As a rule, differences among inaugural addresses are like genetic differences among mammals: small but telling. We share 99-point-something percent of our genes with chimps. Nevertheless, the differences between us and our furry relatives are, in most cases, rather large. President Bush’s address was 99 percent inaugural boilerplate. Yea to democracy, boo to tyranny. A strong economy. Freedom. Unity. Purpose. Who can argue with all that? But it was in the president’s modulation of those fine sentiments that we see his difference from his recent predecessor. The key passage came near the beginning of his address:
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. . . . 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.
By linking America’s security with the progress of democracy the world over, the president made a bold, some would say Wilsonian, gesture.
I do not know whether the president is right. Is it true that “liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands”? If so, it is a sobering thought, for it is not at all clear that liberty in other lands is a rising market.
In some ways, the president’s speech reminded me of Francis “end-of-history” Fukuyama. You remember his thesis: liberal democracy was bustin’ out all over. Hegel was right: freedom was near the end of its necessary march through the world. The greatest problem facing future generations would not be tyranny but boredom.
Well, like all good Hegelians Fukuyama is immune to contrary evidence: Somehow, the dialectic always saves him from contradiction, or at least from contrition.
The president is not quite a follower of Fukuyama, however, because he understands that the idea of historical inevitability is Hegelian hogwash. (“We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events.” Quite right.) But he does seem to share the optimistic vision that freedom is set to burst out nearly everywhere, given a chance.
The president scoffed at the idea that “jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.” He is right about that, of course. But does that license our confidence in the “eventual triumph of freedom”? Does the fact that Mohammed would prefer not to moulder in an Iraqi jail mean that Iraq is poised to become a democratic state?
The philosopher David Stove began a comment on Fukuyama’s thesis about the end of history with two questions:
Is the world about to surrender for good to liberalism and the free market? Will there soon be no more Colonel Qaddafis, only Colonel Sanders everywhere and forever?
Stove’s answer was No, and for reasons he gave two “proofs”:
My short proof is that, if it were so then Woodrow Wilson (even if his timing was a little wrong) would have been right; but this is impossible, ergo, etc.
The long proof, in a nutshell, is that the mixture which Fukuyama expects to freeze history forever–a combination of Enlightenment values with the free market–is actually one of the most explosive mixtures known to man. Fukuyama thinks that nothing will ever happen again because a mixture like that of petrol, air, and lighted matches is widespread, and spreading wider. Well, Woodrow Wilson thought the same; but it is an odd world view, to say the least.
I do not know whether the president is right that freedom at home requires the cultivation of freedom elsewhere, everywhere. It is an idea that leans heavily on faith in the goodness and reasonableness of the human heart. It is also an idea that commits the United States to an extraordinarily ambitious foreign policy.
Among famous literary optimists, Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide has an honored place. I do not know that his fate is reassuring to the cause of optimism. There are several reasons for this, the most salient, perhaps, was touched upon by Dostoyevsky in Notes from the Underground:
Oh, tell me, who first declared, who first proclaimed that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own real interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else. . . . Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!
I applaud the president’s stalwart war on terrorism. That, I believe, is a difficult but winnable conflict. The idea that America’s freedom and security depend upon the replacement of tyranny with liberty the world over strikes me as a campaign against evil itself. That conflict, alas, is likely to be less easily won.