Obama's Second Term Could Mark the Return of the Four Freedoms

Nov 21, 2012David B. Woolner

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a call to return to a foreign policy based in FDR's vision of shared peace and prosperity.

Even though we come from different places, we share common dreams: to choose our leaders; to live together in peace; to get an education and make a good living; to love our families and our communities. That’s why freedom is not an abstract idea; freedom is the very thing that makes human progress possible — not just at the ballot box, but in our daily lives.

One of our greatest Presidents in the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, understood this truth. He defined America’s cause as more than the right to cast a ballot. He understood democracy was not just voting. He called upon the world to embrace four fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These four freedoms reinforce one another, and you cannot fully realize one without realizing them all.—Barack H. Obama, University of Yangon, November 19, 2012

In his historic visit to Burma, also referred to as Myanmar, President Obama spoke at length about the journey Burma is taking from dictatorship to democracy, a transition he said has the potential to inspire people the world over as “a test of whether a country can transition to a better place.”

President Obama made it clear that his journey to Burma—the first by an American president—was inspired in part by his own desire to encourage the people and government of Burma to press ahead with their democratic reforms so that the “flickers of progress” that the world has seen will not be extinguished. The president’s visit was also notable for his repeated insistence that America was a “Pacific nation,” whose “future was bound to those nations and peoples to our West.” But perhaps the most significant aspect of his speech was his decision to frame his remarks around a concept first articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt at one of the darkest moments of the Second World War—the need to build a world founded on four fundamental human freedoms.

At a moment when Adolf Hitler had proclaimed the onset of “a new order” in Nazi-occupied Europe, and when Japanese militarists had seized much of China and were poised to expand their grip on Southeast Asia, Franklin Roosevelt proposed “a greater conception,” a “moral order” that represented the very antithesis of the “tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” FDR’s order was based on the idea that all people—“everywhere in the world”—deserved the right to enjoy freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.

He articulated this vision in part because of the critical need to gain the support of the American people and Congress for the passage of the Lend-Lease Bill that was pending on Capitol Hill. But the enunciation of the Four Freedoms and initiation of Lend-Lease—which would make it possible for the United States to provide arms and munitions to Great Britain free of charge—was also inspired by a much deeper conviction: that the security of the United States was tied directly to the health and well-being of other nations.

For many Americans today, World War II and the Great Depression are two separate events. But for the generation that lived through these unparalleled crises, nothing could be farther from the truth. In their minds, and in the mind of Franklin Roosevelt, the two were inextricably linked. The Great Depression, after all, was not confined to the United States, but represented a worldwide economic crisis that helped inspire anti-democratic forces in both Europe and Asia—anti-democratic forces that helped give rise to the fascist movements in Germany and in Japan that would initiate the most destructive war in human history.

In light of this, Franklin Roosevelt remained convinced that the Second World War had economic causes. Moreover, as the war progressed, he became more and more convinced that America’s security was tied to the security of the rest of the world. As such, it was not enough for the United States to rely solely on the strength of its armed forces to provide for the nation’s safety; we also had to concern ourselves with the political, social, and economic health of other regions of the world since, as FDR put it in 1944, “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence”…and “people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

It was this basic idea that inspired not only the Four Freedoms, but also the many institutions and practices that were put in place during and after the war to foster international cooperation and a more prosperous, healthy, and peaceful world. Many of these institutions and practices—like the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank. and multilateral trading regime—are with us still, so that much of the world we live in today is the world shaped by the vision of Franklin Roosevelt.

In recent years, however, we seem to have moved further and further away from this vision to a foreign policy that is dominated largely by the use of military force—no doubt inspired in part by the advent of modern technology, such as drone aircraft. This is unfortunate, for even though President Obama has shown willingness to use other means to pursue America’s interests abroad, his foreign policy to date has remained highly militarized.

His eloquent speech in Burma may indicate that he has decided to pursue a more progressive foreign policy agenda in his second term, one based on the recognition that the best means to keep America safe in the long term is to ensure that the hopes and aspirations of people the world over to enjoy freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear stand not, as Roosevelt said, as some “vision of a distant millennium,” but as “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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