Thursday, at the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush delivered perhaps the most significant speech on U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In a great bit of irony, a man who is lambasted by his critics for being an archconservative laid out a foreign-policy vision that was nothing shy of revolutionary. But for the administration’s truly conservative critics–those who think radical revisions of the status quo to be extremely dangerous and therefore imprudent–one serious question remains with no easy answer in sight. At what point does maintaining a political status quo become so treacherous that revolution becomes the only prudent course of action? Bush believes now is such a time, and his decision, whether right or wrong, will have repercussions beyond the scope of present imagination.
Like all radical assaults on the status quo, the Bush Revolution has two components: one destructive, the other creative. Much ink has already been spilled on the first. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, the White House began a concerted campaign to beat the remaining Cold War bats out of present thinking about international politics. The idea of preemptive strikes and preventive wars was advanced to challenge deterrence as the main tool of counter proliferation. NATO, the United Nations, and other forms of Cold War-security architecture were sounded out–summoned to prove their relevance in the nasty post-Cold War world. Most importantly, Bush demanded that the internal nature of regimes now mattered as much or more than their external behavior. These were massive blows designed to topple the old order of foreign-policy thinking.
It was not exactly clear at that time, however, what new ideas and power would fill the vacuum left by a destroyed old order. Bush silenced that doubt Thursday, offering the clearest articulation of his Revolution’s creative component:
[T]he United States has adopted a new policy: a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before and it will yield the same results. . . . The advance of freedom is the calling of our time. It is the calling of our country.
Proclaiming “it would be reckless to accept the status quo” at present, Bush described it as America’s historic, almost divine calling to support and catalyze the “global democratic revolution.”
American power in the service of principles that Bush insisted were universal would slowly forge a dynamic new status quo across the world–in particular, the Middle East. These universal principles were described in the administration’s September 2002 National Security Strategy as “the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity.” These demands were restated more specifically Thursday as the rights inherent in the nature of man–life, liberty, and protection of property–that an unarbitrary rule of law, legitimized by the consent of the governed, must guarantee everywhere. Be they 18th-century Bostonians or 21st-century Arab Muslims, all people, it is alleged, naturally long for the same transcultural, transhistorical principles. “It is not the path to utopia,” Bush said Thursday. “But it’s the only path to national success and dignity.”
This is clearly revolutionary thinking, and those of a truly conservative temperament are justified in their anxiety. The administration’s conservative critics are not morally deficient or soft on their own principles; it simply means that they adopt the tragic view of politics and human effort that is well-substantiated by history. They conceive of man in particular terms, not in universal ones. Thinking universally, emphasizing human commonalities rather than divisive realities, is better left to saints and philosophers who keep their noses out of politics. When such people have historically made it their mission to universalize politics, the result has usually been something akin to the Reign of Terror.
Though this criticism is certainly just, one senses it might lack a certain dimension in this current debate. After all, the same criticisms were heaped upon Ronald Reagan when he agitated relentlessly for freedom within the Soviet Union and its satellite states. This fact was not lost on President Bush, who rhetorically linked himself to Reagan’s legacy of support for the global democratic revolution.
In June of 1982, President Ronald Reagan spoke at Westminster Palace and declared the turning point had arrived in history….President Reagan said that the day of Soviet tyranny was passing, that freedom had a momentum that would not be halted…Some observers on both sides of the Atlantic pronounced the speech simplistic and naive and even dangerous. In fact, Ronald Reagan’s words were courageous and optimistic and entirely correct.
Again, Reagan’s critics were certainly not immoderate, but the president’s faith in the universal appeal of freedom achieved results none of them thought possible at the time. In retrospect, his bold actions appear entirely prudent.
Furthermore, it is by no means a hard-and-fast rule that all revolutions and the social upheaval they engender are wicked and thus to be summarily avoided. The British political theorist Edmund Burke recognized this when he praised the American colonists’ revolt but excoriated the French when they attempted to cast off their nation’s historical, moral, and religious heritage in order to constitute a political thought experiment founded on abstract reason. There is indeed such a phenomenon as the prudent revolution, but to be so, it must strike a difficult balance between the universal aspirations of the human soul and the corporeal constraints of particular peoples’ ways of life. In other words, a prudent revolution must balance the caution derived from an historical sense of tragedy with the boldness derived from a philosophic sense of optimism.
The Bush White House is certainly confident that it is on “the right side of history,” as they used to say, and much of this confidence seems to spring from the example of Reagan’s revolution. But leadership and bold political undertakings also depend very much on their time. Ronald Reagan would never have been able to achieve what he did several years prior to his assuming office. In the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, Congress and the American people would never have sanctioned Reagan’s massive defense buildup, his forward-leaning defense of freedom or his self-assured revolutionary rhetoric. It is thus far from certain that his example can be followed in our time to achieve the same results. Doing so could produce a birth of freedom in a region that has historically never known it, or it could just as easily multiply the present danger to America’s way of life.
Much of President Bush’s speech was devoted to describing the steady progress of the global democratic revolution and America’s role in sustaining. To hear him tell it, it was as if a mighty wave were washing tyranny clean from the earth, and it would not stop at the borders of China, North Korea, or the Middle East. To be sure, this wave of democratization was not an abstract force of history: it required human effort to sustain it. Bush seemed to have in his mind preempting those conservative critics who argue he is promoting a faith-based foreign policy, not one anchored in the real world where life is nasty, brutish, and short.
The fact is that both Bush and his critics have it partially right. An intense longing for liberty does appear to be a transcultural, transhistorical feature of the human soul. That longing, however, is always expressed in a particular form, and there is thus no telling what people will do with their freedom once they have acquired it. Some may build stable governments that seek justice and practice tolerance; others may heed the callings of pride or the perverse commandments of religious murderers who desire revenge and honor more than peace and stability.
Promoting democracy is undoubtedly an important element of America’s character and long-term national interests. But it is certainly no guarantee that the countries the United States helps deliver from despotism will freely support those national interests. Remember, it was democratic Turkey that refused to grant the United States access to a northern front in Iraq. As Robert Kaplan wrote recently, “If realism is to be truly realistic, it must acknowledge human beings’ romantic and heroic impulses, in all their healthy and perverse forms.” This is not merely advice for temperamental conservatives; it should also serve as a note of caution for the Bush revolutionaries.
–Christian D. Brose is assistant editor of The National Interest.