The Open Versus the Closed Society

Unlike most Americans, I was not born in the United States. My bond to this exceptional nation came through the opportunity of naturalization.

I was born into a tribal society and culture in Somalia. In my youth, my mother and grandmother dispensed advice based on the harshness of the life they knew and which their ancestors had similarly known for hundreds of years.1 Growing up, I was subjected not only to tribal norms and practices, but also to Islamist ideology. We moved a lot. My family lived in Saudi Arabia and Kenya. During my teenage years, I lived in Nairobi, Kenya. At school, I fell under the sway of charismatic Islamist teachers.

My whole life, from childhood on, has revolved around the distinction between the open society and the closed society. Deep down, I craved living in an open society from the time I was little. But I was not able to articulate this because I had not been exposed to the ideas that lie at the foundation of an open society.

Broadly speaking, open societies are based on the dignity of humans, including women. They are based on respect for human rights — including freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and the press — as well as a non-arbitrary, predictable rule of law and the right to a fair trial. Open societies are not perfect because man is not perfect. Nonetheless, open societies seek steady progress. Problems can be articulated publicly and solutions found.

In contrast, closed societies are based on control from the top down. They rely on violence — especially toward women and the religious — to ensure outward compliance. The individual is relegated to insignificance.

Tribal societies are one type of closed society. They tend to be risk-averse, insular, defensive, vigilant, cautious and sometimes aggressive, with long historical memories of past grievances and enmity toward other tribes. Islamist societies — whether present-day Iran, Afghanistan or territories controlled by Boko Haram in Africa — are another type. They are based on the implementation of unreformed Shariah law, including its harsh punishments, absence of religious freedom, and lack of clear boundaries between civil and holy law.

The pivotal event in my life was when I left the closed society I had known. On my way to an arranged marriage with a distant relative in Canada, I made the decision to seek asylum in the Netherlands. There, I was amazed by the Dutch open society. Living in small Dutch towns, I found women — young and old — riding on bicycles in jeans, their hair uncovered, going about their business and their daily lives. This mixing of men and women in public went against everything I had been taught. Yet, instead of social chaos, I found Dutch society to be orderly and tidy.

Members of my clan eventually tracked me down and demanded that I go through with the arranged marriage. It is with enormous gratitude that I look back on that moment — now 28 years ago — when I experienced another benefit of an open society: a just rule of law. A policeman politely explained to my Canadian-Somali fiancé that any person over the age of 18 has the right to choose their significant other. Thus, with the backing of the Dutch local police, I was able to extricate myself from an arranged marriage.

In the Netherlands, I subsequently worked a series of low-level jobs, took Dutch language classes whenever I could, and was able to enroll at Leiden University. My early appreciation for an open society matured into a more rational understanding of Enlightenment ideals, including an aversion to unquestioning adherence to any religion or ideology.

After the 9/11 attacks, I left Islam because I found the doctrine of violent jihad such as it existed in unreformed Shariah law unacceptable.2 I took a job researching the challenges of social integration that Muslim women faced in the Netherlands and eventually ran for Parliament, hoping to draw attention to these sensitive issues. I won a seat in 2003.

Because of my public stances on Islam, I faced threats on my life — mostly from radical Islamist activists. For nearly two decades, I have lived with round-the-clock security. It is an apparent paradox: a closed security shield that’s necessary in an otherwise open society. One might call it the paradox of freedom.

You may ask, with good reason: “What does any of this have to do with foreign policy or with American ideals?” The answer is that the contrast between the open and the closed society has affected how I view the United States and how the United States carries itself in world affairs.

American Principles

In 2006, I left the Dutch Parliament and moved to another open society: the United States. Here, I have seen how Americans emphasize the sovereignty of “the people” and find their historical roots in a revolt against British rule in the name of unalienable rights.3 Americans have rightly understood their country’s history as an unprecedented experiment in self-governance, based on a rejection of arbitrary authority and a demand for democratic accountability.

The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are shining exemplars of a commitment to an open society. From the earliest stages, as historian Bernard Bailyn reminds us, ideals related to the freedom and dignity of man played a critical role in American colonists’ drive for independence from Great Britain.4 “It is no stretch,” as several observers wrote recently, “to suggest that ‘unalienable rights’ were the form in which the American Founders gave expression to the idea of an inherent human dignity.”5

The U.S. Bill of Rights in particular enshrined a young America’s commitment to individual rights. It established that the federal government would not infringe on certain rights — including freedom of the press, assembly and speech — and would in fact actively protect these rights from overreach, even by the government itself. It also gave Americans the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Aristocratic governments in Europe viewed the American experiment with disdain and dismay. They saw it as far too democratic and not deferential enough.

Slavery proved a much more difficult issue for Americans to resolve. While the moral problem of slavery had become painfully apparent to Americans by the 1770s, if not earlier, abolishing slavery was only achieved through a bloody conflict. Even after the Civil War, it took another century until full voting rights were extended to all Americans.

Yet, despite sometimes failing to ensure full dignity and rights for all, Americans constantly strived to improve, to make progress.

U.S. Foreign Policy Challenges

Today, the United States faces a number of daunting challenges in the world, primarily emanating from the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)6 and the continuing specter of Islamism.7 Both of these challenges come from closed societies. In China’s case, at issue is the Communist Party’s increasingly dystopian surveillance of its citizens and use of the “social credit” system to restrict rights and dissent. In September 2021, the CCP made it clear it is willing to sacrifice economic growth to concentrate more power in the hands of the party.8 In the Islamist case, the challenge emanates from a worldview that does not accept the open society.9

Given these challenges, how should — and how can — this exceptional nation, America, conduct its foreign policy going forward?

Part of the trouble is deciding to what extent spreading our values (the values of the open society) is in our own interests and at what point it becomes foolish. During President Woodrow Wilson’s time in office and, more recently, in the post-World War II era, values, and not just national interests, played an overarching role in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo assembled a Commission on Unalienable Rights, led by Professor Mary Ann Glendon, in order to help steer the U.S. approach to human rights in a sensible direction in the future. The Commission’s report succinctly captures the American role:

“Although a concern with freedom was a central feature of America’s thinking about itself and the world from the beginning, it was only in the post–World War II era that promotion of human rights came to occupy a prominent place in American foreign policy, and, under U.S. leadership, in world affairs…the world’s oldest democracy became the world’s foremost champion of freedom in the 20th century, providing hope and encouragement to countless men and women living under brutal dictatorships.”10

The Way Forward

In recent months, confidence in America and our values has been badly shaken from within and from without. The ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan that left many Afghan allies to an uncertain — and possibly deadly — fate will leave permanent scars. America’s strategic reputation has been badly wounded; the same goes for our reputation as a dependable, predictable partner to our allies.

Yet the problems are deeper and more structural than just the catastrophic way in which the withdrawal was carried out. Since 9/11, the United States has taken inconsistent, contradictory and unclear positions with regard to Islamism.11 In Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, U.S. officials have at times empowered Islamist movements — including the Muslim Brotherhood — without, apparently, understanding the risks.12

With regard to China, American businessmen and associations such as the NBA have been eager to access China’s market, turning a blind eye to geopolitical and human rights considerations. Chinese officials have begun speaking contemptuously of the United States.13

At the same time, America faces a domestic challenge that grows more serious by the day. That challenge is “wokeism.”

Closely associated with critical race theory, woke intellectuals and activists reject notions of meritocracy, individualism and colorblindness. According to the woke, these three concepts — which are at the basis of the modern American social contract — are all steeped in racist bias and are therefore illegitimate.14 The woke allege that the United States was morally flawed from the beginning, and, in many ways, beyond redemption. All American institutions are said to be racist. White Americans are said to be subconsciously racist and, if they dispute this, are said to suffer from “fragility.” The woke have increasingly targeted merit programs and programs for gifted students, accusing them of racist bias or of perpetuating racial inequities.15

All of these allegations contribute to the dissolution of what binds Americans together. They undermine American ideals and our civic unity. Wokeism is not just obscurantist and based on false premises, but at odds with the principles of an open society; it is a world of speech codes, language police, cancellations, social media mobs seeking layoffs and revenge, the devaluation of the individual, and the grouping of individuals into rigid tribal blocs on the basis of immutable characteristics such as race. In many ways, wokeism is precisely the opposite of the free individualism so characteristic of the open society, of a hopeful vision for a pluralist society.

The United States may be imperfect, but it has offered meaningful hope to millions of immigrants — of all backgrounds — for centuries. These migrants do not just seek out a better life, but also refuge in the American commitment to freedom and the rule of law. Deep down, there is something good about America. Historically, it has been a benevolent superpower — almost to a fault — though it is not without flaws.

Without appreciating what makes America exceptional, the United States has little hope of carrying out an effective foreign policy. This is true regardless of how far the United States wishes to project the values of freedom or the open society abroad, or of how much the United States wishes to focus more purely on its rational self-interests.

The United States cannot carry out an effective foreign policy without an understanding of its exceptional commitment to unalienable rights, its moral worth, and the value of its founding principles — to say nothing of the extraordinarily selfless sacrifice made by so many veterans in past wars against hostile regimes.16

In these fraught times, the report by the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights offers a potential path forward. Besides offering an eloquent overview of America’s highest founding ideals, the report’s authors emphasize the complementarity of American values with the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“This convergence of the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and the core of the American constitutional and political tradition has implications for U.S. foreign policy. It invites a commitment to the promotion of democratic processes and free institutions as central to the U.S. human rights agenda.”

This commitment to human rights should not be misunderstood. A commitment to human rights does not imply self-abasement or humiliation by the United States with regard to foreign powers. In November 1979, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who would later serve as President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, warned that “a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-à-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate.”

For instance, Kirkpatrick observed that the United States should not judge American allies more harshly on human rights grounds than America’s enemies, something the Carter administration was wont to do.17 America’s commitment to human rights could cynically be used against it by hostile regimes with poor human rights records.

The defeat of Soviet communism was a momentous achievement by the West. But paradoxically, it appears to have lulled some observers into a kind of complacency — a notion that liberal democracy was in some sense the end point of history, and that this goal had been reached.18

The foreign challenges confronting the United States today are serious. The values of the United States are superior to those offered by the Chinese Communist Party and by Islamist regimes and movements around the world.

Any credible foreign policy will seek to combine a commitment to America’s highest ideals with a rational pursuit of American interests. There need not be irreconcilable conflict between these two ideas, and an effective U.S. foreign policy cannot be carried out if the United States is internally so divided that Americans lose sight of the inherent goodness of American values.19 A reacquaintance with American ideals is therefore imperative. A strong U.S. foreign policy requires a firm domestic foundation — one that we are currently lacking.