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Taking Back Freedom

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In her speech before an audience of French scholars and policymakers at Sciences Po in Paris, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did it again: she offered bold, even inspiring vision of the United States spearheading the spread of democracy worldwide. Starting with his Inaugural, and continuing through his State of the Union speech, President George Bush is styling America as a champion of global freedom. And this rhetoric sounds especially lofty compared to that of progressive critics, who once talked of spreading liberty around the world. From their misplaced doom-saying about Iraq's elections to their focus on the persistent problems in the emerging Afghan and Iraqi democracies to their talk of planning for withdrawal, progressives are starting to sound like conservatives of a bygone era – pessimistic about sowing democracy and chary of expending American power for an elusive goal.

The progressives' confusion can be explained in part by a startling role-reversal. The Bush administration has adopted traditional progressive principles and policies, such as fostering liberal democracy and nation-building abroad, and put its own imprint on them – to the point where progressives have virtually abandoned concepts that they developed and used to own. The concept of spreading liberty did not feature in the progressive punditry's criticism of the State of the Union.

Throughout most of the last century, liberals could claim to be the great proponents of freedom. The guiding ethos of progressive foreign policy in the twentieth century was liberal internationalism. That doctrine centered on assertive promotion of political freedom, human rights and economic development and on the need for institutions to advance these goals. This vision helped Franklin Roosevelt vanquish the Nazis and, after World War II, fueled the creation of a global free trade system, the convening of the U.N. and NATO, and the reconstruction of Germany and Japan. President John F. Kennedy later assumed the mantle, standing up for a free Berlin and creating the Peace Corps and the Agency for International Development.

But with Vietnam, liberal internationalism faltered. After that failed war, liberals became wary of internationalism and adventures abroad. Even Bill Clinton could not restore the old liberal internationalist consensus, and the left remained divided over the wisdom of "humanitarian" intervention and over which far-flung conflicts warranted U.S. casualties.

George W. Bush at first seemed an unlikely candidate to revive the doctrine. He rebuffed liberal internationalist precepts, sneering at nation-building and pledging to narrow the U.S.'s international commitments. After September 11, however, the Bush administration did an about-face, wrapping its projection of American power in what sounded like liberal internationalist rhetoric= The White House's 2002 National Security Strategy pledged to fight terrorism but also to "actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets and free trade to every corner of the world." Bush's State of the Union included a classic liberal internationalist formulation: the idea that spreading democracy will help avert war and ensure peace.

Shouldn't the left cheer the administration's embrace of liberal principles? Alas, no. For one thing, Bush has matched his rhetoric with action highly selectively – leaving freedom-lovers in places like Zimbabwe, Russia, and Saudi Arabia out of luck – and raised serious doubts about his sincerity. In the eyes of the world, the United States' talk of spreading freedom comes, increasingly, branded with stamps of unilateralism, self-righteousness, and denial of error. A superpower that is not perceived as liberal will not be trusted as a purveyor of liberalism. Even a triumph like the vote in Iraq is not enough to convince the world that the administration is using liberal rhetoric as principle rather than as a euphemism for neo-imperialism.

The result is a double blow for progressives. On the one hand, they find themselves alienated from proud ideals. Even more troubling, rather than lying dormant, those ideals are being redefined in ways that may make them impossible to later reclaim.

How can progressives counter the capture and corruption of what have historically been their values? Most are at a loss. To talk of the spread of freedom feels like an endorsement of what this administration has done.

But if progressives want to regain credibility on foreign policy, they will have to proffer an alternative vision, of which the expansion of liberty and democracy should be a prominent part. Rather than ceding the concept to the Bush administration, progressives need to advance an up-to-date liberal internationalist agenda of their own that is as bold as the president's, but more effective.

A revamped liberal internationalism should make the promotion of sustainable liberal democracies a foremost American goal – albeit one achieved more lastingly, and with less collateral damage, when not done at the barrel of a gun. Sowing democracy requires more than toppling tyrants and holding elections. Bosnia and Kosovo are free from the oppression of Slobodan Milosevic, but neither has made significant progress to self-sustaining democracy under this administration's watch. Expanded efforts must address democracies at every stage of development, including established democracies that have become vulnerable to illiberal elements or to income inequalities that threaten their survival.

The U.S. must be willing to commit resources to the unglamorous work of civic education and promotion of the rule of law even once the television cameras are long gone. It must recognize the inextricable link between democracy and broad-based social welfare and economic opportunity, offering countries generous help to address this broader equation. It must avoid any confusion between the spread of democracy and U.S. imperial ambitions, working in even-handed partnerships with other countries except where it's genuinely impossible to do so. And finally, it must broaden and institutionalize the apparatus for spreading democracy, human rights and the rule of law, treating these not as one-off, U.S.-led projects, but as key elements of the global security architecture.

The practical elements of such a program are not hard to envision. The Bush administration has done virtually nothing to remedy the glaring gaps in skills and preparedness confronted in post-war Iraq. Republicans and Democrats could push for the creation of a standing U.S. Stabilization Corps with the full range of skills needed to bring post-conflict missions up to the standards of conventional military interventions. The State Department's diplomatic corps should be the frontline of efforts to fortify vulnerable democracies worldwide, and resources should reflect the fact that this top U.S. policy priority is not best handled by the military. While conservatives have proposed to veto a Peacebuilding Commission that was recommended for the U.N., progressives should champion this cause, ensuring professionalism and adequate resources for the new body.

If progressives do not move quickly to reclaim their liberal internationalist legacy, Americans using the words freedom and democracy risk being misunderstood and mistrusted for years to come. Progressives should reclaim what is rightfully theirs, and revive liberal internationalism as a doctrine capable of guiding the world now as it was sixty years ago.

Suzanne Nossel is a former Deputy to the Ambassador for UN Management and Reform at the US Mission to the UN who writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

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