Maybe we haven’t always gotten it 100% right. Many point to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of America’s failure as the “world’s policeman.”
As Ukraine is battered by Russia’s devastating blows, Prime Minister Zelensky has fought back heroically on multiple fronts, from ground to air to social media to forceful appeals to global leaders. In his address to Congress, he made a special plea to President Biden: “I wish you to be the leader of the world.” American commentators picked up on Zelensky’s appeal to America’s self-image as “leader of the free world,” presumably asking our nation to come to Ukraine’s aid as a country seeking freedom. But that’s not what he said. He asked the president to be the “leader of the world.” What did he mean?
We sing that our country is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” We pledge our allegiance to “liberty and justice for all.” While these ideas sound synonymous, there’s a significant difference between freedom and liberty. To appreciate the nuance, let’s examine the origins of freedom in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The upcoming Jewish festival of Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. What is the opposite of slavery? Most people would probably say freedom. But what was the first destination of the Israelites after they left Egypt? It was Mt. Sinai, where they received the Law. Rather than being free, they were now subjugated to a Higher Power! If the opposite of slavery is freedom, then it’s hard to argue that the Israelites left their status as slaves.
What happened following the Exodus would be echoed each jubilee year when the Bible enjoins us to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all its inhabitants.” All slaves were emancipated. But they were not set “free,” they were granted “liberty.”
The opposite of slavery is not freedom. It’s liberty. And liberty implies responsibility. Responsibility is the ability to “respond” to circumstances that come a person’s way. Slaves are not responsible. They are forced to do whatever they are told. Freedom is a step along the path from slavery to liberty. But a free man who does not exercise his free choice to act responsibly is not truly free. He is a slave to his own animalistic desires. God brought the Israelites to Mt. Sinai and offered them liberty by providing a framework of opportunities to act responsibly in this world.
That’s why Zelensky has not appealed to the “leader of the free world.” The leader of the free world is free to walk away from a conflict. The “leader of the world,” however, is tasked with acting responsibly. That means responding to the crisis, despite the personal and national costs.
We’re uncomfortable with thinking of our nation as the leader of the world. It sounds like imperialism. And a key national value is the pride we maintain on never having engaged in imperial conquest. Of course the history is more complicated than that and the anticolonialist turn in recent decades has made us overly self-conscious about our overseas engagement. We’re scared of entanglement. We’re scared of imposing our values on anyone else.
Maybe we haven’t always gotten it 100% right. There are those who point to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of America’s failure as the “world’s policeman.” Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to criticize after the fact. Just remember that when the US first decided to enter those countries, our leaders made the decision based on the best military intelligence available. It’s tempting to shy away from subsequent engagement for fear of getting it wrong.
But we have a responsibility. Listen to Zelensky. We have not imposed our way of life on them. Ukraine has chosen to look westward. And if you’re familiar with the history, it makes sense. To recap briefly, prior to the Russian conquest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Ukraine was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During that pre-Russian period, provinces were rule by local Polish noblemen who provided a fair degree of freedom and independence to their constituents from the political to economic to religious spheres. Czarist Russia introduced a more authoritarian centralized top-down way of life that would later provide the foundation of the Communist system of government.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that Ukrainians are now prepared to put up a serious fight for their liberty, suppressed for centuries under Russian control. If you have any doubts as to Russia’s penchant for control, just consider Russia’s response to those citizens who have dared to question their country’s attack on Ukraine. The clearest example of Russian suppression is Putin’s rival Navalny who has just been sentenced to many years in prison.
President Biden wants to do the right thing. He’s called Putin a war criminal. He’s accused him of genocide. He declared that “For God’s sake this man cannot remain in power.” Nevertheless, we are blessed to live in a democratic country where one person doesn’t make decisions of such magnitude unilaterally. Hopefully he can convince his team that it’s time to step up and assume the role of leader of the world that our global partners expect us to be.