“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.“

With this iconic sentence, John F. Kennedy was not appealing to citizens as “subjects” of the state, but to the responsible and free citizens of America.

He was convinced that only together they could fight the great evils of humanity: tyranny, poverty, disease and war. And for him, the defense of freedom was also one of the great challenges of mankind. Kennedy therefore not only addressed his own compatriots but the whole of humanity:

“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

The vulnerability of liberal democracy and the open society is demonstrated to us time and again. Not only in the United States, but also in Europe. It is also becoming clear that even though the rule of law is a necessary prerequisite for our democracy, it is not a sufficient one. “The liberal, secularized state lives from preconditions that it cannot guarantee itself.” This is how the former German constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde put it. But what is it that holds a liberal society together—from within?

In his recent book The Bill of Obligations, former US diplomat and long-standing President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass is also asking this question. He argues that we should once again uphold our civic responsibilities. 

Fundamental rights alone do not guarantee a functioning democracy

Haass leans on the Bill of Rights, which is at the heart of the US constitution and guarantees Americans basic rights within the framework of a free and democratic society. However, these rights are not a sufficient basis for a functioning democracy. Instead, he notes that some of the fiercest social conflicts and political debates can be traced back to competing fundamental rights. 

As examples, he mentions the abortion debate (how does the right of the unborn relate to the mother’s right to self-determination?), the fight for freedom of opinion and speech (what is allowed to be said in public—what is not?) and the right to carry a weapon enshrined in the US constitution (could the frequent rampages in the States be prevented if this right were restricted?).

These debates are important. But they are also socially explosive. In The Bill of Obligations, Haass proposes ten habits of good citizens to counteract the centrifugal forces in society. He thinks of obligations not in a narrow legal sense, but more of a civic attitude. Above all, he has in front of him the deep political division in his home country, the disenchantment with democracy and—as a particularly incisive event—the January 6 United States Capitol attack.

Three of the civic obligations he has in mind in particular reflect this American experience: Reject Violence, Value Norms (norms such as telling the truth) and Put Country First. Others sound more familiar to our European ears as well: Be Informed, Get Involved, Promote the Common Good, and Support the Teaching of Civics.

Three other obligations are worth a second look, especially from a German perspective. 

First: Stay Open to Compromise 

The word “Ampel-Streit” (referring to the ongoing dispute between the three parties of the so-called traffic-light coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals) has become an integral part of daily political reporting. And you don’t really want to hear it anymore. Yet contradiction and debate are essential features of democracy. A party or coalition dispute often only reflects the sometimes very different world views and values in society—no more and no less.

And as much as we may be surprised or annoyed by the government, and as dubious as political decisions may occasionally appear to us:

“Democratic compromises are not second-class decisions. Democratic decisions are often compromises between parties, wings, or camps. This is not a flaw, compromises are not ‘shaky’. […] The longing for an uncompromising democratic decision follows the authoritarian fiction of a pure political will.” As constitutional law expert Christoph Möllers put it.

In any case, a desire of forced-through policies is just as lacking in democratic spirit as the idea of a policy with “no alternatives”. 

Second: Remain civil 

In this country, people sometimes rub their eyes in amazement at the sharpness of political and social debates in the USA. But the tone has also become harsher in Germany. With its entry into parliament, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has made inhumane and denigrating language “socially acceptable”, poisoning public discourse. But true democrats know: It’s not only what you say, but also how you say it. 

Further danger comes from the moralists. Not only because they tend to defame those who think differently. But also, because “the moralizing form of political debate always runs the risk of ending in the triumph of good sentiment over the laws of reason”, as the philosopher Hermann Lübbe warned. It is then often only a small step to the loss of freedom. And freedom is not in good shape elsewhere either.

The Jewish community, for example, has been lamenting the fact that anti-Semitism has long since reached the heart of society, and not just since October 7. Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews, got to the heart of it at the central commemorative event on the anniversary of the Reichspogromnacht: “Protection is good and, especially now, important. But we don’t want shields. We want to live freely in Germany, in our country; live freely in this open society.”

As long as this wish is denied, we need not imagine too much about our civil society.

Third: Respect Government Service 

The disparagement of politicians and bureaucrats is a popular substitute for a substantive debate about politics. Despite all the justified criticism of poor government decisions and the mistakes of individual politicians and civil servants, a society shoots itself in the foot with generalizations such as “those at the top”.

If the representatives of the citizens and the state are constantly vilified, this certainly does not increase the attractiveness of public office. But this can cost us dearly. In Germany, government spending accounts for around half of gross domestic product. This means that the public sector is too large and important to be left to second-rate personnel—even if we could certainly wish for “less state” in some areas.

Or in the words of Richard Haass: “The deep state is us. We should therefore want the best and brightest among us to work in government, be it for a time or for a career.“ 

Furthermore, the question arises as to how we can intensify the exchange between politics, administration, and other sectors—to strengthen mutual understanding and trust. There is currently a lack of communication especially between the business sector and politics that we should definitely overcome.

Haass is right: “We get the government and the country we deserve. Getting the one we need, is up to us.”

And so there remains a lot we can do—as free citizens—for our country. 

This article was first published in German by 1E9.