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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Mar-18 > The last great liberal

The last great liberal

A shameless opportunist who ripped up the rule book, Roosevelt never allowed principle to stand in the way of good politics. Why can’t today’s left-wing leaders live up to his example?
© PHOTOQUEST/GETTY IMAGES

The world we live in today bears the imprint of one charming, devious, ruthless and courageous man.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt not only won an unprecedented four presidential elections, successfully dealt with the effects of a global financial catastrophe and drove a reluctant America through a bitter and costly world war.

He all but invented the practice of modern interventionist government; his New Deal served as the model for the welfare states that arose from the ruins of post-1945 Europe. The institutions of the post-war international system—the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the UN, the North Atlantic Alliance— were, again, Roosevelt’s achievement, just as the modern human rights regime was inspired by his indomitable wife Eleanor.

To be sure, Roosevelt shared the creation of the modern world with equally titanic figures—most notably Stalin and Churchill.

But Stalin’s regime did not survive the collapse of Communism, while Roosevelt’s global free-trading order is still voraciously alive.

And although Churchill provided the rhetorical framing for the post-war Atlantic alliance, he failed to see—as Roosevelt did—that a durable post-war order would also have to be post-imperial.

Yet the beam cast by Roosevelt’s success is now flickering. If many of his achievements have survived, many others now lie in ruins. The UN is a shadow of what Roosevelt hoped it would be.

Reagan and Thatcher did much to dismantle the Rooseveltian state. More recently, human-rights universalism has begun to retreat before a sovereigntist tide. And although the colonial period is largely over, independence has proved to be a cruel delusion for many of the poorer nations of the earth.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s March issue: A series of writers turn their thoughts to the developing war over words in the UK and the US. Lionel Shriver, Afua Hirsch, Simon Lancaster, Hugh Tomlinson, Tom Clark and two students ask if free expression is truly compromised? What’s really going on in our universities? And what do voters think? Elsewhere in the issue: Michael Ignatieff questions why today’s left-wing leaders can’t live up to the high mark set by FDR, Sameer Rahim shows how western powers have been trying to dictate what Islam should be, and Mary Beard asks “How do we look?” as our perceptions of what is beautiful have changes over the centuries.