Capstones: All One Fight

“The Free World.” The American Presidency Project’s database tells us President Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to use the phrase; he did so in January 1941. Although FDR invoked “the Free World” sparingly—just six times—his successors employed it routinely to rally the American people, unite our allies and define our enemies.[i]  Between 1945 and 1989, presidents used the phrase “the Free World” in 1,748 speeches and documents.[ii]

After the Cold War, the phrase was largely supplanted by terms like “international community” and “community of nations”—reflecting what seemed like global acceptance of free government. But the reemergence of an aggressive autocratic bloc with outposts around the globe serves as a stark reminder that the world is anything but a community of free nations. There’s a Free World governed by consensus and the rule of law. There’s an axis of autocracies governed by coercion and the law of one-man rule. And that autocratic bloc is trying to remake the world in its image.

Axis of Autocracy
Tyrant regimes and their partners are literally rolling back the Free World.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is trying to erase democratic Ukraine. Russia has annexed parts of Ukraine, occupied parts of Georgia,[iii] waged cyberwar against Estonia, propped up tyrants in Syria, Nicaragua and Venezuela, downed aircraft operating in international airspace, violated Japan’s airspace, threatened to attack allied satellites supporting Ukraine, armed Hezbollah, and unleashed military threats against Moldova, Norway, Poland, Lithuania, Finland and Sweden—democracies all.[iv] [v] [vi]

Xi Jinping’s China has absorbed Hong Kong, illegally[vii] constructed and militarized[viii] islands in an effort to annex the South China Sea, threatened to seize Taiwan, used military exercises to blockade Taiwan, attacked India, turned an entire province into a concentration camp, and violated Japanese and Philippine waters. Plus, Xi is exporting the machinery of his Orwellian surveillance state, planting cyber-timebombs inside U.S. critical infrastructure,[ix] tripling his nuclear arsenal, planting roots in East Africa and Cuba, and backstopping North Korea.[x] 

North Korea—with its 1.3-million-man army and growing nuclear arsenal—is sending arms to Russia and constantly threatens to attack America, South Korea and Japan.

Iran equips Russia with kamikaze-drones and ballistic missiles, foments revolution across the Middle East, bankrolls Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis, harbors al-Qaida’s leader, lumbers toward the nuclear club, and targets Americans. [xi] [xii] [xiii] [xiv]

Hezbollah envisions occupying Israel. Hamas invaded and seized Israeli territory. The Houthis are attacking vital international shipping lanes.[xv]

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken observes, “For our adversaries, be they states or non-states, this is all one fight.”[xvi] 

Spurred by Putin’s war, the democracies of Europe are relearning that there’s no room for free-riders in the Free World.

NATO allies in Europe are increasing defense spending 53 percent between 2021 and 2026.[xvii]
NATO nations have sent more than $90 billion in assistance to Ukraine.[xviii] NATO is investing $1.2 billion to help allies replenish their 155mm artillery stocks.[xix] A coalition of NATO nations is supplying Ukraine with one-million drones.[xx] Denmark is sending all of its artillery stocks to Ukraine.[xxi] The Czech Republic has gathered 800,000 artillery shells for Ukraine.[xxii]

Britain is riding its largest wave of defense spending since the Cold War’s end, spearheading NATO’s battlegroup in Estonia, deploying combat units to Poland, and dispatching 20,000 troops to defend NATO’s north.[xxiii]

Germany is doubling defense spending and permanently basing 4,000 soldiers in Lithuania.[xxiv] Poland has increased defense outlays to 4 percent of GDP.[xxv] France is increasing defense spending by 40 percent between 2024 and 2030.[xxvi]

Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark are combining their air fleets to build a Nordic air force comprised of 250 high-end warplanes.

With the addition of Sweden and Finland, NATO is securing its northern flank. With battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland—and a dramatic expansion of its rapid-reaction force from 40,000 troops to 300,000—NATO is returning to its core mission of deterrence.[xxvii] And with 102,000 troops in the European theater—a 30-percent increase over 2021—America is doing its part by opening a V Corps headquarters in Poland, basing a brigade combat team in Romania, deploying deterrent assets across the Baltics, and stationing additional warships in Spain and additional warplanes in Britain.[xxviii]

NATO isn’t alone in helping Ukraine defend the frontlines of freedom.

Australia is training Ukrainian troops and sending anti-armor systems, howitzers, ammunition, armored vehicles and UAVs. Japan has sent drones and $12.1 billion in humanitarian aid.[xxix] South Korea is shipping artillery shells to Ukraine.[xxx]

Yet these Indo-Pacific democracies are understandably more focused on the looming threat in their neighborhood.

Almost-doubling defense spending, Japan is on track to become the world’s third-highest defense-spending power. With those resources, Japan is deploying aircraft carriers armed with F-35Bs, fielding a large and lethal submarine force, standing up island-defense units, building new airbases and acquiring cruise missiles to deter Xi. Plus, Japan is providing arms and training to Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.[xxxi] [xxxii] [xxxiii]

Australia is increasing defense spending 40 percent this decade; hosting U.S. troops and warplanes; building a facility to service F-35s from throughout the Indo-Pacific; and partnering with Britain and the U.S. to develop nuclear-powered submarines.[xxxiv]

South Korea is increasing defense spending by 7 percent annually between 2017 and 2027,[xxxv] expanding its F-35 fleet, building an aircraft carrier, fortifying its missile defenses, and training alongside U.S. and Japanese forces.[xxxvi]

The Philippines is opening nine bases to U.S. assets[xxxvii], working with Washington and Tokyo to modernize its military, drilling with U.S.-Australian forces on amphibious assaults, reorienting its army from counterterrorism to deterrence, and standing up to China’s illicit landgrabs via covert action and legal action.[xxxviii]   

India has increased defense spending by 49 percent the past decade, boosted its defense budget 13 percent for 2024 and recently commissioned its second aircraft carrier. U.S. warships are docking in Indian ports;[xxxix] U.S. bombers are landing at Indian bases; and the two democracies are expanding joint military exercises.[xl] 

Middle East
The Pentagon relies on what it calls the “CENTCOM Coalition”—built around 31 democracies—to promote stability in the volatile Middle East.[xli] Free World allies from the Americas, Indo-Pacific and Europe lead anti-ISIS operations.[xlii] 

Even as it defends its frontiers against terror, Israel is attritting Iran’s presence in Syria, sharing missile-defense systems with Germany and Finland, and sending missile-warning systems to Ukraine.[xliii]


Likewise, the U.S. and Germany have sent military aid to Israel. U.S. military advisors experienced in fighting urban counterterror campaigns deployed to assist the IDF in planning anti-Hamas operations. And the U.S., Britain and France have intercepted missiles and drones targeting Israel.[xliv]Eight NATO members lead Operation Prosperity Guardian—the effort to shield international shipping from Houthi piracy.[xlv]

Twenty Free World allies form the core of the Combined Maritime Forces, which fights piracy and promotes freedom of the seas around the Arabian Peninsula.[xlvi]

Free World collaborations extend well beyond the military sphere—and well beyond the atmosphere.

Led by the U.S., 20 democracies enfolding five continents have signed on to the Artemis Accords, which promote the peaceful use and exploration of space.[xlvii] Some of those allies contribute to Operation Olympic Defender—an ongoing effort to extend deterrence into space.

The AUKUS democracies are collaborating on quantum computing and hypersonics;[xlviii] the NATO democracies on AI strategies; the G7 democracies on ways to reduce dependence on China; the Quad democracies on health security, space security and cybersecurity.[xlix]

Australia, Austria, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and Ukraine participate in NATO’s cyber-defense center. The U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India have blocked PRC telecom firms from their 5G networks. The U.S., Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are forging the Chip4 Alliance to ensure a steady supply of semiconductor microchips to the Free World. And the U.S., Netherlands and Japan are restricting exports of semiconductor-production equipment to China.[l] [li]

To-Do List
These are welcome developments. But to contain the axis of autocracy over the long haul, the Free World should return to what FDR called “armed defense of democratic existence.” What might that look like today?

Rebuilding deterrent strength
“Armed defense” of the Free World doesn’t mean launching wars to make the world “safe for democracy.” It means having the resources to ensure the world’s democracies can deter the world’s autocracies.

Even before sequestration slashed America’s military resources and post-pandemic inflation began devouring them, U.S. deterrent capabilities were inadequate to the threat posed by Moscow and Beijing. The Army is trying to deter war in Europe with one-third the soldiers it deployed during the Cold War.[lii] Navy leaders say they need 500+ ships; they have 296.[liii] With only 20 stealth bombers in service, just 14 percent of the Air Force bomber fleet would be able to penetrate Russia’s or China’s air defenses.[liv]

The reason for these vulnerabilities: For more than a decade, America has invested barely 3 percent of GDP in defense. The Cold War average was more than twice that. 

To deter another great-power war and to protect at-risk democracies from being occupied (northern Georgia), absorbed (Hong Kong), blockaded (Taiwan), annexed (eastern Ukraine) or mutilated (Ukraine and Israel), the Free World must pivot toward what FDR called “a swift and driving increase in…armament production.”[lv] Some Free World allies—Poland, Japan, South Korea, India—have made that adjustment. But more must be done—in a more sustained way. Defending the Free World is an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Keeping commitments
“Armed defense” of the Free World doesn’t necessarily mean planting new democracies. But it surely means standing by existing democracies and maintaining democratic gains. Pulling out of democratic Iraq in 2011 jeopardized those gains—and opened the door to ISIS. Allowing Afghanistan, which held seven free elections between 2001 and 2020, to fend for itself doomed a nascent democracy—and sent a terrible signal to China, Russia and Iran.[lvi]


There’s an echo here of the interwar years. “Circumstances during the first half of the 20th century…provided physical strength and political authority to dictatorships,” historian John Lewis Gaddis explains. “Why should the second half have been different?” The answer: “a striking shift in the attitude of the United States” from focusing inward to “planning a postwar world in which democracy and capitalism would be secure.” When America turns inward, the Free World’s enemies turn aggressive.

Leveraging resources
The Free World has vast economic, military, technological and natural resources.

Democracies in the Americas, Euro-Atlantic, Indo-Pacific and Middle East enfold 71 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of global defense spending[lvii] and what former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen calls “a thousand-ship navy.”[lviii]

Nineteen of the 20 largest tech companies are headquartered in the Free World (13 of them in the U.S.).[lix] Eight of the 10 largest 5G providers are headquartered in the Free World.[lx] Microsoft runs 74 percent of the world’s computers.[lxi] America’s Apple and South Korea’s Samsung represent 55 percent of the world’s cellphone market.[lxii]

Geologists recently discovered the world’s two largest lithium deposits in California and along the Oregon-Nevada border.[lxiii]The U.S. alone possesses 327 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas in the Outer Continental Shelf, 264 billion barrels of oil (the world’s largest recoverable oil reserves) and 3 trillion barrels of oil-shale deposits (equaling more than OPEC’s combined reserves).[lxiv]

The rapid way Poland and Germany replaced Russian natural gas with U.S. natural gas offers a glimpse of what’s possible when America flexes its energy muscle—just as the response to Russia’s war in Ukraine serves as evidence of the power the Free World wields when its members work together.

Leveraging these resources to defend the Free World and weaken the axis of autocrats is a matter of will.

Shoring up frontline democracies
“Freedom must be armed better than tyranny,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine observes. When it’s not, the result is Ukraine 2022, Korea 1950, Pearl Harbor 1941, Czechoslovakia 1938.

Even as support for Ukraine continues, the Free World needs to shore up the defenses of other frontline democracies—the Baltics, Moldova, Georgia, Kosovo, Taiwan, the Philippines—to prevent another Ukraine. Zelensky’s one-percent-for-security concept offers a roadmap: “Give us one percent of all your planes, one percent of all your tanks, one percent,” he challenges the Free World. “When we finally have it, it will give us and you 100-percent security.”[lxv]

This echoes an idea American leaders have espoused for generations: “Support for freedom fighters is self-defense” and “is tied to our own security,” President Ronald Reagan explained:[lxvi] “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” President Harry Truman declared.[lxvii] “A freeman contending for liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth,” Gen. George Washington observed.[lxviii]

Reengaging the battle of ideas
“A little less détente,” Reagan argued, “and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”

Free World leaders should offer high-profile platforms to human-rights activists, defectors and other victims of Putin, Xi, Kim and Khamenei; prosecute Putin’s war crimes; draw attention to Xi’s laogai prisons, genocidal campaign against Uighur Muslims, and mistreatment of Christians and Tibetans; wield China’s willful mishandling of COVID-19 as a constant counterpoint to Xi’s claim that business-suit autocracy is the wave of the future; and provide tools to help Russians, Chinese, Iranians and North Koreans break through the information blockades their governments have erected. A revived U.S. Information Agency would aid this effort.

In Africa and South America, the Free World should point to Belarus, Donetsk, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Gaza, Syria, Sri Lanka, Xinjiang and Hong Kong as evidence of what Xi, Putin and Khamenei envision for their vassal states.[lxix]

Finally, Free World leaders need to remind our enemies and some of our countrymen that “armed defense of democratic existence”—helping democracies deter or defeat aggression—is definitively not an act of aggression. “Such aid is not an act of war,” FDR matter-of-factly intoned, “even if a dictator should…proclaim it so to be.”

Forging an alliance of democracies
President Joe Biden contends “we’re in a battle between democracies and autocracies” and talks about “an alliance of democracies.”[lxx]

This concept finds support throughout history, on both sides of the political spectrum, and across the oceans.

“A steadfast concert for peace,” President Woodrow Wilson argued, “can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations.”[lxxi] Reagan called for “an army of conscience” to confront tyranny. “Just as the world’s democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face of totalitarianism,” he asked, “might we not now unite to impose civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of human decency?”

Fast-forward to today: Stephen Hadley (President George W. Bush’s national security advisor) has expressed support for a “new alliance of free nations.”[lxxii] Ivo Daalder (President Barack Obama’s NATO ambassador) advocates a “concert of democracies.”[lxxiii] The Atlantic Council, a respected U.S. thinktank, has even crafted a plan for how such a body might function.[lxxiv]

Overseas, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently created the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, which is providing the intellectual and strategic framework of what he calls an “alliance for peace, prosperity and the advancement of democracy.”[lxxv] [lxxvi]

Larger than NATO, smaller than the UN, dedicated to “armed defense of democratic existence,” an Alliance of Democracies could play a role where NATO won’t (due to geographic limitations) and where the UN can’t (due to autocratic roadblocks and systemic glitches). Such a body wouldn’t be a panacea for the world’s ills. But quite unlike the UN, an Alliance of Democracies could defend the frontlines of freedom; harmonize and organize the Free World’s efforts; and promote the Free World’s shared interests.

This article was published in the July 2024 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

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