America isn’t over

A few weeks ago, I went into a Barnes & Noble and noticed a prominent new display -- the “BRIC” table, piled high with books detailing the irresistible rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Nearby, another shelf sagged under the weight of more than half a dozen depressing new books about the failures of American foreign policy, each painting a more lurid picture than the last of the coming era of U.S. impotence.

The implication, it seemed clear, was that America’s time has past. We now live in the “post-American world,” according to Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria. The gloomy clouds forming above the commentariat suggest that we should give up trying to lead the world, as we have since 1945, and simply step out of the way in deference to the irresistible winds of history and inevitability.

But to just throw in the towel, as so many of these new books seem to do, seems a little un-American. It also ignores a mother lode of history that points to the opposite conclusion.


There is no question that U.S. foreign policy suffered a monster setback over the last eight years, and it does not take a genius to realize that the next president will have to speak differently to a world that has grown cynical about American promises. After years of the most simple-minded platitudes about liberty, it will be a pleasure to declare ourselves free from President Bush’s “freedom agenda,” which was never well-defined or successful, even by its own yardsticks.

In fact, during the last two years of Bush’s tenure, the number of democracies has been declining around the world, according to the human rights monitoring group Freedom House -- the first two-year decline in 15 years. Notorious crooks, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, have stayed in power throughout the Bush years; other nations, such as Cameroon, have gotten worse, and we all saw what a nightmare Myanmar is when the cyclone blew the lid off its usual secrecy.

But does that really mean that it is time for the U.S. to disengage from the world? Do Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay mean that our country’s role as a moral force and global example is anachronistic? I believe the answer is no, and that we should be extremely careful, when the next president takes over in January, to avoid an over-correction. Bush may have made a number of catastrophic decisions -- Iraq dominates the list -- but that doesn’t mean that the U.S. has forever forfeited its global stature. American presidents must always speak forcefully about freedom and democracy before a world that is not naturally inclined to either. It’s in our nature, our history and our interest.

Democrats especially should take this lesson to heart and, rather than hide behind an isolationist foreign policy, should reconnect to an important tradition that was once at the heart of the party’s message. For much of the 20th century, to be an internationalist and a Democrat were close to the same thing. The best articulations of Democratic foreign policy -- Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, for example -- fused domestic and international principles into a vision that was backed by the full weight of American power and utterly persuasive.

Who among the new powers will take up the standard of democracy around the world if not the U.S.? Europe might, if it wielded sufficient military force, but that is an expensive investment that Europeans seem unlikely to make. The rise of China will do nothing to reverse democracy’s downward slide, and all summer it will be entertaining to witness the real gymnastics of the Olympics -- the efforts of Chinese leaders to suppress dissent and appear welcoming at the same time.

Although Russia and India claim to be democracies, their leaders do not speak with comfort on the subject of human rights and the essential freedoms that underlie civil society. Russia now calls itself a “sovereign democracy,” but no one knows what that means, and it is hard to be a poster child for civil society with Vladimir Putin near the levers of power.

No one wants more cowboy diplomacy, but a forceful statement of American ideals at the beginning of the next presidency would go far to remind the world why the United States became a superpower in the first place. A clear vision of the world we want -- and if necessary, are willing to fight for -- would frighten despots, encourage young democracies and improve the odds for the large number of nations that might go in either direction.

A new and better freedom agenda, grounded in realistic promises of economic betterment as well as a core commitment to FDR’s Four Freedoms -- freedom of speech and religion; freedom from want and fear -- would do far more than parrot the pronouncements of the current administration. It would bring hope to hundreds of millions of people who still live in societies in which disease, illiteracy and the lack of opportunity make promises of freedom something of a distraction.

It would encourage the huge numbers of ethnic groups that are still targeted within their nations, sometimes in conditions resembling genocide (as in Darfur). It would establish clear standards for the credibility of elections, creating consequences for leaders who tamper with votes (as in Kenya and Zimbabwe).

It would return to us something valuable that we have lost -- the moral authority to intervene the next time a crooked leader threatens his neighbors or even his own people.

Bush surely believes in the abstract notions of freedom -- few presidents have ever used the word with such carefree abandon. In his second inaugural, he used freedom or its equivalent 49 times. But the word’s luster dulled with overuse and with the sense that Bush was a flawed messenger. Cynics pointed out that the election that produced the Bush presidency was no triumph for democracy, and that Bush’s policies rewarded the wealthy, producing more division than unity, at home as well as abroad.

Americans reeling from the last eight years are in no mood to hear of global responsibilities. But to discard the language of freedom along with Bush’s failed policies runs the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In effect, a strong new articulation of freedom would mark a return to the best traditions of American foreign policy, with its unusual combination of idealism and realism. It would bring us back into contact with the greatest moment of foreign policy in our history -- not the triumph of World War II but the successful creation of a working international architecture in its aftermath.

That architecture, conceived by Roosevelt but ratified by Republicans, introduced an exhausted world to concepts that we now take for granted -- that governments are accountable to people, that there should be healthy checks on leaders (opposition parties, free media, term limits), that free trade builds trust and that international assemblies can diminish tension between nations.

Both Democratic and Republican presidents have failed to live up to these promises since they were made in the founding documents of the United Nations, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in nearly every presidential inaugural address since then. But that does not mean that we should not return, a little wiser, to a very healthy wellspring.

Of course, we do not know who will be the next president. But there is room for hope, to use a word abused nearly as often as freedom. A President McCain would almost certainly avoid the Pollyannaish predictions of freedom that sent ill-equipped American soldiers to foreign deserts without a clear sense of mission. And a President Obama would bring many of the world’s millions back to a belief that was once essential to American foreign policy -- that our promises are real because we are not so unlike the rest of the world.

When the postwar global system was invented, it built on the ideas of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, two presidents from different parties whom FDR revered as a young man. It also drew from a surprisingly rich American tradition of liberal internationalism before that.

In the 19th century, Americans founded colleges in the Middle East, tried to arbitrate between warring powers (TR’s Nobel Peace Prize came for his work to settle the Russo-Japanese conflict) and showed a cynical world, mostly royal and absolutist, that democracy was a working possibility. Americans lent moral and financial support to revolutions against kings during the 19th century, from the Greek struggle against the Ottomans in the 1820s through the liberal struggles of 1848.

One of the reasons Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War, as he stated on numerous occasions, was to keep our democratic influence in the world from waning. Even at the beginning of our national history, a striking sensitivity to international opinion gripped the leaders of a republic at the edge of civilization. The American Revolution was fought not only to secure independence but to change the way the world worked.

American promises of liberty can grate on the ears of listeners in other countries -- near the beginning of the Iraq war, a German newspaper ran the headline, “Bush threatens more freedom.” But these promissory notes spring from a rich patrimony that has wrought a great deal of good in the world and that is at least as liberal as it is conservative. All presidents want to talk about the future, but we should not forget how much inspiration can be found simply by consulting the better angels of our past.

Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. His next book, “Ark of the Liberties: America and the World,” will be published in July.