The only presidential inauguration I ever witnessed in person was Jimmy Carter’s, in 1977. I was a student in Washington, D.C., and walked from my dorm to the Capitol to see history in the making. As Carter took the oath of office on the east side of the building, I watched from the steps of the Supreme Court, across the street. Two details from that day I remember vividly — the below-freezing temperature and a stirring line from Carter’s inaugural address: “Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere.”
I hope President Biden’s inaugural address will include a similar affirmation. And I hope his foreign policy will make the worldwide defense of human liberty a priority.
There is no denying that America’s democratic culture and civil society are looking a little shaky these days. The Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by a mob bent on preventing the defeat of Donald Trump in the Electoral College vote was a horror and a humiliation — one that America’s dictatorial foes have gleefully exploited for propaganda purposes. It might be tempting to suggest that this is a time for America to heal America’s ills, not extend itself in support of freedom, democracy, and human rights in other lands. But that would be a mistake.
Our nation repeatedly falls shy of its highest ideals, but the power of those ideals to inspire subjugated people everywhere, and the good that can be accomplished when America brings pressure against despotic regimes, must not be underestimated. That helps explain why, on Inauguration Days past, presidents have articulated a mission of advancing freedom and human dignity where it is denied — the shortcomings of the United States notwithstanding.
America’s domestic practices were far from faultless in 1949, when Harry Truman resolved not to abandon “the free peoples of the world” and vowed that “what we have achieved in liberty, we will surpass in greater liberty.” Jim Crow was alive and well in 1961, when John F. Kennedy eloquently pledged that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” And despite America’s sometimes egregious civil liberties violations during the war on terror, George W. Bush, in his stirring second inaugural address, in 2005, made an earnest promise to “all who live in tyranny and hopelessness” that “the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors.”
Bush was the last president to explicitly make the promotion of liberty and democracy a cornerstone of his foreign policy. He looked for ways to reach out to dissidents, democratic activists, and defectors from countries ruled by tyrants. Some he received in the White House. Some he traveled overseas to meet. And some he honored in absentia, such as when he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Óscar Elias Biscet, a Cuban civil liberties champion who was in solitary confinement in Havana’s Combinado del Este prison.
The Trump administration showed little interest in either strengthening democracy or defending human rights. The same was true of the Obama administration, which downplayed resistance to repression as a foreign policy goal. As Biden assumes the reins of power, he can break that pattern, and raise his voice in support of those who battle against the lies and brutality of authoritarianism.
Words of solidarity from a US president can be a potent source of hope to those struggling for freedom. In his 2004 bestseller, “The Case for Democracy,” former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky described the electrifying effect of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech on prisoners inside the Soviet gulag:
“Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s ‘provocation’ quickly spread through the prison,” Sharansky recounted. “The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”
Now it is Biden who can choose to speak truths that will have a powerful impact. Despite our present troubles, we remain the oldest, most influential example of a successful democratic republic, and dictators and dissidents alike will be paying attention to the new president’s message. I hope part of that message echoes the one I heard all those years ago as I stood in the cold and watched another new president remind Americans of their historic responsibility in the world: Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere.