Democracy is the inevitable outcome of historical progress, not merely for the Western, modern and secular world, but for every nation. In his speech here at Yale, former President Bill Clinton articulated an active role for the United States in fostering freedom and democracy around the world with the “cooperation of others whenever we can — and act alone only if we have to.” To borrow Yale Law School professor Harold Koh’s eloquent metaphor, it is not until the light of democracy reaches every corner of the world, from Havana to Baghdad to Pyongyang, that a truly “global community” in which the individual is respected can be realized.
At first glance, Clinton’s bilateral approach to foreign policy seems diametrically opposed to the Bush administration’s apparent “go it alone” stance against rogue states and nations harboring terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Let’s throw out the tired notion that the Bush administration is out to shackle the citizens of the Third World in a form of economic imperialism imposed by companies like Halliburton. Yet all too often after reading pamphlets handed out by student activists, I find that such an absurd and tragically uninformed view exists even on this campus. I want to suggest an alternative. Both Clinton and Bush, despite their political differences, envision the same goal — a world of freedom and liberty.
On Nov. 6, more than two years after the launch of the “War on Terrorism,” Bush delivered a long-overdue speech about his administration’s precise foreign policy aims that, in many ways, mirrors Clinton’s image of the “global community.” President Bush’s speech depicts the advancement towards global democracy: “the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom — the advance of freedom leads to peace. The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country.” No doubt skeptics will label Bush’s words as lofty rhetoric, but the speech lays a solid foundation for the future of American foreign policy in spreading the light of democracy to the Middle East and beyond.
Yet why impose Western ideals on cultures not willing to readily accept them? The answer is simple: democracy and freedom are not uniquely Western values, but are the fulfillment of a belief in basic human dignity and capability — a belief that transcends religion, race, ethnicity and culture. Furthermore, those who are unwilling to accept democracy are those whose vested interest lies in the oppression and subjection of others. These people are the Baathists and Jihadists of Iraq who, in desperation, kill Westerners and Iraqis without discrimination. These people are the Stalinists of North Korea who ignore the plight of starving millions to pursue the creation of nuclear weapons. These people are the ayatollahs of Iran who silence and imprison thousands clamoring for democracy. They are the enemies of liberty, human rights and progress.
Establishing democracy is not a matter of imposing our system of values and culture on the world. Bush is careful to point out that democracy does not necessitate secularism and “that modernization is not the same as Westernization. Representative governments in the Middle East will reflect their own cultures. They will not, and should not, look like us.” Indeed, a quick glance at the Islamic world reveals a picture in which half of all Muslims are ruled by parliaments, constitutional monarchies and republics. These governments are not without their faults; many restrict women’s rights and brutally suppress opposition voices — yet they are a step forward from pure autocracy and theocracy.
How should democracy be spread? In an era when the world is no longer precariously balanced by nuclear ICBMs pointed across the North Pole, international support for the world’s lone superpower is not always forthcoming. The unwillingness of Europe, save Great Britain, to enforce Resolution 1441 is a case in point. Domestic politics and simple jealousy often prove more powerful than the desire for long-term stability and peace. A desire to spread democracy, however, does not merit military intervention in all cases. In North Korea, it would bring about the unthinkable. It skirted a fine line in Iraq, where the reasons for war, in retrospect, now appear to have been exaggerated.
Isolationism and negligence breed totalitarianism and cruelty — a lesson surely learned during World War II. It is also a lesson we learned on Sept. 11, 2001. Clinton’s policy of containment in Iraq and the occasional Tomahawk missile launch ignored the volatility of Iraq and the burgeoning phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism. As the superpower of the 21st century, the United States needs to embrace its role by positively engaging in the world, which will yield “more partners and fewer enemies” — a repeated Clintonism here at Yale.
Clinton warned those packed in Woolsey Hall, “Do not ever let the headlines obscure the trendlines of your time.” Exactly one week later, Bush predicted: “Historians in the future will reflect on an extraordinary, undeniable fact: Over time, free nations grow stronger and dictatorships grow weaker.” Both would agree that the last half-century has witnessed the rapid spread of democracy, illuminating much of the world — a powerful trendline indeed. With Saddam loyalists and Muslim fundamentalists frantically trying to extinguish the flame of freedom, Iraq teeters on the edge of darkness. Yet it is a candle we must keep lit, and one that must light the way for others. Though comforting headlines seem few and far between, if we are to take Clinton’s advice, we can have faith in our country’s mission of protecting fundamental human rights, uprooting tyranny and establishing freedom and democracy.
Keith Urbahn is a sophomore in Saybrook College.