The future of freedom

In his second inaugural speech, President Bush embraced a remarkable new policy for the US government:

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. [. . .]

Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

At the time, I thought the words wildly ambitious and overly optimistic.  Tyranny, like poverty, is rooted in the human condition:  we must stuggle against it, but in the near certainty that it will always remain with us.  From a practical perspective, the amount of money and lives needed to liberate the world were far beyond any country’s capacity, no matter how wealthy or brave.

But for a shining moment in 2005, the president’s vision seemed to move in harmony with events.  Color revolutions in Georgia and the Ukraine overthrew corrupt regimes and replaced them with more democratic governments.  Afghanistan moved from the horrors of the Taliban to the gentler rule of Hamid Karzai.  The eye-popping spectacle of elections in Iraq ushered in the “Arab spring,” which saw the despots who rule Egypt challenged by a liberal movement calling itself “Enough,” and the occupation of Lebanon by Syria terminated following pressure from the US and France.

It is discouraging to reflect on how much the world has changed since that brief moment of hope.  The governments of Georgia and the Ukraine still cling to power, though mired in internal and external conflicts.  In Afghanistan, Karzai depends on NATO forces to hold off ever more vicious Taliban attacks.  Iraq after the elections went precipitously downhill:  and though it appears we have finally turned the corner there, it was a damned closed-run thing.

Elsewhere in the world, democracy has lost its seductive charm.  In Egypt, the liberal movement was crushed, with many of its leaders now at the tender mercies of the regime’s jailers.  In Lebanon, Hizbollah, the “party of God,” a pawn to Syria and Iran driven by a theocratic ideology, destroyed all forward progress toward democracy in any form, and may well destroy the country itself.  The government of Saudi Arabia spends billions of oil dollars to convert the world to an ideology that differs from that of Hizbollah only in its sectarian identification.

In Asia, the model nation isn’t one of the two great democracies in the region, Japan and India, but rather an imperial tyranny:  China.  The most brutal and despotic regime on earth, that of North Korea, by starving its own people and threatening its neighbors gains aid for now and negotiations for more, rather than the world’s condemnation.  The incentives to other failed tyrants are clear.

In the Americas, Hugo Chavez, whose personal history includes a failed coup attempt,  labors to ruin an oil-rich country but remains a hero to millions.  The Argentines keep electing demagogues from the party of Juan Peron, who did in fact ruin the country — while also electing (following a tradition inaugurated by Peron himself) the demagogues’ wives.  In a smooth transition, Cuba’s ancient totalitarian ruler has handed off power to his slightly less ancient brother.

The purpose of this depressing survey isn’t to place blame or score political points.  Much has been made of a debate between prudent “realists” and interventionist “neoconservatives,” but I believe this is a typical distortion of the media, dividing the world into teams which either win or lose rather than positions which must trade off selectively.  Still, while my focus is on the future of freedom, some light must be shed on its recent wobbles and troubles.

The United States is far and away the most powerful country in the world.  Our interests dictate a freezing of the status quo, to prevent any would-be contenders from usurping  our place.  But the United States is also a nation built on a proposition — a carrier and propagator of a specific ideology:  call it Jeffersonian democracy.  As such we find the world in need of much changing, and our place it in must be revolutionary and destabilizing.

The president framed his policies in terms of American ideological imperatives.  His actions — for example, towards the repulsive regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia — more often sought to preserve stability and promote our influence and interests.  In this he resembled his father, who believed in the “prudent use of power,” more than he is generally credited.

America’s values and interests are never either-or, but balancing them has been a delicate business, requiring some humility and much eloquence.  The president’s revolutionary  rhetoric never found a balance with his prudent actions, while his attempts to explain the big picture were few and unpersuasive.  In consequence, despots and terrorists and all who hate freedom have found it too easy to argue that the call to democracy is but a pretext for US bullying.

But the problem runs deeper, I fear.  A kind of willful forgetfulness has infected the articulate elites when it comes to the traditions and moral requirements of liberal democracy.  This has been true in the US, to some extent:  beyond a vague praise of “freedom,” our ideological proclamations seem empty of ideological content.  We often sound unsure whether we want to foster democratic ideals in those lands that breed terrorism, or simply get the terrorists to stop killing people even if they retain a lusty zeal for totalitarian principles.

In Europe, the forgetfulness has reached catastrophic proportions, a form of political Alzheimer’s that threatens the survival of democracy in the continent.  Historically, and with the possible exception of Britain, the culture of all European countries has been centralizing and authoritarian.  The sovereignty of the people there meant powerful governments rather than empowered citizens.  Far more than Americans, the Europeans are ruled by elites, and after the disasters of two world wars these elites concluded, with some justification, that their voters would choose suicidal nationalism if given a choice.  The solution was to remove many policy choices from the voters:  the founding principle of the European Union.

The EU isn’t a nation or a confederation of nations, but can be considered a strategy to erase the national spirit.  EU regulations have become the higher law to which elites can appeal, without getting their hands dirty by touching the voting public.  The consequences have been pernicious for democracy, and enfeebling for the old proud nations of Europe.

National governments, elected by sovereign peoples, must “harmonize” their policies with those of two dozen other governments.  A class of unelected mandarins has arisen, whose job it is to regulate and harmonize.  They appear to tower over mere scuffling politicians.  In their smug unproductiveness, they closely resemble the aristocrats who were the European ideal of humanity not so long ago.

The EU mandarins love proclamations, conferences, summits, because such things are what they have been trained for and are good at.  Their reality is made up wholly of words, which capture political poses like bugs in amber, and obscure conflict and dissent.  And they have come to mistake talking and writing mush with political legitimacy, and to forget that the only legitimate power resides with the people, for all their uncouth nationalism and self-pride.

Such attitudes lead to a glorification of the UN and “nongovernmental organizations” — not coincidentally, both heavily staffed with former EU mandarins — and a relentless delegitimizing of the actions of national governments.  That the UN teems with sleek representatives of brutal regimes matters not at all, so long as the conferences keep coming and the words sound right.  That NGOs represent a private point of view, prone to believe that the greatest abuses in a world of abusive governments come from America, again makes no difference, so long as they add the gift of passion to dull briefings and reports.

The end result can only be a belief in enlightened despotism.  What the elites proclaim must never be questioned.  The democratic process is tolerated only when it delivers policies which coincide with elite opinion:  otherwise, it is treated with derision and contempt, judged from the perspective of a higher moral law.  Capital punishment, for example, has been rejected by the European elites.  This is a categorical imperative, independent of judicial tradition, public opinion, or popular vote.  On this account, the fact that the US is a democracy doesn’t legitimize executions here:  quite to the contrary, the popular endorsement of executions delegitimizes American democracy.

Global warming provides another example of uncompromising poses by the Euro-elites.  Certain facts, interpretations, and policies are sacrosanct:  to question them is blasphemy.  The Royal Academy of Science, for example, has declared itself in a state of theological certainty on the matter, and called for a shutdown of debate.  In the style of the socialist people’s republics, democracy on this issue means the freedom to agree, while dissenters are considered agents of evil external forces.  Calls to junk the democratic process altogether, and impose elite-approved policies on the nations of the world, have not been lacking.

Democracy is a European invention, an American inheritance.  For 50 years, the Atlantic alliance was the democratic rock against which two mighty totalitarian systems crashed.  That alliance no longer exists, and Americans would be deluded to think it can be resurrected within our lifetimes.

In the past four years, we have muddled through on sheer will power and the courage of our military.  The future will demand greater clarity in understanding our own ideological foundations, and greater eloquence in explaining our actions to ourselves and the world.  We need to refresh ourselves:  a return to first principles, of which the following are only some of the most important.

Democracy means the sovereignty of the people.  That is the sole source of legitimacy for government.  Economic equality, publicly-funded health care, a rehabilitative criminal system — these might be chosen as political goals by the voters, or rejected by them, but they don’t add up to a legitimate claim to power.  The line of accountability between the people and their elected officers must remain clear and visible to both.  Those bodies, like the UN, that escape popular sovereignty, lack legitimacy:  they can be worked with as instruments of policy, but they have no authority to impose mandates on a free people.

The US remains the great protector of democracy.  We are the only power still feared by every tyrant on earth.  We should never doubt this, even when our former allies in Europe vilify and undermine our actions.  We are, as Mark Steyn has written, alone.  That makes our presidential election, and the character of the next president, so important.  He (or she) must strike a balance between our values and our interests, and articulate it often, in both actions and words.  I would prefer a balance that favors our throne-shaking ideology:  but any successful balance will strengthen the country, and so work in democracy’s favor.

Elections are not the sum of democracy.  This point has been made most forcefully by Fareed Zakaria, from whom I took the title of this post.  No less important than elections are political equality, freedom of expression and religion, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary to interpret the law.  The free election of a totalitarian party to power is a defeat for freedom.  While we are under no compulsion to reverse such election results, neither are we bound to recognize those electoral winners, like Hamas in Gaza, who rule by the gun and crush every freedom underfoot.  But this, again, will require a clear understanding and articulation by our policymakers of the first principles of democratic life.

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