I have argued that fostering democracy abroad was part of the foreign policy of the three presidents who preceded Barack Obama. The latter two justified this by the democratic peace. For Clinton, it was one of three major goals. For G.W. Bush, the democratic peace comprised his overall foreign policy.
The democratic peace—democracies do not or virtually never make war on each other and is inherently a method of nonviolence—has been mentioned favorably by top leaders, such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Clinton’s former National Security Advisor W. Anthony Lake, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The leaders of ASEAN signed a democratic peace oriented pact in October 2003, about which its spokesman M.C. Abad stated, “The introduction of the notion of democratic peace sets the standard of political norm[s] in the region. It means that member states subscribe to the notion that democratic processes promote regional security.”
That promoting a democratic peace was the center of G.W. Bush’s foreign policy is clear from his speech at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment For Democracy. In it he proclaimed a Forward Strategy of Freedom. Although focused on the Middle East, it was general in tone, “As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.” Specifically, “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.”
He emphasized, “There are . . . essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture:
Successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military—so that governments respond to the will of the people, and not the will of an elite.The above principles were the foundation for the President’s new foreign policy—new in the sense that he had not so clearly articulated it before. He committed the United States to promote and foster freedom, and put dictators on notice that they will no longer be “excused and accommodated.”
Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of selecting applying the law to punish political opponents.
Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions—for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media.
Successful societies guarantee religious liberty—the right to serve and honor God without fear of persecution.
Successful societies privatize their economies, and secure the rights of property. They prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people. They recognize the rights of women.
And instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people.
The media’s reviews of the speech were mixed. The New York Times opined with reluctant praise:
Mr. Bush spoke well. He is right that Washington has failed to support abroad the values Americans live by at home. Too often, putting realpolitik ahead of freedom has backfired, causing anti-American rage. Mr. Bush is not the first president to promise to put democracy at the forefront of American policy. We hope he does a better job delivering on his promises than some of his predecessors.Wrote the Washington Post,
Some critics cast President Bush’s speech on democracy in the Middle East Thursday as merely another effort to repackage his troubled and costly mission in Iraq. But the president deserves more credit than that: Not only has he been talking about a political transformation of Arab countries since before the war, but he’s right to conclude that such a project is vital to victory in the war on terrorism.The more conservative The Washington Times praised the speech as a “Wilsonian call for freedom.” It editorialized:
In what is likely to be remembered as a central foreign policy address of his presidency, President Bush yesterday delivered a powerful message emphasizing the importance of democratic reform throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds.The BBC has had few good words for recent American foreign policy, but on this speech its Washington correspondent Rob Watson wrote:
This speech may well turn out to be a defining moment in the presidency of George W Bush. Its message was unmistakable—that the countries of the Middle East must embrace democracy for the good of their peoples and the security of the world.Although the speech was well accepted among foreign policy experts and commentators, they tended to describe it, as did William Safire on the PBS Lehrer News Hour, as “an idealistic Woodrow Wilson democracy speech.” Now, he might have meant to be complimentary, but generally for national security and foreign policy experts, and students of international relations, to label an idea or theory “idealistic,” especially, “Wilsonian,” is often, unlike The Washington Times above, to dismiss it as impractical, unrealistic, or naive. The dominant school of analysis among these people for generations has emphasized either the singular importance of superior power, or of the balance of power, in keeping the peace and securing national interests. They deem any theory that puts democracy or the type of political system at its center as unsophisticated about power and the workings of the international system. It is just not realpolitics. Many of these experts have yet to understand the massive research that has been done on the role of democracy and freedom in international relations, especially regarding peace and war. This research has established conclusively that the central concern should not be power, although it remains important, but a nation’s political system.
As shown by the documents, analyses, and data on my website, empirically and theoretically, Democratically free people have the least internal violence, turmoil, and political instability.
- Free people have virtually no government genocide and mass murder. Freedom is therefore a solution to genocide and mass murder; the only practical means of making sure that “Never again!”
- Free people do not make war on each other, and the greater the freedom within two nations, the less violence between them.
- Freedom is a method of nonviolence—the most peaceful nations are those whose people are free
Regarding human welfare, consistent with President Bush’s description of successful societies:
- Freedom—free speech and the economic and social free market—is an engine of economic and human development, and scientific and technological advancement.
- Freedom ameliorates the problem of mass poverty.
- Free people do not suffer from and never have had famines, and by theory, should not.
- Freedom is therefore a solution to poverty, hunger, and famine.
By virtue of all this, those who continue to believe that a foreign policy focus on freedom is naïve, idealistic, and contrary to a realistic foreign policy are the unrealistic ones.
Two days after his speech, as if to double underline it, the President issued a proclamation naming November 9th as World Freedom Day. He proclaimed:
Fourteen years ago, freedom-loving people tore down the Berlin Wall and began to set a nation free from Communist oppression. On World Freedom Day, the United States joins with other countries in commemorating that historic day. The United States is committed to liberty, freedom, and the universal struggle for human rights. We strive to advance peace and democracy and to safeguard these ideals around the world.Over two decades ago, in the last sentence to the last paragraph of the last chapter of my five-volume Understanding Conflict and War, Vol. 5, I wrote:
In total, some violence is inevitable; extreme violence and war are not. To eliminate war, to restrain violence, to nurture universal peace and justice, is to foster freedom.And this idea was explicit in the diplomacy of Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was educated in international relatons as a realist and converted to the democratic peace. In a December 11, 2005 speech, titled “The Promise of Democratic Peace: Why Promoting Freedom Is the Only Realistic Path to Security,” she said:
… we live in an extraordinary time -- one in which the terrain of international politics is shifting beneath our feet and the pace of historical change outstrips even the most vivid imagination….in times of unprecedented change, the traditional diplomacy of crisis management is insufficient. Instead, we must transcend the doctrines and debates of the past and transform volatile status quos that no longer serve our interests. What is needed is a realistic statecraft for a transformed world.Now, with all this background on foreign policies, what is President Obama's and was the democratic peace foreign policy killed?
Our statecraft today recognizes that centuries of international practice and precedent have been overturned in the past 15 years. Consider one example: For the first time since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the prospect of violent conflict between great powers is becoming ever more unthinkable. Major states are increasingly competing in peace, not preparing for war. To advance this remarkable trend, the United States is transforming our partnerships with nations such as Japan and Russia, with the European Union, and especially with China and India. Together we are building a more lasting and durable form of global stability: a balance of power that favors freedom.
The phenomenon of weak and failing states is not new, but the danger they now pose is unparalleled. When people, goods and information traverse the globe as fast as they do today, transnational threats such as disease or terrorism can inflict damage comparable to the standing armies of nation-states. Absent responsible state authority, threats that would and should be contained within a country's borders can now melt into the world and wreak untold havoc. Weak and failing states serve as global pathways that facilitate the spread of pandemics, the movement of criminals and terrorists, and the proliferation of the world's most dangerous weapons.
Our experience of this new world leads us to conclude that the fundamental character of regimes matters more today than the international distribution of power. Insisting otherwise is imprudent and impractical. The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. Attempting to draw neat, clean lines between our security interests and our democratic ideals does not reflect the reality of today's world. Supporting the growth of democratic institutions in all nations is not some moralistic flight of fancy; it is the only realistic response to our present challenges.
In one region of the world, however, the problems emerging from the character of regimes are more urgent than in any other. The "freedom deficit" in the broader Middle East provides fertile ground for the growth of an ideology of hatred so vicious and virulent that it leads people to strap suicide bombs to their bodies and fly airplanes into buildings. When the citizens of this region cannot advance their interests and redress their grievances through an open political process, they retreat hopelessly into the shadows to be preyed upon by evil men with violent designs. In these societies, it is illusory to encourage economic reform by itself and hope that the freedom deficit will work itself out over time.
Though the broader Middle East has no history of democracy, this is not an excuse for doing nothing. If every action required a precedent, there would be no firsts. We are confident that democracy will succeed in this region not simply because we have faith in our principles but because the basic human longing for liberty and democratic rights has transformed our world. Dogmatic cynics and cultural determinists were once certain that "Asian values," or Latin culture, or Slavic despotism, or African tribalism would each render democracy impossible. But they were wrong, and our statecraft must now be guided by the undeniable truth that democracy is the only assurance of lasting peace and security between states, because it is the only guarantee of freedom and justice within states.
Implicit within the goals of our statecraft are the limits of our power and the reasons for our humility. Unlike tyranny, democracy by its very nature is never imposed. Citizens of conviction must choose it -- and not just in one election. The work of democracy is a daily process to build the institutions of democracy: the rule of law, an independent judiciary, free media and property rights, among others. The United States cannot manufacture these outcomes, but we can and must create opportunities for individuals to assume ownership of their own lives and nations. Our power gains its greatest legitimacy when we support the natural right of all people, even those who disagree with us, to govern themselves in liberty.
The statecraft that America is called to practice in today's world is ambitious, even revolutionary, but it is not imprudent. A conservative temperament will rightly be skeptical of any policy that embraces change and rejects the status quo, but that is not an argument against the merits of such a policy. As Truman once said, "The world is not static, and the status quo is not sacred." In times of extraordinary change such as ours, when the costs of inaction outweigh the risks of action, doing nothing is not an option. If the school of thought called "realism" is to be truly realistic, it must recognize that stability without democracy will prove to be false stability, and that fear of change is not a positive prescription for policy.
After all, who truly believes, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that the status quo in the Middle East was stable, beneficial and worth defending? How could it have been prudent to preserve the state of affairs in a region that was incubating and exporting terrorism; where the proliferation of deadly weapons was getting worse, not better; where authoritarian regimes were projecting their failures onto innocent nations and peoples; where Lebanon suffered under the boot heel of Syrian occupation; where a corrupt Palestinian Authority cared more for its own preservation than for its people's aspirations; and where a tyrant such as Saddam Hussein was free to slaughter his citizens, destabilize his neighbors and undermine the hope of peace between Israelis and Palestinians? It is sheer fantasy to assume that the Middle East was just peachy before America disrupted its alleged stability.
Had we believed this, and had we done nothing, consider all that we would have missed in just the past year: A Lebanon that is free of foreign occupation and advancing democratic reform. A Palestinian Authority run by an elected leader who openly calls for peace with Israel. An Egypt that has amended its constitution to hold multiparty elections. A Kuwait where women are now full citizens. And, of course, an Iraq that in the face of a horrific insurgency has held historic elections, drafted and ratified a new national charter, and will go to the polls again in coming days to elect a new constitutional government.
At this time last year, such unprecedented progress seemed impossible. One day it will all seem to have been inevitable. This is the nature of extraordinary times, which Acheson understood well and described perfectly in his memoirs. "The significance of events," he wrote, "was shrouded in ambiguity. We groped after interpretations of them, sometimes reversed lines of action based on earlier views, and hesitated long before grasping what now seems obvious." When Acheson left office in 1953, he could not know the fate of the policies he helped to create. He certainly could never have predicted that nearly four decades later, war between Europe's major powers would be unthinkable, or that America and the world would be harvesting the fruits of his good decisions and managing the collapse of communism. But because leaders such as Acheson steered American statecraft with our principles when precedents for action were lacking, because they dealt with their world as it was but never believed they were powerless to change it for the better, the promise of democratic peace is now a reality in all of Europe and in much of Asia.
When I walk past Acheson's portrait upon departing my office for the last time, no one will be able to know the full scope of what our statecraft has achieved. But I have an abiding confidence that we will have laid a firm foundation of principle -- a foundation on which future generations will realize our nation's vision of a fully free, democratic and peaceful world.