whom to file their travel plans and were suspicious when no official seemed to care. They were struck by the level of dialogue and dissent allowed on television and the radio. They were flabbergasted, in contrast with their own system, about freedom’s economic and political byproducts in Western Europe: prosperity, democracy, and general contentment. They could not believe how much people smiled.

This explosion of freedom for over 200 million people was not automatic, assured, or even accidental. It was caused and had to be assiduously worked toward. There was a buildup of pressure in the decade prior to 1989 that reversed years of official accommodation with political oppression.

This pressure included many things, but highlights for the East Germans and Czechs I spoke with included a newly elected Polish Pope returning home in 1979 for what authorities called a quiet pilgrimage, and instead being greeted by almost a million Poles at his motorcade spontaneously chanting, “We want God!” President Reagan, on his third visit to the Berlin Wall in 1987, and against the advice of his most senior advisers, turning his criticism of the wall and the system it represented into a personal demand: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other imprisoned dissidents encouraging the U.S. and Europe to live up to their own founding principles: “One should not consider that the great principles of freedom end at your own frontiers, that as long as you have freedom, let the rest have pragmatism. No! Freedom is indivisible and one has to take a moral attitude toward it.”

As I write this, the news is of widespread protests in Cuba featuring crowds chanting, “We want freedom.” Just so. Freedom is the precursor to all else that Cuba needs to end what President Biden called the “decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.” I think here, too, of formerly free Hong Kong, a casualty of our inattentiveness to political freedom during the pandemic.

In both of those countries, freedom protesters carried the American flag, which, despite our own recent round of self-flagellation, continues to inspire freedom activists the world over. The U.S. remains, by far and away, the most desired nation for global immigrants. And especially so for those from the least free parts of the world. They know something about where freedom is…and isn’t.

Historians remind us that freedom has never been a universal value—even up to our present day. Great civilizations of the past and many powerful countries of today have no tradition of political or individual freedom. It is a relatively new concept. At the time of its emergence into political systems and constitutions only a few hundred years ago, it was very much a radical idea. As Seymour Drescher, one of the leading historians of global slavery and abolition, notes: At the time of American revolution, “personal bondage was the prevailing form of labor in most of the world…. Freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.”

And it is increasingly so. Today in the world, political freedom is retrenching—becoming a rarer and more peculiar institution. It is, of course, imperfectly applied even in the world’s freest places— as our own contemporary debates in America attest. But, in much of the world it is hardly even tried. We are still experimenting with freedom; its permanence should never be taken for granted. It is not a natural condition of humankind. We must work at it. 

Hillen ’88 is former assistant secretary of state and a decorated combat veteran. He is the James C. Wheat Professor in leadership at Hampden-Sydney College.

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