Tuesday, June 28, 2005

America and the Spread of Freedom

Lots of talk about this Michael Ignatieff piece in the New York Times. It's a longish article on the promise of Jeffersonian democracy, both realized and yearned for, and whether it's a chimera or the world's birthright. Ignatieff both pinpoints the problem and suffers from it at the same time (then again, maybe it's the defining political puzzle of our age); both the author and most of Europe's leaders seem to have a problem differentiating between imperialism and - well, what? What is spreading democracy?

Whatever it is, it is not imperialism; imperialism, by definition, cannot involve the export of freedom. Throwing off one tyranny and replacing it with another is not what our foreign policy is about. The cynics don't understand that Bush's premise is quite simple: a free Middle East is the only way to ensure the prosperity and stability that will make state-sponsored terror, or the harboring of independent terrorists (if there's really a tangible difference), an unacceptable risk.

The following passage is quite telling:
The fact that many foreigners do not happen to buy into the American version of promoting democracy may not be much of a surprise. What is significant is how many American liberals don't share the vision, either. On this issue, there has been a huge reversal of roles in American politics. Once upon a time, liberal Democrats were the custodians of the Jeffersonian message that American democracy should be exported to the world, and conservative Republicans were its realist opponents.
Indeed, things have flipped; if neoconservatism has a meaning anymore, it is best defined as the belief that the best foreign policy for America's security is the export of democratic ideals and institutions.

What changed? Again, Ignatieff:

It was Reagan who began the realignment of American politics, making the Republicans into internationalist Jeffersonians with his speech in London at the Palace of Westminster in 1982, which led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy and the emergence of democracy promotion as a central goal of United States foreign policy. At the time, many conservative realists argued for detente, risk avoidance and placation of the Soviet bear. Faced with the Republican embrace of Jeffersonian ambitions for America abroad, liberals chose retreat or scorn. Bill Clinton -- who took reluctant risks to defend freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo -- partly arrested this retreat, yet since his administration, the withdrawal of American liberalism from the defense and promotion of freedom overseas has been startling. The Michael Moore-style left conquered the Democratic Party's heart; now the view was that America's only guiding interest overseas was furthering the interests of Halliburton and Exxon. The relentless emphasis on the hidden role of oil makes the promotion of democracy seem like a devious cover or lame excuse. The unseen cost of this pseudo-Marxist realism is that it disconnected the Democratic Party from the patriotic idealism of the very electorate it sought to persuade.

John Kerry's presidential campaign could not overcome liberal America's fatal incapacity to connect to the common faith of the American electorate in the Jeffersonian ideal. Instead he ran as the prudent, risk-avoiding realist in 2004 -- despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he had fought in Vietnam. Kerry's caution was bred in the Mekong. The danger and death he encountered gave him some good reasons to prefer realism to idealism, and risk avoidance to hubris. Faced with a rival who proclaimed that freedom was not just America's gift to mankind but God's gift to the world, it was understandable that Kerry would seek to emphasize how complex reality was, how resistant to American purposes it might be and how high the price of American dreams could prove. As it turned out, the American electorate seemed to know only too well how high the price was in Iraq, and it still chose the gambler over the realist. In 2004, the Jefferson dream won decisively over American prudence.

But this is more than just a difference between risk taking and prudence. It is also a disagreement about whether American values properly deserve to be called universal at all. The contemporary liberal attitude toward the promotion of democratic freedom -- we like what we have, but we have no right to promote it to others -- sounds to many conservative Americans like complacent and timorous relativism, timorous because it won't lift a finger to help those who want an escape from tyranny, relativist because it seems to have abandoned the idea that all people do want to be free. Judging from the results of the election in 2004, a majority of Americans do not want to be told that Jefferson was wrong.
Ignatieff has this part right; the missionary for democracy is a crucial element of the American self-definition. Concluding with Ignatieff, once more:
A relativist America is properly inconceivable. Leave relativism, complexity and realism to other nations. America is the last nation left whose citizens don't laugh out loud when their leader asks God to bless the country and further its mighty work of freedom. It is the last country with a mission, a mandate and a dream, as old as its founders.

All of this may be dangerous, even delusional, but it is also unavoidable. It is impossible to think of America without these properties of self-belief.

Just so; this is what we mean when we speak of American exceptionalism: it is the premise that that the nation was, yes, ordained for the mission of spreading liberty, whether the ordaining presence was Providence, the Judeo-Christian God, or just fundamental human nature.

More on this topic from Wretchard of the Belmont Club (hat tip to Roger L. Simon)...

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