The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World

Learn more about Thomas Melia.
Thomas Melia
Washington Director, PEN America and former Fellow, Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute

Call to action to affirm our values of freedom

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For more than 75 years, the liberal international order purposefully constructed in the aftermath of World War II has helped secure peace, advance justice, and expand prosperity in the United States and around the world. This is an extraordinary historical achievement, and American leadership has been central to its success. So, too, has the unique promise of America and its commitment to a particular vision of the human good.


Yet today that order appears to be under attack and at real risk of dissolving. The crisis is not new or sudden. Yet there is a certain urgency newly in the air. The liberal democratic world order is under assault in the first instance from those who never fully embraced democracy, free markets, and universal principles of human freedom. Some are hard, unyielding dictatorships. Others have taken steps toward democracy but reversed course under their current leaders. Non-state actors, especially violent extremists in the Islamic State, also attack the established order.


Perhaps even more troubling is the increasingly evident downdraft in democratic resilience in countries that have long been part of the consolidated democratic West. In much of the Western world, we are seeing a rise in demagogic populism, illiberalism, nationalism, and protectionism. In short, fading confidence in the institutions of democracy and the market economy. Europe, in particular, is in deep crisis.


The United States is not immune from the rise of illiberalism. Confidence is also waning in
America’s governing institutions and in the utility of free markets and international trade to
better the conditions of working-class Americans. There is no question that global economic
disruption is altering the landscape of work in ways that many Americans find difficult to
navigate. Nor, it seems, are our institutions up to the challenge. The media today is widely
mistrusted. The American political system is broken and polarized. Political discourse is in a
damaged and degraded state. Many Americans feel it is time for the United States to turn