In 1972, Freedom House began publishing an annual survey to assess the state of global freedom. The results, back then, made for grim reading: only 44 countries earned the designation of “free.” At the time, freedom was restricted to Western Europe, North America, and a few scattered outposts like Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
To compound a bad situation, the direction of global politics seemed to be moving decisively against free societies. Within a few years, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos would fall to Communist insurgencies. Later in the 70’s, Communist or Marxist dictatorships were established in Afghanistan and Grenada, and civil war between the Left and Right ignited throughout Central America. Meanwhile, right-wing or military dictatorships gained supremacy or consolidate their authority in practically every country of South America. In Angola, Mozambique, and other former Portuguese colonies, civil war broke out between forces of the Marxist Left and non-Communist forces supported by the United States and South Africa’s apartheid regime. Throughout most of Asia, rule of the military strongman prevailed. At the United Nations and other international venues, the very suggestion that Western-style freedoms might make the world a more prosperous and humane place was treated with scorn by a powerful coalition of Communist-bloc states and the non-aligned.
It is worth reminding ourselves of this gloomy condition in light of the changes that have subsequently taken place. Today, 89 countries are rated as free on the Freedom House index, and the number of outright dictatorships and totalitarian regimes has shrunk considerably. Free societies predominate in Latin America and the former Communist countries of Central Europe. Freedom has made significant inroads in Asia, and a number of important countries of sub-Saharan Africa have made progress toward democratic rule as well.
The forces that drove this unprecedented wave of political freedom are many and varied. But clearly American actions, attitudes, and policies played a crucial role. It is thus neither naïve nor utopian to propose that the promotion of freedom should occupy a central place in American foreign policy. In fact, even during times when our policies were shaped by the principles of realism, the U.S. was involved in projects to sustain democratic dissidents, undermine the legitimacy of dictatorships, and communicate with people trapped in unfree societies. During the crucial decade of the 1980’s, a unique and typically American combination of formal diplomacy, public diplomacy, and private initiative proved a potent instrument, and can play the same role again given the support of America’s political leadership.
It is true that countries of the Middle East pose a set of issues far more complex than those America faced during the cold war. The Middle East is the only region to have resisted the contemporary freedom revolution, showing very little progress over the past three decades.
But the administration is right to reject the proposition that the very concept of freedom is alien to these societies, and that therefore American policy should always seek stability over the disruptions that democratic change will inevitably bring. Similar arguments were advanced at various intervals in the past about the Slavic world, Catholic societies, and Asian culture. Even as the Soviet Union was in the process of collapse, important voices warned that catastrophe lay ahead should the Baltic states or Ukraine declare their independence.
The critics were wrong on all counts. The democratic revolution that swept the world over the past quarter-century transformed the political systems of societies as different as Ukraine, Taiwan, and Brazil. Although democracy remains fragile in a number of Latin American nations and in a number of countries from the former Soviet Union, especially Russia, the overall gains exceed the predictions of optimists. The disintegration of the Soviet empire has enhanced global security, especially in Europe, and the spread of democracy elsewhere has been accompanied by a significant reduction in war and civil strife. The threats to peace today emanate from those locales that have rejected democratic change: North Korea, Iran, Sudan, the Arab Middle East. From this standpoint alone, freedom is very much in the national interest.
The dictators who rule over the Middle East and the extreme Islamists who commit acts of terror are locked in a mutually reinforcing relationship. Repression creates the climate in which extremism thrives, and extremism provides a justification for continued repression. Extreme Islam, as the only significant totalitarian movement of the day, stands as the greatest single threat to peace and the most serious obstacle to the spread of freedom. Just as the defeat of Communism opened the door to new democratic possibilities throughout much of the world, so the defeat of violent Islamists would create opportunities for new political options in those regions that have been most resistant to change.
The success of the administration’s ambitious agenda will depend to a large extent on American steadfastness. The specter of the Soviet nuclear arsenal played a key role in ensuring that the United States stayed the course during the cold war. But the spirit of bipartisanship that sustained U.S. policy declined considerably in the post-Vietnam period and is, if anything, in more tattered condition today, despite 9/11. The Bush administration’s effort to broaden the base of support for its Middle East policies has not been impressive. Likewise, the perspective of large segments of the Democratic party remains stuck in the experiences of Vietnam and Central America.
There is no question that the administration has made serious mistakes in the implementation of its strategy. But a bit of perspective is warranted here, too. The history of the cold war is replete with American blunders, missteps, and errors. Nonetheless, the United States prevailed because its leaders remained focused on the central objectives of curbing Soviet influence and, where opportunities presented themselves, expanding freedom’s reach. The history of the past half-century suggests that when the forces of freedom are locked in sustained struggle with freedom’s adversaries, freedom will eventually win out.
If the United States demonstrates the patience and determination that brought victory in the past, it should succeed again, even in so challenging an environment as the Middle East.