Commentary

Proof Through the Night: The West Unites

“O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose bright stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, o’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming? And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there…”

Common words to most of us Americans. They are, after all, the words to our national anthem.

Today, however, we need to think anew of the words in this old melody. At the time it was written America was facing a dark and uncertain future. The year was eighteen-fourteen. The fledgling’s chances of survival appeared to be slim, as the newly hatched nation had barely spread her wings before she was under attack by an enemy of such power. The capitol building had just been burned to the ground by enemy forces, and various other positions had also fallen.

A lawyer by the name of Francis Scott Key was engaged on a diplomatic mission to the British–to negotiate the exchange of prisoners. He was young, only thirty-five. The negotiations were completed successfully, and Key probably assumed he could be on his way, but that would not happen. Key was detained by the British, who feared he might compromise their plan to attack Baltimore.

The British put their plan of attack into effect on September the thirteenth. Forced to wonder at the fate of his countrymen who guarded Fort McHenry, which was the British navy’s primary target, Key stood on the deck of a British ship, peering out at the blackness of the night in the direction of the fort. Occasionally, a bombshell would explode in the night sky, causing hope to burst in Key’s heart as he saw the U.S flag proudly waving. By the time the British ceased their attack, the flag still swayed proudly on its pole.

That is the historical background to our beautiful national anthem. But what is the significance of this song for us today? Is it merely a patriotic tune to rally around on the Fourth of July? I would argue that, while it does serve as a rallying cry to Americans, it is much more than that. It carries a message to us today.

Today, it is not only America faced with an uncertain future, but also the West itself. All that the West stands for – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – has been under attack. Inside the West itself, we have numerous examples of friction. Just last year, France was greatly upset when the United States sold nuclear submarines to Australia. Former President Trump began to pull out of various multilateral treaties, including NATO. COVID-19 shut down communications worldwide, but its impact was especially felt between the various countries of the West.

Threats to the West from the outside are also numerous. Some have speculated that a rising China will cause a new cold war, this one based on our ability to control the world economy rather than its ideology. More immediately, Vladimir Putin has trampled upon Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia, our old foe, has risen its head to strike again at the West. Although Ukraine is not properly a part of the West, it has come to symbolize a country that yearns to throw off the yoke of oppression and join the ranks of free nations throughout the world.

Putin probably expected the severity of sanctions that were levied against him by a fractured West during the annexation of Crimea. Such sanctions, while powerful, were not strong enough to derail a major powerhouse like Russia. But this time we have responded with greater unity. It is in this time of peril, in this dark night, that the united flag of the West and all that it stands for can be seen again. Putin expected us to respond in a disjointed and half-hearted manner, but we have responded as one.

In this way, unfortunate as it is to see the destruction of Ukraine, Putin’s invasion may have been the best thing that could have happened for the West. His invasion has caused the fracturing West to be rejoined. Our alliances are reaffirming their fealty to each other. Putin’s assault has renewed the West’s vigor, revealed its strength, and unveiled the mutual commitment its members still have to protect one another.

Some might take issue with the claim that Western countries are responding to Russia’s threat in order to uphold the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of the free world. Perhaps NATO, the symbol of Western unity, is simply just trying to halt the advance of an authoritarian steamroller. Turning, however, to the recent NATO summit and other writings published by NATO, we see three primary reasons for their strong condemnation of Russia. Firstly, Russia’s invasion has disrespected “international humanitarian law” [1]. We see this affirmed over and over again by the leaders of the Western world. By upholding humanitarian law the leaders of NATO are standing up to protect life.

Secondly, NATO leaders are also promising to defend liberty in the free world. We repeatedly read statements issued which condemn Russia for attacking Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russian construction projects, military operations, and diplomatic decisions have repeatedly violated Ukraine’s territory, and by banding together to oppose Russia, the Western nations that compose NATO take a stand for freedom throughout the world.

Seeing NATO defend two of the three fundamental pillars of the Western liberal order, we turn finally to the pursuit of happiness. How has NATO taken a stand to protect this “inalienable right”? To find a true answer to that question it is necessary to determine what that phrase originally meant. While that answer could – and has – yielded papers before, we do not have time for a systematic evaluation of the definition here. I will base my definition of the “pursuit of happiness” on one provided by Professor Brent Strawn of Emory University. Professor Strawn contends that this pursuit of happiness is actually a state of existence. It is “about [obtaining] human flourishing and the good life”. [2]

With an understanding that to pursue happiness means to live a life marked by flourishing, we can look at the situation in Ukraine and see if that is what the NATO members are trying to protect. I contend that they are. To promote human flourishing, they are taking steps to avoid escalation of the war and to negotiate a peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine while simultaneously striving to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity (i.e., liberty) and defend the life of its people.

With a global pandemic, a rising China, and an ideological Russia attempting to trample the West, we might occasionally wonder at its fate. We may feel, as Francis Scott Key did, the hopelessness of the situation. We might peer out into the blackness and uncertainty of the future, anxiously straining our eyes for a glimpse of hope. Oddly enough, those glimpses often come when the enemy’s shells are exploding around us. The very shells that herald destruction also illuminate the darkness. With such illumination comes a brief glimpse of what remains of the West. The West is still united. And while it remains united, we may be sure that, though it be weakened, changed, or marred at the end of a conflict, it shall not fall. Its unity stands as “proof through the night” that the flag of freedom still waves, defending the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the free world.


Sources:

[1] NATO Website, Relations with Russia

[2] Emory News Center, “What the Declaration of Independence Really Means by ‘Pursuit of Happiness’”, July 3, 2018 [website: https://news.emory.edu/stories/2014/06/er_pursuit_of_happiness/campus.html]


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

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