The cause of freedom throughout the world depends utterly on American power. This has been the case since Hitler’s Germany overwhelmed democratic France in 1940. For nearly 70 years, the fortunes of peoples who craved more choices, who wished to elect and un-elect their rulers, who glimpsed a personal dignity derived from no other person, rose and fell with the fortunes of the United States.
Not that we supported freedom everywhere and at all times. We were never that strong. Often we joined forces with disgusting regimes – notably, we allied ourselves with murderous Russian totalitarians to defeat even more murderous German ones. Other examples can easily be found.
But on the whole, across the span of those 70 years, the world became freer in those moments when American strength was greatest. The high tides of democracy occurred in the aftermath of World War II and in the Eighties and Nineties, after we, together with our allies, brought down the two citadels of totalitarianism, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Shortly after this blog was born, then-President Bush announced an extraordinarily ambitious freedom policy. He proclaimed an end to the conflict between prudent self-interest and our Jeffersonian ideals: these opposites, he believed, were in truth identical.
At the time, I doubted that idealism could be so easily reconciled with strategic success, but for a season events made this seem possible. That was the moment of the Arab spring, which saw democratic movements arise, like wildflowers over a desert of despotism, in Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
I don’t know that we can render a fair account of the freedom policy, so close in time to the departure of its controversial promoter. A number of countries became more democratic because of US power and support: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Ukraine, Georgia. Several Latin American nations, however, lapsed back into autocratic rule; even at its high-water mark, the freedom policy suffered from attention disorder.
In any event, President Bush never reconciled the opposites. When, in places like Egypt, our American ideology collided with American security, he embraced the latter and left freedom to wait for another day. Not surprisingly, to a watching world, this behavior smacked of hypocrisy.
The worst was a loss of confidence at the end of the term – a weariness and a crisis of nerves, no doubt spawned by near-universal criticism, that undermined the faith in the consequences of American power. In places like Darfur and Iran, President Bush allowed feebler, less freedom-minded forces to take a leading role. This heartened despots, encouraged would-be despots, and solved nothing.
President Obama marched into Washington determined to regain the respect and admiration of the world. He sought to achieve this – as presidents do – by heading in the opposite direction from his predecessor. Instead of shouting a freedom policy from on high, he bowed respectfully to the multiplicity of cultural and political arrangements in our checkerboard world. Instead of brute power, he hoped to apply persuasion. In Cairo, Egypt, he asked for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.”
I return to my initial proposition – that freedom around the world depends on American power – and I confess to strong misgivings when watching the President assume a bowing or pleading posture before foreign audiences. It may well be a successful rhetorical device, which will move those governments and peoples offended by former President Bush to give the American message a fair hearing. If this is the case, the President’s approach will need no justification.
But I worry that it is a symptom, in the new administration, of the same lack of confidence, the same loss of faith in our policies and power, that I sensed so palpably in the last years of the old. I worry, too, that regardless of the rhetorical intent, that is the message conveyed to the world’s despots – people who fear us and wish our country ill.
During the Cuban missile crisis, the world almost self-destructed because the Soviet autocrat misread President Kennedy’s inexperience as weakness. In the Seventies, populations from Afghanistan to Nicaragua fell under totalitarian tyrannies, after President Carter proclaimed himself free of an “inordinate fear of communism.” Today, there are rough beasts being born again, which will hide in the dark so long as we are strong, but will gain courage and conviction the moment we lose our moral bearings.
Every inch of ground we yield will be a loss to freedom, and a conquest for those who personify brutality, intolerance, and a monstrous appetite for self-glorification. The burden of 70 years can’t be shed without terrible consequences – for the world and for us – no matter how weary, or respectful, those who bear it may be.
UPDATE: The President’s trip seems to have inspired the same misgivings in others. Here’s one example.