Strong and clear vision is necessary for leadership. Great leaders are those who state their vision clearly and then execute around it. For President Bush, the spread of democracy throughout the world has been the defining vision of his presidency.
A glance at recent world events proves that Bush’s dream is working out extraordinarily well. Afghanistan and Iraq held democratic elections. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak announced Saturday that he would change the constitution to allow a multi-candidate presidential race for the first time since 1981. There may even be a democratically elected Palestinian state on the horizon. American pressure and responsible action on the part of people in the Middle East has made an outburst of democracy possible.
For many, this comes as a great surprise. After all, how can democracy be spread by force?
It is right to ask this question, since democracy cannot be spread by force but only by the willing involvement of the people in any given country. The democratic impulse that is sweeping the world is not caused by Bush, but by internal movements.
In Ukraine, in Georgia, in Kurgyzstan and in many parts of the Middle East, murmurs of democratization are being heard. Forces greater than any one man, even an American president, are at work here.
If, in the long term, President Bush’s actions do in fact help democratize large portions of the Middle East, it will not be because he initiated the process but because he supported and stabilized a process of transformation already underway. The people of Afghanistan and Iraq have embraced democracy and that would not have been possible were it not for U.S. intervention. However, it also would not have been possible had the majority of them not wanted democratic government to begin with.
Still, many criticize Bush, and rightly so, for his idealistic and nearly messianic conception of the spread of democracy. For many Americans, the concept of democracy has taken on nearly religious undertones.
This pseudo-religious view of democracy hinders to a large degree one’s ability to see clearly. While spreading democracy is certainly a good thing and we should fully support its growth, at the same time we should seriously consider that even if democracy sweeps the world in ways unimaginable even now, all the world’s problems will still not be solved.
Democracy is a good thing insofar as it respects individual freedom. However, freedom in itself does not guarantee a perfect society. Freedom, divorced from responsibility and adherence to the sound moral conduct, can be destructive and lead back to totalitarianism. There have been many brutal authoritarian leaders who were democratically elected and this is a great danger, especially in emerging democracies.
Bush, if he is to be successful in promoting stable democratic governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, must remember this and be willing to persevere in seeing young governments through their difficult moments.
Even more importantly, if permanent and successful democracies are to take root worldwide, the United States must spread the values that underpin successful democracies and not merely a form of government.
The greatness of democracy is rooted in the respect it shows for each individual person, but at times America’s actions have not been consistent with these beliefs.
If this spreading of values seems like an imperialistic policy, that is because it is an imperialistic policy, albeit one that is better intentioned than its 19th century European counterpart.
In the 1950s and ’60s, when the European imperial structure broke down, few of the new democracies that emerged in Africa and South East Asia survived. Many fell back into dictatorships because the countries were not adequately prepared for democracy.
Democracy needs to be phased in gradually. After so many years of imperial rule, the jump to full democracy was nearly impossible in the third world.
Perhaps it would have been better if the European powers stayed for a few more years (to help rather than to exploit), or if United States used its influence to build up stable democratic governments in the developing world instead of merely using them as pawns against the Soviet Union.
Happily, that scenario is playing itself out now. Bush genuinely wants to do everything in his power to help the spread of democracy. His policy might be imperialistic in nature but it is directed at fostering the growth of democracy. He has no ulterior motives.
This, of course, does not mean that his strategy is perfect, or even that it is ethically correct. There are serious reasons why war in Iraq might have been considered ethically unjustifiable.
Ethical complaints aside, the current U.S. foreign policy is working to a degree because it is tapping into and supporting, both ideologically and materially, a new shift towards democratization in world politics.
This shift is largely unprecedented. In the past, the American government has used other countries as a means to its own political ends, without actually caring for the well-being of their citizens. When we treat counties in this way, it is no surprise that it results in unexpected long-term consequences, as was the case with the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
It appears now that Bush is making a genuine attempt to safeguard emerging democracies in a way that is not domineering, but rather consistent with their legitimate autonomy and rights as nations.
However, if he strays the path and loses sight of the recognition of these rights, his plan will fail. Democracy spread by undemocratic means simply cannot sustain itself.