A decade ago, as the initial campaign of “shock and awe” in Iraq drew to a close and Afghanistan prepared for its first post-invasion elections, President George W. Bush used a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy to lay out a radical new American foreign policy. He announced that “the United States has adopted…a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” and that “the advance of freedom…is the calling of our country.”
After the speech, support for what Bush called “the global wave of democracy” was now national policy, even in parts of the world where America had long supported dictators in the interests of Cold War strategic advantage or regional political stability. But after featuring in a few more years of speeches, this so-called “freedom agenda” faded from view, remaining in the American political consciousness only as a target of derision, as its most prominent manifestations – the “nation-building” projects in Afghanistan and Iraq – were condemned domestically and internationally as imperialist, misguided or simply as failures.
But we’ve never quite walked it back (though Bush himself stopped trumpeting it when the Palestinian election he held up as the best hope for peace ended up bringing Hamas to power in Gaza). Indeed, the freedom agenda is now taken for granted by most observers of American foreign policy, and it’s hard to imagine it any other way: Whenever and wherever a political dispute pits democracy against its opponents, the United States stands with the democrats.
George Bush’s world was close enough to the Cold War that he could import from it a prepackaged conception of freedom, that which once separated the “free world” from the Soviet bloc. It seemed reasonable at the time to enumerate those differences, as Bush did in his speech, and call it a day: limited state and military authority, independent judiciary and rule of law, religious freedom and freedom of press and assembly and – of course – a capitalist economy, all within a framework of electoral democracy.
But with Cold War blinders mostly lifted, it has become clear that the distinctions Bush drew weren’t subtle enough.
Instead, it’s obvious from events of the past three years that these incomplete conceptions of freedom and democracy simply don’t get us very far when it comes to choosing a side in all but the most clear-cut of political disputes.
So we vacillated for weeks in January and February 2011 over whether to call for Hosni Mubarak to step down. Mubarak himself was unlikely to run for president again (though his son probably would) and Egypt’s multiparty politics, if not fully open, were more than just a façade – but the protesters, after all, were chanting for democracy and calling for just the freedoms we wanted to promote.
We quickly accepted the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 presidential elections, but were never quite sure what to make of the widespread view, now held by most Egyptians, that the freely and fairly elected President Morsi had betrayed democracy and deserved to be ousted a year later by the military, acting at the behest of nationwide street protests.
Thus we are left to plead the case of the small minority of Egyptians who oppose both the Muslim Brotherhood and the coup that ousted its president.
We stand tentatively with Ukrainian protesters, some of whom are extreme nationalists, even anti-Semites; if President Viktor Yanukovych were to change his mind and accept a Western rather than Russian bailout we would likely stand with him instead – after all, he, too, was democratically elected.
In Thailand we support the government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, rather than a pro-Western and pro-business protest movement (led by former Democrat Party politician Suthep Thaugsuban) that argues that PM Yingluck has betrayed democracy.
I strongly support all three of these stances. I think that in each case our country’s foreign policy apparatus has come to the right decision based on a deep understanding of political and historical context and an unarticulated but real sense of American values that follows through where Bush left off.
But it is absolutely vital that our government find a way to articulate that sense, because the right foreign policy will never be enough if its motivations are opaque. While the transparency of the original freedom agenda was overshadowed by a flawed and incomplete policy, it has still transformed the world: If all goes well, this spring may see the first peaceful and democratic transfers of power in both Afghanistan and Iraq. A foreign policy of values over interests is here to stay. We lack only a leadership that will stand up to articulate, clarify and defend it.
Contact James Bradbury at email@example.com.