Global Policy Forum

Who Are Americans to Think That


By Michael Ignatieff *

New York Times
June 26, 2005

As Thomas Jefferson lay dying at his hilltop estate, Monticello, in late June 1826, he wrote a letter telling the citizens of the city of Washington that he was too ill to join them for the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the Declaration of Independence. Wanting his letter to inspire the gathering, he told them that one day the experiment he and the founders started would spread to the whole world. ''To some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,'' he wrote, the American form of republican self-government would become every nation's birthright. Democracy's worldwide triumph was assured, he went on to say, because ''the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion'' would soon convince all men that they were born not to be ruled but to rule themselves in freedom.

It was the last letter he ever wrote. The slave-owning apostle of liberty, that incomparable genius and moral scandal, died 10 days later on July 4, 1826, on the same day as his old friend and fellow founder, John Adams.

It's impossible to untangle the contradictions of American freedom without thinking about Jefferson and the spiritual abyss that separates his pronouncement that ''all men are created equal'' from the reality of the human beings he owned, slept with and never imagined as fellow citizens. American freedom aspires to be universal, but it has always been exceptional because America is the only modern democratic experiment that began in slavery. From the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it took a century for the promise of American freedom to even begin to be kept.

Despite the exceptional character of American liberty, every American president has proclaimed America's duty to defend it abroad as the universal birthright of mankind. John F. Kennedy echoed Jefferson when, in a speech in 1961, he said that the spread of freedom abroad was powered by ''the force of right and reason''; but, he went on, in a sober and pragmatic vein, ''reason does not always appeal to unreasonable men.'' The contrast between Kennedy and the current incumbent of the White House is striking. Until George W. Bush, no American president -- not even Franklin Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson -- actually risked his presidency on the premise that Jefferson might be right. But this gambler from Texas has bet his place in history on the proposition, as he stated in a speech in March, that decades of American presidents' ''excusing and accommodating tyranny, in the pursuit of stability'' in the Middle East inflamed the hatred of the fanatics who piloted the planes into the twin towers on Sept. 11.

If democracy plants itself in Iraq and spreads throughout the Middle East, Bush will be remembered as a plain-speaking visionary. If Iraq fails, it will be his Vietnam, and nothing else will matter much about his time in office. For any president, it must be daunting to know already that his reputation depends on what Jefferson once called ''so inscrutable [an] arrangement of causes and consequences in this world.''

The consequences are more likely to be positive if the president begins to show some concern about the gap between his words and his administration's performance. For he runs an administration with the least care for consistency between what it says and does of any administration in modern times. The real money committed to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East is trifling. The president may have doubled the National Endowment for Democracy's budget, but it is still only $80 million a year. But even if there were more money, there is such doubt in the Middle East that the president actually means what he says -- in the wake of 60 years of American presidents cozying up to tyrants in the region -- that every dollar spent on democracy in the Middle East runs the risk of undermining the cause it supports. Actual Arab democrats recoil from the embrace of American good intentions. Just ask a community-affairs officer trying to give American dollars away for the promotion of democracy in Mosul, in northern Iraq, how easy it is to get anyone to even take the money, let alone spend it honestly.

And then there are the prisoners, the hooded man with the wires hanging from his body, the universal icon of the gap between the ideals of American freedom and the sordid -- and criminal -- realities of American detention and interrogation practice. The fetid example of these abuses makes American talk of democracy sound hollow. It will not be possible to encourage the rule of law in Egypt if America is sending Hosni Mubarak shackled prisoners to torture. It will be impossible to secure democratic change in Morocco or Afghanistan or anywhere else if Muslims believe that American guards desecrated the Koran. The failure to convict anybody higher than a sergeant for these crimes leaves many Americans and a lot of the world wondering whether Jefferson's vision of America hasn't degenerated into an ideology of self-congratulation, whose function is no longer to inspire but to lie.

And yet . . . and yet. . . .

If Jefferson's vision were only an ideology of self-congratulation, it would never have inspired Americans to do the hard work of reducing the gap between dream and reality. Think about the explosive force of Jefferson's self-evident truth. First white working men, then women, then blacks, then the disabled, then gay Americans -- all have used his words to demand that the withheld promise be delivered to them. Without Jefferson, no Lincoln, no Emancipation Proclamation. Without the slave-owning Jefferson, no Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream of white and black citizens together reaching the Promised Land.

Jefferson's words have had the same explosive force abroad. American men and women in two world wars died believing that they had fought to save the freedom of strangers. And they were not deceived. Bill Clinton saluted the men who died at Omaha Beach with the words, ''They gave us our world.'' That seems literally true: a democratic Germany, an unimaginably prosperous Europe at peace with itself. The men who died at Iwo Jima bequeathed their children a democratic Japan and 60 years of stability throughout Asia.

These achievements have left Americans claiming credit for everything good that has happened since, especially the fact that there are more democracies in the world than at any time in history. Jefferson's vaunting language makes appropriate historical modesty particularly hard, yet modesty is called for. Freedom's global dispersion owes less to America and more to a contagion of local civic courage, beginning with the people of Portugal and Spain who threw off dictatorship in the 1970's, the Eastern Europeans who threw off Communism in the 90's and the Georgians, Serbs, Kyrgyz and Ukrainians who have thrown off post-Soviet autocratic governments since. The direct American role in these revolutions was often slight, but American officials, spies and activists were there, too, giving a benign green light to regime change from the streets.

This democratic turn in American foreign policy has been recent. Latin Americans remember when the American presence meant backing death squads and military juntas. Now in the Middle East and elsewhere, when the crowds wave Lebanese flags in Beirut and clamor for the Syrians to go, when Iraqi housewives proudly hold up their purple fingers on exiting the polling stations, when Afghans quietly line up to vote in their villages, when Egyptians chant ''Enough!'' and demand that Mubarak leave power, few Islamic democrats believe they owe their free voice to America. But many know that they have not been silenced, at least not yet, because the United States actually seems, for the first time, to be betting on them and not on the autocrats.

In the cold war, most presidents opted for stability at the price of liberty when they had to choose. This president, as his second Inaugural Address made clear, has soldered stability and liberty together: ''America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.'' As he has said, ''Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.''

It is terrorism that has joined together the freedom of strangers and the national interest of the United States. But not everyone believes that democracy in the Middle East will actually make America safer, even in the medium term. Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for one, has questioned the ''facile assumption that a straight line exists between progress on democratization and the elimination of the roots of Islamic terrorism.'' In the short term, democratization in Egypt, for example, might only bring the radical Muslim Brotherhood to power. Even in the medium term, becoming a democracy does not immunize a society from terrorism. Just look at democratic Spain, menaced by Basque terrorism.

Moreover, proclaiming freedom to be God's plan for mankind, as the president has done, does not make it so. There is, as yet, no evidence of a sweeping tide of freedom and democracy through the Middle East. Lebanon could pitch from Syrian occupation into civil strife; Egypt might well re-elect Mubarak after a fraudulent exercise in pseudodemocracy; little Jordan hopes nobody will notice that government remains the family monopoly of the Hashemite dynasty; Tunisia remains a good place for tourists but a lousy place for democrats; democratic hopes are most alive in Palestine, but here the bullet is still competing with the ballot box. Over it all hangs Iraq, poised between democratic transition and anarchy.

And yet . . . and yet. . . . More than one world leader has been heard to ask his advisers recently, ''What if Bush is right?''

Other democratic leaders may suspect Bush is right, but that doesn't mean they are joining his crusade. Never have there been more democracies. Never has America been more alone in spreading democracy's promise.

The reticence extends even to those nations that owe their democracy to American force of arms. Freedom in Germany was an American imperial imposition, from the cashiering of ex-Nazi officials and the expunging of anti-Semitic nonsense from school textbooks to the drafting of a new federal constitution. Yet Chancellor Gerhard Schroder can still intone that democracy cannot be ''forced upon these societies from the outside.'' This is not the only oddity. As Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German weekly Die Zeit points out, the '68-ers now in power in Germany all spent their radical youth denouncing American support for tyrannies around the world: ''Across the Atlantic they shouted: Pinochet! Somoza! Mubarak! Shah Pahlevi! King Faisal! Now it seems as though an American president has finally heard their complaints. . . . But what is coming out of Germany? . . . Nothing but deafening silence!''

The deafening silence extends beyond Germany. Like Germany, Canada sat out the war in Iraq. Ask the Canadians why they aren't joining the American crusade to spread democracy, and you get this from their government's recent foreign-policy review: ''Canadians hold their values dear, but are not keen to see them imposed on others. This is not the Canadian way.'' One reason it is not the Canadian way is that when American presidents speak of liberty as God's plan for mankind, even God-fearing Canadians wonder when God began disclosing his plan to presidents.

The same discomfort with the American project extends to the nation that, in the splendid form of the Marquis de Lafayette, once joined the American fight for freedom. The French used to talk about exporting Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité, but nowadays they don't seem to mind standing by and watching Iraqi democrats struggling to keep chaos and anarchy at bay. Even America's best friend, Tony Blair, is circumspect about defining the Iraq project as anything more than managing the chaos. The strategy unit at 10 Downing Street recently conducted a study on how to prevent future international crises: debt relief, overseas aid and humanitarian intervention were all featured, but the promotion of democracy and freedom barely got a mention. European political foundations and overseas development organizations do promote free elections and rule of law, but they bundle up these good works in the parlance of ''governance'' rather than in the language of spreading freedom and democracy. So America presides over a loose alliance of democracies, most of whose leaders think that promoting freedom and democracy is better left to the zealous imperialists in Washington.

The charge that promoting democracy is imperialism by another name is baffling to many Americans. How can it be imperialist to help people throw off the shackles of tyranny?

It may be that other nations just have longer memories of their own failed imperial projects. From Napoleon onward, France sought to export French political virtues, though not freedom itself, to its colonies. The British Empire was sustained by the conceit that the British had a special talent for government that entitled them to spread the rule of law to Kipling's ''lesser breeds.'' In the 20th century, the Soviet Union advanced missionary claims about the superiority of Soviet rule, backed by Marxist pseudoscience.

What is exceptional about the Jefferson dream is that it is the last imperial ideology left standing in the world, the sole survivor of national claims to universal significance. All the others -- the Soviet, the French and the British -- have been consigned to the ash heap of history. This may explain why what so many Americans regard as simply an exercise in good intentions strikes even their allies as a delusive piece of hubris.

The problem here is that while no one wants imperialism to win, no one in his right mind can want liberty to fail either. If the American project of encouraging freedom fails, there may be no one else available with the resourcefulness and energy, even the self-deception, necessary for the task. Very few countries can achieve and maintain freedom without outside help. Big imperial allies are often necessary to the establishment of liberty. As the Harvard ethicist Arthur Applbaum likes to put it, ''All foundings are forced.'' Just remember how much America itself needed the assistance of France to free itself of the British. Who else is available to sponsor liberty in the Middle East but America? Certainly the Europeans themselves have not done a very distinguished job defending freedom close to home.

During the cold war, while most Western Europeans tacitly accepted the division of their continent, American presidents stood up and called for the walls to come tumbling down. When an anonymous graffiti artist in Berlin sprayed the wall with a message -- ''This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality'' -- it was President Reagan, not a European politician, who seized on those words and declared that the wall ''cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.''

This is why much of the European support for Bush in Iraq came from the people who had grown up behind that wall. It wasn't just the promise of bases and money and strategic partnerships that tipped Poles, Romanians, Czechs and Hungarians into sending troops; it was the memory that when the chips were down, in the dying years of Soviet tyranny, American presidents were there, and Western European politicians looked the other way.

It is true that Western Europe has had a democracy-promotion project of its own since the wall came down: bringing the fledgling regimes of Eastern Europe into the brave new world of the European Union. This very real achievement has now been delayed by the ''no'' votes in France and the Netherlands. Sponsoring the promotion of democracy in the East and preparing an Islamic giant, Turkey, for a later entry is precisely what the referendum votes want to stop. So who will be there to prevent Islamic fundamentalism or military authoritarianism breaking through in Turkey now that the Europeans have told the Turks to remain in the waiting room forever? If democracy within requires patrons without, the only patron left is the United States.

While Americans characteristically oversell and exaggerate the world's desire to live as they do, it is actually reasonable to suppose, as Americans believe, that most human beings, if given the chance, would like to rule themselves. It is not imperialistic to believe this. It might even be condescending to believe anything else.

If Europeans are embarrassed to admit this universal yearning or to assist it, Americans have difficulty understanding that there are many different forms that this yearning can take, Islamic democracy among them. Democracy may be a universal value, but democracies differ -- mightily -- on ultimate questions. One reason the American promotion of democracy conjures up so little support from other democrats is that American democracy, once a model to emulate, has become an exception to avoid.

Consider America's neighbor to the north. Canadians look south and ask themselves why access to health care remains a privilege of income in the United States and not a right of citizenship. They like hunting and shooting, but can't understand why anyone would regard a right to bear arms as a constitutional right. They can't understand why the American love of limited government does not extend to a ban on the government's ultimate power -- capital punishment. The Canadian government seems poised to extend full marriage rights to gays.

Some American liberals wistfully wish their own country were more like Canada, while for American conservatives, ''Soviet Canuckistan'' -- as Pat Buchanan calls it -- is the liberal hell they are seeking to avoid. But if American liberals can't persuade their own society to be more like other democracies and American conservatives don't want to, both of them are acknowledging, the first with sorrow, the other with joy, that America is an exception.

This is not how it used to be. From the era of F.D.R. to the era of John Kennedy, liberal and progressive foreigners used to look to America for inspiration. For conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan was a lodestar. The grand boulevards in foreign capitals were once named after these large figures of American legend. For a complex set of reasons, American democracy has ceased to be the inspiration it was. This is partly because of the religious turn in American conservatism, which awakens incomprehension in the largely secular politics of America's democratic allies. It is partly because of the chaos of the contested presidential election in 2000, which left the impression, worldwide, that closure had been achieved at the expense of justice. And partly because of the phenomenal influence of money on American elections.

But the differences between America and its democratic allies run deeper than that. When American policy makers occasionally muse out loud about creating a ''community of democracies'' to become a kind of alternative to the United Nations, they forget that America and its democratic friends continue to disagree about what fundamental rights a democracy should protect and the limits to power government should observe. As Europeans and Canadians head leftward on issues like gay marriage, capital punishment and abortion, and as American politics head rightward, the possibility of America leading in the promotion of a common core of beliefs recedes ever further. Hence the paradox of Jefferson's dream: American liberty as a moral universal seems less and less recognizable to the very democracies once inspired by that dream. In the cold war, America was accepted as the leader of ''the free world.'' The free world -- the West -- has fractured, leaving a fierce and growing argument about democracy in its place.

The fact that many foreigners do not happen to buy into the American version of promoting democracy may not be much of a surprise. What is significant is how many American liberals don't share the vision, either.

On this issue, there has been a huge reversal of roles in American politics. Once upon a time, liberal Democrats were the custodians of the Jeffersonian message that American democracy should be exported to the world, and conservative Republicans were its realist opponents. Beginning in the late 1940's, as the political commentator Peter Beinart has rediscovered, liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Adlai Stevenson realized that liberals would have to reinvent themselves. This was partly a matter of principle -- they detested Soviet tyranny -- and partly a matter of pragmatism. They wanted to avoid being tarred as fellow travelers, the fate that had met Franklin Roosevelt's former running mate, the radical reformer Henry Wallace. The liberals who founded Americans for Democratic Action refounded liberalism as an anti-Communist internationalism, dedicated to defending freedom and democracy abroad from Communist threat. The missionary Jeffersonianism in this reinvention worried many people -- for example, George Kennan, the diplomat and foreign-policy analyst who argued that containment of the Communist menace was all that prudent politics could accomplish.

The leading Republicans of the 1950's -- Robert Taft, for example -- were isolationist realists, doubtful that America should impose its way on the world. Eisenhower, that wise old veteran of European carnage, was in that vein, too: prudent, risk-avoiding, letting the Soviets walk into Hungary because he thought war was simply out of the question, too horrible to contemplate. In the 1960's and 70's, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger remained in the realist mode. Since stability mattered more to them than freedom, they propped up the shah of Iran, despite his odious secret police, and helped to depose Salvador Allende in Chile. Kissinger's guiding star was not Jefferson but Bismarck. Kissinger contended that people who wanted freedom and democracy in Eastern Europe were lamentable sentimentalists, unable to look at the map and accommodate themselves to the eternal reality of Soviet power.

It was Reagan who began the realignment of American politics, making the Republicans into internationalist Jeffersonians with his speech in London at the Palace of Westminster in 1982, which led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy and the emergence of democracy promotion as a central goal of United States foreign policy. At the time, many conservative realists argued for detente, risk avoidance and placation of the Soviet bear. Faced with the Republican embrace of Jeffersonian ambitions for America abroad, liberals chose retreat or scorn. Bill Clinton -- who took reluctant risks to defend freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo -- partly arrested this retreat, yet since his administration, the withdrawal of American liberalism from the defense and promotion of freedom overseas has been startling. The Michael Moore-style left conquered the Democratic Party's heart; now the view was that America's only guiding interest overseas was furthering the interests of Halliburton and Exxon. The relentless emphasis on the hidden role of oil makes the promotion of democracy seem like a devious cover or lame excuse. The unseen cost of this pseudo-Marxist realism is that it disconnected the Democratic Party from the patriotic idealism of the very electorate it sought to persuade.

John Kerry's presidential campaign could not overcome liberal America's fatal incapacity to connect to the common faith of the American electorate in the Jeffersonian ideal. Instead he ran as the prudent, risk-avoiding realist in 2004 -- despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he had fought in Vietnam. Kerry's caution was bred in the Mekong. The danger and death he encountered gave him some good reasons to prefer realism to idealism, and risk avoidance to hubris. Faced with a rival who proclaimed that freedom was not just America's gift to mankind but God's gift to the world, it was understandable that Kerry would seek to emphasize how complex reality was, how resistant to American purposes it might be and how high the price of American dreams could prove. As it turned out, the American electorate seemed to know only too well how high the price was in Iraq, and it still chose the gambler over the realist. In 2004, the Jefferson dream won decisively over American prudence.

But this is more than just a difference between risk taking and prudence. It is also a disagreement about whether American values properly deserve to be called universal at all. The contemporary liberal attitude toward the promotion of democratic freedom -- we like what we have, but we have no right to promote it to others -- sounds to many conservative Americans like complacent and timorous relativism, timorous because it won't lift a finger to help those who want an escape from tyranny, relativist because it seems to have abandoned the idea that all people do want to be free. Judging from the results of the election in 2004, a majority of Americans do not want to be told that Jefferson was wrong.

A relativist America is properly inconceivable. Leave relativism, complexity and realism to other nations. America is the last nation left whose citizens don't laugh out loud when their leader asks God to bless the country and further its mighty work of freedom. It is the last country with a mission, a mandate and a dream, as old as its founders.

All of this may be dangerous, even delusional, but it is also unavoidable. It is impossible to think of America without these properties of self-belief.

Of course, American self-belief is not an eternal quantity. Jefferson airily assumed that democracy would be carried on the wings of enlightenment, reason and science. No one argues that now. Not even Bush. He does speak of liberty as ''the plan of heaven for humanity and the best hope for progress here on Earth,'' but in more sober moments, he will concede that the promotion of freedom is hard work, stretching out for generations and with no certain end in sight.

The activists, experts and bureaucrats who do the work of promoting democracy talk sometimes as if democracy were just a piece of technology, like a water pump, that needs only the right installation to work in foreign climes. Others suggest that the promotion of democracy requires anthropological sensitivity, a deep understanding of the infinitely complex board game of foreign (in this case Iraqi) politics.

But Iraqi freedom also depends on something whose measurement is equally complex: what price, in soldiers' bodies and lives, the American people are prepared to pay. The members of the American public are ceaselessly told that stabilizing Iraq will make them more secure. They are told that fighting the terrorists there is better than fighting them at home. They are told that victory in Iraq will spread democracy and stability in the arc from Algeria to Afghanistan. They are told that when this happens, ''they'' won't hate Americans, or hate them as much as they do now. It's hard to know what the American people believe about these claims, but one vital test of whether the claims are believed is the number of adolescent men and women prepared to show up at the recruiting posts in the suburban shopping malls and how many already in the service or Guard choose to re-enlist and sign up for another tour in Ramadi or Falluja. The current word is that recruitment is down, and this is a serious sign that someone at least thinks America is paying too high a price for its ideals.

Of all human activities, fighting for your country is the one that requires most elaborate justification. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said that ''to fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might.'' He had survived Antietam and the annihilating horror of the Battle of the Wilderness, so he knew of what he spoke. The test that Jefferson's dream has to pass is whether it gives members of a new generation something they want to fight for with all their might.

Two years from now is the earliest any senior United States commander says that Americans can begin to come home from Iraq in any significant numbers. Already the steady drip of casualties is the faintly heard, offstage noise of contemporary American politics. As this noise grows louder, it may soon drown out everything else. Flag-draped caskets are slid down the ramps of cargo planes at Dover Air Force Base and readied for their last ride home to the graveyards of America. In some region of every American's mind, those caskets raise a simple question: Is Iraqi freedom worth this?

It would be a noble thing if one day 26 million Iraqis could live their lives without fear in a country of their own. But it would also have been a noble dream if the South Vietnamese had been able to resist the armored divisions of North Vietnam and to maintain such freedom as they had. Lyndon Johnson said the reason Americans were there was the ''principle for which our ancestors fought in the valleys of Pennsylvania,'' the right of people to choose their own path to change. Noble dream or not, the price turned out to be just too high.

There is nothing worse than believing your son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother died in vain. Even those who have opposed the Iraq war all along, who believe that the hope of planting democracy has lured America into a criminal folly, do not want to tell those who have died that they have given their lives for nothing. This is where Jefferson's dream must work. Its ultimate task in American life is to redeem loss, to rescue sacrifice from oblivion and futility and to give it shining purpose. The real truth about Iraq is that we just don't know -- yet -- whether the dream will do its work this time. This is the somber question that hangs unanswered as Americans approach this Fourth of July.

About the Author: Michael Ignatieff, a contributing writer, is the Carr professor of human rights at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He is the editor of the forthcoming book ''American Exceptionalism and Human Rights.''

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