In the latest edition of The American Interest, Yale's John Lewis Gaddis has a comprehensive account of America's historical role in promoting democracy and opposing tyranny.
Gaddis begins by noting that the normal expectation as the Bush Administration closes ought to be that he will bequeath no foreign policy doctrine to his successors. Very few do - arguably this could be claimed only of President Monroe and President Truman. If Bush leaves a doctrine behind, it will be understood in terms of his second inaugural address: “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”.
Prerequisites for democracy
Gaddis explains some of the reasons history has shown such a doctrine can prove problematic:
"Periclean Athens, which blundered into and then lost the Peloponnesian War, and the Roman Republic, which sank so deeply into corruption and violence that its citizens welcomed the benign authoritarianism of Caesar Augustus.
"It’s not just ancient precedents, though ... World War I, which laid so much of the groundwork for despotism, began with widespread public enthusiasm. A free election brought Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1933, and he retained the support of most Germans well into the war he started. A persistent American fear throughout the Cold War was that much of the rest of the world might voluntarily choose communism; that led to enlightened counter-measures like the Marshall Plan, but also to unsavory alliances with anti-communist dictators. And the post-Cold War collapse of Yugoslavia together with the events in Rwanda evoked an even more disturbing vision: that people could hate one another to such an extent that ethnic cleansing, even genocide, might have democratic roots.
"Today it seems clear that the people of Russia, if they could have re-elected their increasingly authoritarian President, would overwhelmingly have done so ... Reasonably fair elections have at last been held in the Middle East, but the results have empowered Ahmadinejad in Iran, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and—despite the courage with which Iraqis risked their lives to vote in three successive elections in 2005—a government in Baghdad that has yet to establish order despite the full military support of the United States and its coalition allies.
"So if ending tyranny is what you want to accomplish, promoting democracy in and of itself may not be enough. Something more seems to be required."
To survive, Gaddis argues, democracy first requires the prerequisites identified by Fareed Zakaria in The Future of Freedom: "personal security, political stability, economic sustainability, the rule of law, the sanctity of contracts, a working constitutional structure. You can’t just topple a tyrant, hold an election and expect a democracy to emerge. How, then, did the idea get started that democracy could sprout where it had no roots?"
Part of the answer was the unexpected quick victory in Afghanistan in 2001:
"Suddenly, it seemed, there might be an opportunity to speed up history: The Taliban had collapsed, after all, with only a slight push. So Bush and his advisers began planning to fight a war against terrorism by democratizing the Middle East, the one part of the world where that system had not yet taken root. Toppling a few more tyrants might be all that it would take to get this process going."
Distinguishing democracy promotion from ending tyranny
But if more recent events have shown that things are not so simple, Gaddis cautions against a premature abandonment of every part of the doctrine described above. "The call to end tyranny seemed new in 2005 only because it was old—considerably older, in fact, than the goal of promoting democracy...The objective of ending tyranny, therefore, is as deeply rooted in American history as it is possible to imagine." America's Founding Father's and Abraham Lincoln understood America's mission in similar terms.
What is the difference between promoting democracy and ending tyranny? Gaddis distinguishes the two in philosophical terms, relying on Isiah Berlin's notion of two conceptions of liberty - the negative idea of a liberty to do as one wishes without interference from others and the positive conception of liberty that has a certain notion of how an individual should use freedom, and aims at coercing that person and others to ensure this occurs. Ending tyranny is to be understood as promoting the former conception of freedom - ending constraints on liberty. Democracy promotion means telling other societies around the world how they ought to organise themselves and their governments.
"President Bush reflected this “one size fits all” mentality when he called for “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” That sounded like knowing what was best for the world. But then he added: “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That sounded like liberating people so that they could decide what was best for them; it was language of which the Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Isaiah Berlin might have approved. So the President managed to compress, into a single sentence, the concepts of both positive and negative liberty.
"This may have been a triumph for succinct speech writing, but it was not one for philosophical coherence. Promoting democracy, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, offers no guarantee of ending tyranny, just as ending tyranny offers no guarantee that the newly liberated will choose democracy. Telling people simultaneously that we know best and that they know best is likely to confuse them as well as us.
"If the Bush Doctrine was meant in that sense—if ending tyranny is now to be the objective of the United States in world affairs—then this would amount to a course correction away from the 20th-century idea of promoting democracy as a solution for all the world’s problems, and back toward an older concept of seeking to liberate people so they can solve their own problems. It could be a navigational beacon for the future that reflects more accurately where we started and who we’ve been.
"I think that future presidents should regard Bush’s second Inaugural as signaling a shift from promoting democracy to ending tyranny, as a call for an overdue correction of course."
A return to the goal of ending tyranny
Gaddis concludes that America should focus more of its attention on the prerequisites of democracy, than on democracy-promotion itself:
"Democracy did spread widely in the 20th century, but that was only because the British and later the Americans wielded their power in such a way as to secure its prerequisites, not least by fighting and winning three world wars, two hot and one cold.
"Since the Cold War ended, the United States has neglected these prerequisites. There was no clearer demonstration of this than those three Iraqi elections of 2005, in which the citizens of that country risked their lives to go out and vote. That was, in one sense, moving and reassuring, a victory for democracy, you might say. But it was, in another sense, a defeat for democracy, because people should not have to risk their lives to go out and vote. The fact that they did so reflected a failure on the part of the United States, after invading Iraq, to lay the foundations necessary to ensure democracy’s survival there. It’s as if we’d tried to rebuild one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces without first securing its footings: The façade was impressive, but the cracks soon began to appear.
"Nor has this error been confined to Iraq. We seem puzzled that democracy is not taking hold to the extent that we hoped it would elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as in Russia, China, Africa, and Latin America. The democratic tide that began rising with the end of the Cold War now appears to have crested and to be receding. But was it ever likely that democracy would root itself in those parts of the world where people fear anarchy more than they do authority? Where the struggle to survive is a more urgent priority than securing the right to vote?
"A global commitment to remove remaining tyrants could complete a process Americans began 232 years ago.
"This, then, should be our standard: to respect the ways in which people elsewhere define their fears, not to impose our own fears upon them. That may mean working with authoritarian regimes when there is more to fear than their authoritarianism—when the trajectory is toward making democracy possible, even if it’s still a long way off.
"If, therefore, we Americans can adjust our compass heading, if we can make ending tyranny once again our priority, as it was throughout most of our history, then we would have some prospect of getting back on the path that all great nations who wish to sustain their greatness must ultimately follow: that of wielding power without arrogance, by which I mean resisting the illusion that our strength has in all respects made us wise."