There was something nauseatingly depressing about George Bush’s second inauguration — and not just because it was George Bush’s second inauguration. His face a studied mask of optimistic determination, our president looked into the cameras squarely and vowed, as he has vowed so many times before and as so many past presidents have vowed before him, to fight tyranny and champion liberty. The United States will use its influence to back democracy everywhere with the “ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” he said during a 20-minute speech in which he used the words “liberty” or “freedom” a total of 42 times. The assembled audience of Washingtonians, eager to get started on their weekend of schmoozing, clapped politely.
I’m glad to know that the president really, really supports freedom. I do, too. Now that Bush has been safely re-elected and never has to run for another office in his life, however, I was naively hoping that he would drop his folksy platitudes for an hour, seize the national microphone and give the country some idea of how he intends to make the world safe for democracy. Because so far, his master plan seems to be blowing other countries up.
This is not idle sarcasm. To those few, those happy few, Republican Yalies currently salivating over the prospect of four more years, I would ask one simple question: Can you explain what our president’s foreign policy strategy is? Let us set aside, for the moment, the wisdom of invading Iraq. Even supposing that somehow, miraculously, a stable democracy does manage to crystallize in that country, surely we can all agree that the strategy is not repeatable. The Iraq mission, when all is said and done, will cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of American lives and will tie down vast portions of our military for years to come. With the United States already facing its largest deficit in history and with army recruitment at a dangerously low level, no serious politician can talk with a straight face about America undertaking another large-scale military venture in the foreseeable future.
If we can’t force other nations to democratize at gunpoint, what then? The logical step would be to fall back on an old standby of American foreign policy — diplomacy. Rather than invading countries, toppling their dictatorships and occupying them for years while they try to build democracies from scratch, we could try using our economic leverage and diplomatic clout to nudge politically regressive nations along in the right direction. But there’s a problem with that approach. Under Bush’s watch, America’s ability to exert its influence in favor of democracy has become troublingly weak.
While we’ve been busy gallivanting around the planet hunting down terrorists and changing regimes, consider what some of the other major global powers have been up to. China, one of the most politically repressive states in the world, has been steadily gaining international clout. It has consolidated its own formidable sphere of influence throughout the East Asian and Pacific regions, binding its neighbors ever closer through the subtle yet powerful bonds of economic dependence. More and more, it is converting this economic strength into political leverage. Bush’s adamant insistence during the campaign that we need Chinese pressure to successfully negotiate with North Korea is but one glaring illustration of this reality. More troublingly, China has expanded its economic reach to our own backyard; it is already Brazil’s second-largest trading partner and Chile’s largest export market, and it recently committed to investing $30 billion in Latin America. In addition, the Chinese are scoring major diplomatic successes; their current relations with the Europeans are so cozy that the E.U. is preparing to eliminate its Chinese arms embargo despite frantic American objections.
Russia has also been pursuing a course that should concern every American. With Vladimir Putin continuing to consolidate his nearly dictatorial hold over the country, crushing all politicians, media outlets and businesses in his way, the odds of Russia ever becoming a stable democracy seem increasingly remote. Worse, even as Putin strengthens his own hand, he is busy pursuing an ever more aggressive anti-Western and anti-democratic foreign policy. His meddling in the Ukrainian election and his criticism of the Iraqi elections are just two recent examples.
Both the Chinese and Russian cases are worrying because they involve autocratic global powers growing either more powerful or more autocratic, respectively. Each is a considerably larger obstacle to the global spreading of democracy than Saddam Hussein’s puny regime ever was. By comparison, meanwhile, our own international influence has been weakening — whether justified or not, hatred of Bush in capitals around the world has driven anti-American sentiments to unprecedented heights, resulting in governments that are desperate to hold us at arm’s length. We are increasingly incapable of diplomatic persuasion at the very moment when it would come in most handy.
In light of all this, the president’s stirring talk of freedom and liberty last Thursday seems hollow. It’s nice to give lip service to the noble cause of spreading democracy, but the grim reality is that we are not poised to do anything to facilitate it. Sure, we’ve liberated Iraq and Afghanistan, but the broader global picture is that autocracy is on the march, and our own influence is in slow but inexorable decline.
Roger Low is a sophomore in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.