Many derided it as naïve idealism, but the vision undergirding the Freedom Agenda offers lessons for the biggest global tests of our time.
George W. Bush addressed the National Endowment for Democracy on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary in November 2003, six months after declaring the end of combat missions in Iraq. In his speech, the U.S. president offered the most expansive articulation to date of what soon became known as the “Freedom Agenda”—the promise to “strengthen democracy and promote peace around the world.”
The previous two decades had seen democracy spread across Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. In less than thirty years, the number of electoral democracies in the world had tripled. The regional exception was the Middle East. Acknowledging U.S. complicity in supporting numerous autocracies in the region, Bush said that “sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
The invasion of Iraq loomed over Bush’s address. Eight months after the invasion, the war had already encountered troubled straits, and the sectarian violence would grow much worse in the years ahead. In the wake of Saddam Hussein’s defenestration, Iraq was descending into a maelstrom of instability and strife. But, as the Arab Spring uprisings would later prove, the desire for self-rule exists in the Middle East and North Africa just as it does elsewhere.
For the final five years of his presidency, Bush would make democracy- and human-rights promotion a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Its rhetorical apotheosis would come in his Second Inaugural Address, when he declared, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
This was, and remains, a worthy aspiration. At the time, democracy appeared to be ascendant. The “color revolutions” in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, and especially Ukraine had shown an inspiring upsurge in citizen activism for self-governance. Democracy itself experienced its global apex the next year, in 2006, when according to Freedom House the number of “free” countries in the world peaked at ninety.
A democratic recession has since set in, with the number of “free” nations declining in each of the last seventeen years. Yet the erosion of self-government does not mean that democracy does not work. Rather, democracy’s travails remind us that it takes work to keep it and that it faces determined and often ruthless opponents.
Although critics often derided the Freedom Agenda as naïve idealism untethered from reality, it was derived from a sober assessment of the international landscape. This is made clear in a recently declassified memo published in Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama: the transition document prepared by the outgoing staff of Bush’s National Security Council for the incoming Obama administration. The memo describes how Bush drew the principles of the Freedom Agenda from a strategic recognition that how states behave abroad affects U.S. interests, and that how they behave abroad is shaped by how they are governed at home.
Bush often stressed that supporting democratic aspirations did not consist solely in elections, and would not mean linear progress or be easy. Nor would liberty advance in haste. Rather, he said it would be “the concentrated work of generations.” In total, from 2001 to 2009, the Bush administration more than doubled funding for democracy, governance, and human-rights programs globally.
Notably, Bush also invested considerable presidential time in these efforts. He personally met with some 180 dissidents and human-rights activists, far more than any other U.S. president before or since, and he was the first to meet with Chinese dissidents still active in China. He also met with human-rights activists from repressive nations including Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. By doing so, he telegraphed U.S. support to dissidents and activists worldwide. At the same time, partner governments did not escape scrutiny: Bush approved, for example, the State Department’s sanctioning of Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” for its religious freedom abuses and approved banning the then governor of India’s Gujarat State, Narendra Modi, from visiting the United States for his role in the 2002 massacre of thousands of Muslims.
We recap these efforts as a foundation for considering what can be learned from the fruits and failings of the Freedom Agenda. We would highlight five in particular:
First, there is an interdependence between the soft and the hard institutions that compose effective democracies. Hard institutions, such as elections and an independent judiciary, become brittle over time and can suddenly crack if citizens stop honoring the norms and respecting the taboos that make the institutions function effectively. Soft institutions, such as civil society and the norms undergirding civilian control of the military, will not be enough to protect freedom if factions hijack the basic institutions of government, as we have seen in nations such as Egypt, Georgia, Mali, Turkey, and Venezuela.
Second, democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. If the Afghanistan war offers many lessons, this is one. It must be embraced by citizens, built and sustained over time, and will entail serious commitment, and perhaps sacrifice, from both elites and the masses.
Third, technology can be a tool to curtail freedom as much as to advance it. The Bush administration found that new technologies for communications and disseminating information outside of state control did help to promote democracy. But authoritarians soon learned to wield those same technologies to monitor and control their citizens, and to thwart democracy. Whether technology favors freedom or tyranny depends on many factors, including the resources and creativity of tyrants and democracy advocates alike.
Fourth, economic hardship can hurt democracy. The 2008 financial crisis and its subsequent global fallout damaged more than just the global economy, it weakened democratic institutions in many countries and contributed to democracy’s continuing decline.
Fifth, the United States remains indispensable to global democracy. Democracy activists in repressive countries appealing for international support almost invariably turn first to the United States. Witness in recent years the appeals from protesters in Hong Kong, Belarus, and Iran. Of course, the United States cannot guarantee success—especially not without meaningful contributions from allies or, most important, citizen commitment to self-government in the country in question. But U.S. support for democratic movements can play an essential role in nurturing and sustaining democracy. For example, it would be hard to envision the successful consolidation of democratic transitions in countries such as Indonesia, Mongolia, or Ukraine without the support of the United States.
The Freedom Agenda still speaks directly to the most serious global issues we face today. Consider how democracy intersects with five urgent challenges:
- Confronting climate change is going to entail serious costs that cannot be shared equally by all political actors. While it is true that these are precisely the sorts of policy challenges that are hardest for democracies to settle, it is also true that in an age of populist mistrust of elites only democratic institutions have a realistic chance of forging compromises that will be sustainable and legitimate over time. Enduring commitments depend on the process of bargaining and compromise unique to democracies, as ordinary citizens and economic stakeholders negotiate and then accept the trade-offs needed for sustainable solutions. As we saw with the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, democracies can reverse themselves, too. Yet the basic principle still obtains: The more thoroughly grounded in the legitimacy of popular consent a deal is, the more enduring it will be. Nonbinding, executive-to-executive agreements between democracies are easier to break precisely because they have not gone through the full democratic process. In the international realm, formal treaties that have been negotiated by the executive branch, ratified by the legislative branch, and upheld by judicial review are much more stable.
- Similarly, both democracies and autocracies struggled in dealing with the covid-19 pandemic, but China’s serial misbehavior in suppressing vital information, punishing critics, warping multilateral institutions, and disrupting global supply chains should put to rest the myth that autocrats can be trusted to learn and adapt fast enough to head off global crises. If (or rather, when) the next pandemic breaks out, democracies will once again need to take the lead in addressing it.
- Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an almost textbook case for the Freedom Agenda. Ukraine was hardly a perfect democracy before the invasion, but it was not a menace to its neighbors. Putin has been a security threat to Ukraine for the past two decades precisely because he faced no real accountability at home.
- Xi Jinping’s efforts to threaten Taiwan and East Asian security more generally, to brazenly flout international law in the South China Sea, and to undermine global institutions throughout the UN system is the geopolitical challenge of our time. Xi’s aggression is of a piece with his suppression of freedom at home and his effort to set himself up as autocrat-for-life. To forge a coalition to counter China’s most dangerous international adventurism, the United States may need to partner with nondemocratic states such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore that themselves remain silent on China’s suppression of freedom at home. This should not mean a false choice between security interests and democratic values. The late Cold War offers a precedent. The Reagan administration deepened its security partnerships with anticommunist dictatorships such as South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan to counter the Soviet Union, while also supporting the peaceful democratic transitions that those countries eventually underwent.
- Iran and North Korea continue to defy international norms, demonstrating both the limits and relevance of the Freedom Agenda. Ignoring the ways in which North Korea’s tyranny at home shapes its nuclear threat abroad has not made the United States and its allies safer. President Donald Trump’s enthusiastic outreach to North Korea in 2018 and 2019 proved that appeasement will not work. As long as North Korea remains a nuclear-armed dictatorship, the best we can hope for is vigilant containment and effective crisis management. Perhaps now is the time to refocus on human rights in North Korea, in hopes that more liberty for the North Korean people might produce internal pressure on the Kim regime for better behavior. In Iran, the clerical tyrants face greater domestic pressure for regime change than at any time since the 1979 revolution. A regime that fears teenage girls at home while expanding its nefarious activities in the region and beyond cannot be trusted to make reliable deals that will resolve longstanding security concerns. As the next generation of Iranians are risking their lives to demand basic freedoms, the United States should make clear that it stands with them.
The world needs the United States to redouble its commitment to the promotion of human rights and effective democratic institutions. This may sound quaint or even anachronistic at a time when global democracy continues to erode and the United States itself is struggling to have a peaceful transition of power and even to carry out the most basic tasks of government. But the Freedom Agenda, properly understood, is as relevant and needful today as ever. U.S. policymakers, as they grapple with the multiple challenges of contemporary geopolitics, should learn from past missteps and embrace its enduring principles.
Peter Feaver is professor of political science and public policy at Duke University where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy. He served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. William Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and associate professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas–Austin. He served with the State Department and National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.
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