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As we leave behind an era in which America tried to assert democracy by force (and often failed), the question arises: what part of our efforts to spread democracy can we preserve for the future? In The Freedom Agenda, James Traub traces the history of America's democratic evangelizing, offering an assessment of the George W. Bush administration's failed efforts abroad. And he puts forth the argument that democracy matters--for human rights, the resolution of conflicts, political stability and equitable development. But America must exercise caution in spreading it, both internationally and at home.
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JAMES TRAUB is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
IntroductionIn his second inaugural address, in January 2005, President George W. Bush declared, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." This was the most succinct possible statement of the post-9/11 doctrine that came to be known as the Freedom Agenda. Of course it was an arguable proposition: Perhaps our liberty depended more on the success of something else in other lands—economic growth, the rule of law, simple justice. But all that was, in a sense, detail. For if the deeply repressive political cultures of Saudi Arabia or Egypt had helped produce the foot soldiers and the leadership cadre of Al Qaeda, and if the chaos of Afghanistan had served as the petri dish for the Taliban, then it was plain that our safety depended on the internal conditions, and not just the foreign policy, of other states. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it with a bit more intellectual finesse: "The fundamental character of regimes now matters more than the international distribution of power. " The Freedom Agenda was a restatement, in far more urgent terms, of a venerable American axiom. From the time of the founding of the republic, Americans had believed that Providence had singled them out to offer a world living in darkness the great blessings of liberty—to serve as "a standing monument and example for the aim and imitation of people of other countries, " as Thomas Jefferson wrote. We hold that the principles upon which our country is founded are not peculiar to us but, rather, constitute timeless and universal truths. The Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln said, gave "liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time." And as our reach became global in the twentieth century, we would not only testify to the glories of democracy, but actively seek to propagate them across the globe. To this day we describe this policy as "Wilsonian," after Woodrow Wilson, the first president to explicitly seek to spread democracy abroad. Our pursuit of these ideals has led us to make choices that would not have been dictated by a strict calculation of national interest: building the foundations of democracy in the Philippines in the first years of the twentieth century; defending the right of self-determination of colonized peoples; establishing after World War II a network of multilateral institutions that constrained our own power; rebuilding Germany and Japan as well as our wartime allies; assailing not just our adversaries but our friends for the abuse of human rights; undertaking a humanitarian intervention in Kosovo; and in recent years, supporting the solitary voices calling for reform in the Middle East. But there’s a reason the term Wilsonian conjures up naïveté and recklessness as much as it does moral commitment. As the political theorist Hans Morgenthau wrote soon after World War II, "The missionary conception of the relationship between our domestic situation and our foreign policy" blends inevitably into a crusading one, in which "the American example is transformed into a formula for universal salvation by which right-thinking nations voluntarily abide and to which the others must be compelled to submit"— "with fire and sword, if necessary. " And this brings us back to President Bush. Democracy has always been our national credo, and the ambition to spread it abroad, our missionary impulse. The terrorist attacks of 2001 reconfigured this act of cultural self-affirmation into a matter of national security. The assault might well have persuaded a President Al Gore—or John McCain—that our liberty depended on the success of liberty in other lands. But the language that the Bush administration used to express this new principle had a self-righteous and theological flavor; and the policies with which it pursued this goal were heavy-handed and often bellicose. In Iraq, the president tried to bring liberty to the Middle East by fire and sword. America’s own past experience, and the history of the Arab world, offered all the lessons he could have needed in the difficulty and perhaps the futility, and certainly the hubris, of this exercise. Iraq was meant to be a demonstration model, and it has been—but not in the way the administration intended. Iraq is now taken as proof of the folly, and indeed the hypocrisy, of America’s idealistic adventures abroad; of a brute doctrine of transformation by warfare; of the hollowness of democracy as uttered by our leaders; and of the absurdity of imagining that the United States can promote its values abroad, whatever they are. And it’s not only in Iraq that America has been seen to discredit its own professed principles. At the very moment when officials were trying to repair the damage done to our image by decades of steadfast support for Arab dictators, the worldwide media were dominated by stories of American torture at the Abu Ghraib prison, perpetual imprisonment without judicial recourse at Guantánamo Bay, the clandestine smuggling of detainees to third world countries with scant regard for human rights. America had tried to promote democracy abroad while showing contempt for it at home. Is it any wonder that in a recent poll, only 29 percent of respondents in eighteen countries thought that the United States was having a "mainly positive" effect on the world, while 52 percent considered the effect "mainly negative"? In Turkey, America’s chief ally in the Muslim world, the number of respondents who expressed a "favorable view of the U.S. "—a phrase that usually elicits a much more positive response—had fallen from 52 percent in 1999–2000 to 9 percent in 2007. How can you seek to universalize your values in places where ordinary citizens think you stand for something deplorable? The Bush administration first codified the core principles of the post-9/11 world in the National Security Strategy of 2002. The document posited that we must be prepared to act preemptively, as well as unilaterally, to prevent terrorists from acquiring, or of course using, weapons of mass destruction; that we must be willing to overthrow a regime that threatens us and the international order, as we had in Afghanistan; that we must retain unrivaled military supremacy; and that we must remove the conditions that foster terrorism by making "freedom and the development of democratic institutions key themes in our bilateral relations. " We can now say, in retrospect, that the Iraq war, and the larger war on terrorism, have discredited the doctrines in whose name they have been fought. This is, in effect, the intellectual wreckage left behind by the political and diplomatic fiasco of the last eight years. We have had only one foreign policy since 9/11. And that policy has been shaped by the fear and anger and sense of vulnerability provoked by that horror, and by the ways in which President Bush and his team have responded to, and exploited, that national mood. As I write these words, the Bush era is drawing to an end. We will soon have another president, and thus another way of understanding our place in the world. We will have, in effect, a post-post-9/11 policy. And in shaping such a policy, we need to ask what, if anything, we should rescue from the rubble of President Bush’s national security strategy. We will, of course, continue to reserve the right to act preemptively and unilaterally under certain circumstances, to act against state sponsors of terrorism, to retain our military superiority. We have done so in the past—but without elevating these principles to the status of core doctrine. And as the world has become so much more dangerous, at least compared to a decade ago, we need to be unambiguous about our willingness to use force. But since 9/11 we have defined ourselves almost exclusively by our heightened awareness of danger, and our heightened willingness to respond with a show of military might. We have made ourselves awesome, and frightening. Or rather, to give both principal moods of the Bush White House their due, we have bristled with terrible force, and beckoned to an almost magical realm of possibility—with Vice President Dick Cheney in charge of bristling, and President Bush urging the people of Iraq, and of Palestine and of Egypt, to somehow claim the universal birthright of freedom. We need to learn once again to speak to the world with hope—but a hopefulness tempered by a sense of the possible. And this requires clearing away the wreckage of recent years. If we accept that the character of many regimes now affects us more than the way in which they project power abroad, and thus that our own security depends on the progress of liberty—or of something—among those regimes, then we must, in fact, find a way to revitalize, and rethink, the Freedom Agenda. What would this mean? Perhaps, for example, it’s not liberty—or freedom, or democracy—that we should seek to support abroad. Assailing the bipartisan faith in "Democratism, " Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, the authors of Ethical Realism, a scathing critique of Bush administration policy, propose instead that we seek to fashion "The Great Capitalist Peace, " incorporating nations into the global economy. Others argue that infant democracies are actually more turbulent and dangerous than authoritarian regimes. In Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder insist that we should forestall elections until countries develop the liberal institutions that will permit a more stable transition. There’s a lot to be said for this view. Nations such as Poland and Hungary, which had lived under Soviet domination, made a swift and relatively pain-free transition to democracy when the Russians pulled out, because they had a long tradition of liberal values and institutions. In Africa, where no such tradition exists, the arrival of democracy has often done nothing to mitigate, and at times has even exacerbated, corruption, poverty, and warlord rule. And we cannot simply assume that democracy is an unmitigated good for citizens, or a bulwark against terrorism. The link between democracy and development is tenuous, if broadly positive; Asia furnishes any number of examples of dynamic autocracies. And it is blithe to imagine that democratic states do not foster terrorism. The democratic Philippines produces far more terrorists than does authoritarian China. And many of the jihadists who have murdered civilians in Europe were born and raised in the democratic, cosmopolitan West. Democracy does not cure all ills. And yet people want it. What’s more, the era when you could tell people to wait until they were "ready" is long since over. In recent years, citizens in both Ukraine and Nigeria have clamored for genuinely democratic rule. Ukraine is a largely middle-class European nation with decent democratic prospects; Nigeria is a giant, chaotic, impoverished African country with a tradition of tyranny and corruption. Should we have supported the Ukrainians and told the Nigerians to hang on? We didn’t; but it wouldn’t have made much difference if we had. Democracy has become a near universal aspiration about which we cannot choose to be agnostic. And you cannot spend time in even the most wretchedly impoverished democracies without learning that people everywhere care about having a voice in their own affairs, and having recourse in the face of abusive treatment. But what can we actually do to help the democratic cause? At critical moments in a nation’s history, when an authoritarian leader refuses to step down, or when the military overthrows a democratically elected figure, or when an election pits democratic against autocratic forces, outsiders can play a crucial role, as the United States has over the years in Chile, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and Soviet Georgia, among other places. Otherwise, however, outsiders can only nurture. Democracy cannot be "exported, " much less imposed, as of course autocracy can be; outsiders can help only where the wish for democracy already exists (as it did not in Iraq). And even where a seed has already sprouted, outsiders can only help coax it out of the ground and into the air. "Democracy promotion" is too aggressive by half, and its history over the last century counsels modest expectations. Perhaps outsiders can make a difference; but what if the outsider is the United States? How, today, can we promote anything, much less democracy? The American project in the Middle East is now associated, fairly or not, with regime change and global aggression. It may be that the very word democracy has become so tainted that we will have to put it away until the toxins have leached out. And even a new and more charitably regarded president would confront the same strategic issue that this White House has faced: We rely on autocrats such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to play a moderate role among neighbors, just as in the cold war we relied on anticommunist dictators in Latin America and elsewhere. They need us, but we need them; and they know it. How do we respond when a Mubarak, or a Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, claims that opposition forces are destabilizing their regime? Can we call their bluff? What if the opposition forces are Islamist? Should we be willing to support " moderate Islamists"? Is there such a thing? Democracy promotion presents a series of hard choices about our behavior abroad; but it also demands that we think about the principles we apply to ourselves. We have called insistently for democracy elsewhere, and yet rarely, if ever, in our history has the United States itself been seen as so poor a model of democracy. We seem to be trapped in a paradox: The same threats that have prompted us to try to shape more liberal outcomes beyond our shores have persuaded us, or at least the current occupants of the White House, that we can no longer afford to be the open society we were before 9/11. Thus we reserve for ourselves the right to torture prisoners because the stakes of the war on terrorism are so high. And yet it’s precisely at such moments when a nation’s commitment to its principles are tested. We cannot escape the accusations of hypocrisy. We cannot hide the facts from those others to whom we wish to preach, any more than from ourselves. We live in a transparent world, and we must treat transparency as our great advantage, not a threat to our security. Bill Clinton recently remarked that when he convened Israeli and Palestinian officials in a last-ditch effort to make peace at the end of his tenure, he didn’t know if he would succeed, but "I was going to get caught trying. " Clinton was right in thinking that the effort itself would help our standing in the Middle East, no matter what the outcome. And the principle applies in general: Just as we can get caught trying to ship "enemy combatants" to secret interrogation camps, so we can get caught trying to sustain the forces of democracy in authoritarian countries, overmatched though they are. We can get caught engaging with moderate Islamists who believe in free speech and the rule of law. We can get caught offering a democratic alternative to African countries beguiled by the Chinese model of top-down, autocratic development. We can get caught, in short, behaving in conformity with our deepest principles. Excerpted from The Freedom Agenda by James Traub. Copyright © 2008 by James Traub. Published in September, 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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