The Liberty Doctrine: Reclaiming the Purpose of American Power

By McFaul, Michael | Policy Review, April 2002 | Go to article overview

The Liberty Doctrine: Reclaiming the Purpose of American Power


McFaul, Michael, Policy Review


THE IMMEDIATE RESPONSE of President Bush and his administration to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States was superb, both purposeful and principled -- a military, political, and diplomatic success. But what comes next? In his State of the Union address, Bush suggested specific targets of future phases of the war -- the "axis of evil" of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. But what has been missing in the discussion of the second stage (and perhaps the third, fourth, and fifth stages) of the war on terrorism is an articulation of the general principles that will guide policy in difficult times ahead. The new threat to American national security and the American way of life is no less threatening than such earlier challenges as the defeat of fascism in Europe and imperialism in Japan during World War II, or the containment and ultimate destruction of world communism during the Cold War. A grand vision of the purposes of American power is needed not only to shape strategy, but also to susta in support from the American people and America's allies.

During the twentieth century, the central purpose of American power was to defend against and when possible to destroy tyranny. American presidents have been at their best when they have embraced the mission of defending liberty at home and spreading liberty abroad. This was the task during World War II, and it was again our objective (or should have been the mission) during the Cold War. It must be our mission again. In fact, the war on terrorism is a new variation of the old war against the anti-democratic "isms" of the previous century.

Adherence to a liberty doctrine as a guide to American foreign policy means pushing to the top of the agenda the promotion of individual freedoms abroad. The expansion of individual liberty in economic and political affairs in turn stimulates the development and consolidation of democratic regimes. To promote liberty requires first the containment and then the elimination, of those forces opposed to liberty, be they individuals, movements, or regimes. Next comes the construction of pro-liberty forces, be they democrats, democratic movements, or democratic institutions. Finally comes the establishment of governments that value and protect the liberty of their own people as the United States does. Obviously, the United States does not have the means to deliver liberty to all subjugated people around the world at the same time. And the spread of liberty and democracy will not always be simultaneous. In some places, the promotion of the individual freedoms must come first, democratization second. Nonetheless, the spread of liberty should be the lofty and broad goal that organizes American foreign policy for the coming decades.

By defining the purposes of American power in these terms, American foreign policymakers achieve several objectives not attainable by narrower or less normative doctrines. First, the liberty doctrine, like containment during the Cold War, is useful in clarifying the relationship between often very different policies. Toppling Saddam Hussein does in fact have something in common with providing education to Afghan women, and a liberty doctrine allows us to see it clearly. Second, the liberty doctrine properly defines our new struggle in terms of ideas, individuals, and regimes -- not in terms of states. Allies of liberty exist everywhere, most certainly in Iran and even in Iraq. Likewise, not all the enemies of liberty are states; they also include non-governmental organizations like al Qaeda. Third, the liberty doctrine provides a cause that others -- allies of the United States as well as states, movements, and individuals not necessarily supportive of all U.S. strategic interests -- can support. For example, the Iraqi regime constitutes an immediate threat to American national security but does not pose the same threat to France or Russia. …

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