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The Four Freedoms in the War Against Terrorism

by Norman Markowitz on Oct 23, 2001

The United States needs a new foundation to its foreign policy if it is to succeed in its war against terrorism.

What should that policy be? It should be like Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These freedoms rallied the people of the world in World War II. Today they can mobilize people everywhere against those who feed on want and use fear to suppress speech and all other freedoms in the name of religion.

The Four Freedoms that Roosevelt enunciated in 1941 created clear war aims against Hitler and his allies. They were a powerful answer to the European fascists, who sought to organize the world into superior and inferior “racial states” to fight “international Plutocrats,” “international Bolshevism” and “international Jewry.” 

An updated version of the Four Freedoms could give purpose and resolve to the coalition of forces the United States is trying to create against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, who preach a clerical version of Fascism to destroy the “evil United States,” “Zionist Jews” and “Christian Crusaders.” They would also give us worthwhile international peace aims.

Martin Luther King Jr. once referred to such a peace as “positive peace” — peace based on social justice, equal rights and United Nations-directed programs to raise world health, education and employment standards — rather than merely the absence of conflict.

The Four Freedoms call for secular states based on religious and political freedom, including equal rights for women, and internationally assisted economic development for the poor countries of the world — good goals for U.S. foreign policy generally.

These goals would resonate with Russia and the former Soviet republics on the borders of Afghanistan, who have faced attacks from “Holy War” veterans of the Afghan war. Whatever their huge flaws, these states are opponents of the religious right and proponents in principle of equal rights.

They would also appeal to India, a secular democratic state which has faced a decade of terrorism in Kashmir, and challenge Pakistan, a theocratically based military dictatorship which supported the Taliban until the Sept. 11 attack. So too would they reveal Saudi Arabia, whose repressive and corrupt society has provided protection and money for terrorism.

Women would strongly support the equal rights tradition of the Four Freedoms, especially groups such as the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women and the legion of refugees who have fled Taliban repression in their homeland.

The Four Freedoms offer an alternative to the present military campaign in Afghanistan, which only alienates the Afghan victims of both bin Laden and the Taliban. Bombing campaigns in undeclared wars were the hallmark of the foreign policies of President Reagan and the first President Bush. For many in the world, this hearkens back to the “gunboat diplomacy,” the use of force to accomplish diplomatic goals, associated with the major colonial powers and with the United States in Latin America.

A Four Freedoms approach would also seek a regional solution to economic and social ills, including the creation of a Palestinian state and a recognition and protection of the rights of the Israeli and Palestinian people. A United Nations-directed policy of reconstruction for the Middle East might then serve as a model for peace in the 21st century.

An American foreign policy based on the Four freedoms will not necessarily end terrorism and terrorist networks. But it can provide the basis of a 21st-century foreign policy that will contribute to peace and regain for the United States the respect it had among the peoples of the world in 1945.


Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.