The Advance of Freedom: US Foreign Policy and Democratic Revolution

Article excerpt

Forty-odd years ago I was providentially required to read R.R. Palmer's classic work, The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Palmer argued that the Western world in the last quarter of the 18th century was characterized by a revolutionary democratic impulse, and that, while the outcomes were very different--the American Revolution succeeded and endured, while the French Revolution, among many others, was rolled back and the monarchy restored--democratic revolution was the dominant theme of the period.

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Twenty years later, working in the administration of US President Ronald Reagan, I was delighted to see that the last quarter of the 20th century was dominated by the same impulse, on virtually every continent. And, just as in the 18th century, most democratic revolutions were inspired by the American model. Few have acknowledged the dimensions of this revolutionary transformation, just as few realize the vastness of the democratic revolution in the 18th century. When Reagan came to office, for example, there were only two elected governments in South America (Venezuela and Colombia), but by the time he left, merely eight years later, there were only two unelected governments from the Gulf of Mexico to the South Pole: Cuba and Suriname. At the same time, or shortly thereafter, the Soviet Empire collapsed, and democracy established new strongholds all over the world, even in sub-Saharan Africa.

This was all the more remarkable because, with very rare exceptions, the transition from dictatorship to democracy was accomplished peacefully. And while we are now used to such peaceful transformations, at the time, most people believed tyrannies could not be overthrown without considerable violence. After all, the most conspicuous modern examples of dictatorships-to-democracies were Japan and Germany, wherein dictatorships were destroyed in the Second World War and democracies were imposed by military occupation. That model was broken by post-Franco Spain, which inspired Latin America first and then Central and Eastern Europe.

The second democratic revolution that started about thirty years ago continues. At the time of this writing, a democratic revolution is well advanced in the Ukraine and festering throughout the Middle East, where pro-democracy demonstrators were recently beaten and arrested in Saudi Arabia. Advancement of democracy remains the core of the mission of the United States and thus the central ongoing problem of US foreign policy. Alexis de Tocqueville famously predicted that the destiny of the world would be determined by the inevitable conflict between the United States and Russia, because each embodied a fundamental political principle: the United States the principle of equality, Russia the principle of tyranny. As Tocqueville recognized, the United States can no more avoid the enmity of tyrants than it can abandon its national quest to perfect the search for liberty and happiness. The tyrants must attack, because the United States' very existence threatens the tyrants' legitimacy and thus their power.

Freedom and the War on Terrorism

The United States is now engaged in a global war on terrorism, at the moment concentrated in the Middle East. This is not a clash of two cultures or civilizations that are fundamentally and irreconcilably at odds with each other. Those who make this claim believe we are at war with Islamic fundamentalists, but we are not. Of the four "terror masters" that long provided invaluable support and safe haven to the terrorists--Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia--two (Iran and Saudi Arabia) are indeed fanatical theocracies. But the other two (Baathist Iraq and Syria) were and are secular socialist regimes. That is why so many Western diplomats promoted good relations with Saddam Hussein and the Assad family in Damascus. Western leaders viewed the Syrian and Iraqi dictators as kindred spirits, refreshingly pragmatic Arab leaders with whom business could be conducted. …