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Freedom for All


In his book, The Free World, political commentator Timothy Garton Ash writes of two large but simple steps that could lift hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings into freedom.

The first step is to practice what we in the West preach: free trade. Real free trade would have a bigger effect on global development than all the world’s aid money. It can happen only if America and Europe do it together.

The liberalisation of Agricultural trade alone would lift millions of poor farmers out of poverty. Currently they cannot compete with rich world produce as billions of tax payers money is used to subsidise it. This waste Western taxpayers money as much as it hurts third world farmers.

Aid is still important though, and we should increase it.


Freedom of Want


All rich and free countries should catch up with the Scandinavians and British, and reach the target of giving 0.7 percent of GDP. But what states do is only half the story.

All rich and free individuals should also donate more in private aid. One percent of our annual income toward providing clean water, basic sustenance, shelter, and medical care for the poorest of the poor.

Anyone whose income is more than the average wage in a rich country can well afford that 1 penny from each pound we earn. Or 1 cent from each euro or dollar.

We need to make sure our own farmers will not go to the wall and we need to see that aid is skilfully administered and doesn’t stick to the wrong fingers along the way. Yet in principle, the means to achieve “freedom from want” are right in front of our noses.


Freedom of Fear


Working toward “freedom from fear” is more complicated. Here Mr Ash suggests a bold proposal from a former American ambassador, Mark Palmer. A campaign by the world’s democracies to get rid of the world’s last forty-four dictators over the next twenty years.

Palmer’s work devotes itself to an admirable program of non-violent means for encouraging the fall of dictators. It gives rise to the question of whether Western military intervention justified to remove a brutal dictatorship? 

Mr Ash argues only under certain conditions. Ideally with an explicit U.N. sanction. Failing that with the support of a double majority, of democracies and of the country’s neighbours. In exceptional cases, even with a smaller collation. 

Such a response is justified in two situations: 

(a) where there is genocide taking place, as in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Iraq in 1988, but not Iraq in 2003. 

(b) where there is a real and present danger of a regime or terrorist group acquiring weapons of mass destruction which they are likely to use against us, their neighbours, or their own people.


Last Resort

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Military intervention must remain a last resort, to use only when all other means have failed. Armed intervention is, in itself, already a confession of failure. Both in principle and practice it is better that people find their own path to freedom. In their own cultures in their own time, and wherever possible peacefully.

We should help them by every non-violent means at our disposal. For we hold this truth to be self-evident: that those who love freedom must also want it for others. 

We should urge governments and companies to link trade and investment to respect for human rights. 

We should urge our parliaments to give more money to organizations like the American National Endowment for Democracy, the German party foundations, and Britain’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy. They  all support those working for democracy in countries that do not have it.

We can also give our own money or time to some of the many non governmental organisations that help independent media lawyers, women’s groups, trade unions, students, and political parties in places that are still unfree, or only partly free.



Multicultural Britain

Nor should we hesitate to expose these places to the full magnetism of our own freedom. Through the internet, international broadcasting, and scholarships for foreign students to study in our schools and colleges.

There is no room here for the false modesty of exaggerated cultural relativism.

These rights are universal.

There is, however, a place for the modest of realism about our possibilities of influence. When we support the oppressed, dictators will always cry foul and protest that this is ‘intervention in our internal affairs’.

The truth is that so long as the rulers of a state control their own frontiers, army, riot police, and secret police, even the most powerful free countries in the world cannot topple them. All we can do is to give their own people the chance of toppling them or, preferably, negotiating them out of power.


Leveling the Playing Field


By our external assistance we are just levelling the playing field. By these non-military forms of intervention, using our economy and cultural power, we do something slower and more open-ended. But in the end much better.

We give them the chance to win for themselves. It is not freedom itself we bring, merely the chance to seize the possibility of freedom.




We also need to be modest about our ability to find all the right answers for other societies. Democracy is only good if the underpinnings of liberal democracy have first been developed. The rule of law, habits of good government, civil society, private property, independent media.

We can and should offer a toolbox of experiences in all aspects of transition, from how to write a constitutions to how to deal with a difficult past, from demolishing nuclear silos to building welfare system.

But then it’s up to others to decide.

There is only so much those in the free world can do.



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It is a daunting opportunity.

Previous generations, even if they lived in what is called the ‘free world’ could only dream of a free world. Now we can begin to make it happen.

More people are freer than ever before. Our possibilities of helping others out of unfreedom are also larger than ever.

If Europeans, Americans, and free people everywhere don’t work together to make it happen, instead remaining sunk in a narcissism of minor differences, it will be impossible to achieve.

If we do work together, the task remains daunting, perhaps, nearly impossible – but the nearly impossible is what we should demand of our leaders and of ourselves. 


This essay draw on the work of the renowned political commentator Timothy Garton-Ash. His latest book Free Speech is a manifesto for global free speech in the digital age. To learn more click here.




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