President Bush in his State of the Union address said: “Our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world.” Earlier, he vowed to devote his second term to this high purpose. Recently, he told a Kansas rally that “our troops” are helping to “change the world by spreading liberty and freedom,” acknowledging that “Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism.”
On February 15, the Bush administration asked for an additional $75 million to promote freedom in Iran by funding political dissidents there. In response, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, a staunch Republican, cautioned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice against U.S. efforts to push democracy in places where it is an alien concept.
President Bush’s confidence in America’s ability to spread democracy and freedom was not shared by most of his White House predecessors. Woodrow Wilson, the notable exception, failed to understand the limits of America’s capacity to sponsor democracy abroad. His idealism fed utopian expectations here and abroad. Then reality intruded. The unraveling of history in the wake of his Fourteen Points enunciated in 1918 prompted some critics to say, “he reached for utopia and gave us hell.”
All our presidents, including the Founders, believed in “American exceptionalism,” the idea that America had a special mission beyond its borders. The Declaration stated that, “all men,” not just Americans, “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founders hoped that other peoples would follow America’s example and enjoy the blessings of liberty.
Yet, their world and ours, has been drenched in “wars and rumors of wars,” tyranny, conquest, and oppression. In the twentieth century alone, hundreds of millions have suffered under brutal tyrants or been killed in war. Today, genuine freedom and democracy are the exception for the peoples who live in the 100-plus member states of the United Nations.
America remains the major example and promise of freedom and democracy, but these lofty goals can be won only through a long struggle by the peoples who are denied them. We can and should assist those who seek a better way, but these blessings are the fruit of those who earn them.
Abraham Lincoln, who understood the heavy price of freedom in a bitterly divided nation, spoke of his “oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free,” but he recognized the severe limits of America’s capacity to promote democracy abroad.
Perhaps, it was President John Quincy Adams who best understood America’s unique, but limited role beyond our borders: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America’s heart, her benediction and her prayers. She goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Ronald Reagan also emphasized this more modest national aspiration when he likened America to “a shining city on a hill,” a beacon for all who yearn to be free. His words can serve as a warning to Americans who speak too glibly of exporting democracy or establishing freedom in other countries.
Of course, there were times and places when America’s role abroad was substantial, even decisive. During the 1940s, we knew that Nazi Germany and imperial Japan had to be defeated. Our intervention was not a crusade, but a just war to protect the Western democratic heritage. By winning that war and occupying two defeated peoples, we were in a position to impose democratic disciplines on disparate societies that had already experienced a substantial measure of democracy.
In today’s dangerous world, America, the most powerful and generous nation on earth must steal itself against the arrogance of power. Shakespeare said: “O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” And Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned America to use its great might “with fear and trembling.”
–Ernest W. Lefever, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., is author of America’s Imperial Burden.