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America isn't over

The next president must free us from Bush's 'freedom agenda,' but that's not an excuse to disengage from the world.

June 15, 2008|Ted Widmer | Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. His next book, "Ark of the Liberties: America and the World," will be published in July.

A few weeks ago, I went into a Barnes & Noble and noticed a prominent new display -- the "BRIC" table, piled high with books detailing the irresistible rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Nearby, another shelf sagged under the weight of more than half a dozen depressing new books about the failures of American foreign policy, each painting a more lurid picture than the last of the coming era of U.S. impotence.

The implication, it seemed clear, was that America's time has past. We now live in the "post-American world," according to Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria. The gloomy clouds forming above the commentariat suggest that we should give up trying to lead the world, as we have since 1945, and simply step out of the way in deference to the irresistible winds of history and inevitability.

But to just throw in the towel, as so many of these new books seem to do, seems a little un-American. It also ignores a mother lode of history that points to the opposite conclusion.

There is no question that U.S. foreign policy suffered a monster setback over the last eight years, and it does not take a genius to realize that the next president will have to speak differently to a world that has grown cynical about American promises. After years of the most simple-minded platitudes about liberty, it will be a pleasure to declare ourselves free from President Bush's "freedom agenda," which was never well-defined or successful, even by its own yardsticks.

In fact, during the last two years of Bush's tenure, the number of democracies has been declining around the world, according to the human rights monitoring group Freedom House -- the first two-year decline in 15 years. Notorious crooks, such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, have stayed in power throughout the Bush years; other nations, such as Cameroon, have gotten worse, and we all saw what a nightmare Myanmar is when the cyclone blew the lid off its usual secrecy.

But does that really mean that it is time for the U.S. to disengage from the world? Do Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay mean that our country's role as a moral force and global example is anachronistic? I believe the answer is no, and that we should be extremely careful, when the next president takes over in January, to avoid an over-correction. Bush may have made a number of catastrophic decisions -- Iraq dominates the list -- but that doesn't mean that the U.S. has forever forfeited its global stature. American presidents must always speak forcefully about freedom and democracy before a world that is not naturally inclined to either. It's in our nature, our history and our interest.

Democrats especially should take this lesson to heart and, rather than hide behind an isolationist foreign policy, should reconnect to an important tradition that was once at the heart of the party's message. For much of the 20th century, to be an internationalist and a Democrat were close to the same thing. The best articulations of Democratic foreign policy -- Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, for example -- fused domestic and international principles into a vision that was backed by the full weight of American power and utterly persuasive.

Who among the new powers will take up the standard of democracy around the world if not the U.S.? Europe might, if it wielded sufficient military force, but that is an expensive investment that Europeans seem unlikely to make. The rise of China will do nothing to reverse democracy's downward slide, and all summer it will be entertaining to witness the real gymnastics of the Olympics -- the efforts of Chinese leaders to suppress dissent and appear welcoming at the same time.

Although Russia and India claim to be democracies, their leaders do not speak with comfort on the subject of human rights and the essential freedoms that underlie civil society. Russia now calls itself a "sovereign democracy," but no one knows what that means, and it is hard to be a poster child for civil society with Vladimir Putin near the levers of power.

No one wants more cowboy diplomacy, but a forceful statement of American ideals at the beginning of the next presidency would go far to remind the world why the United States became a superpower in the first place. A clear vision of the world we want -- and if necessary, are willing to fight for -- would frighten despots, encourage young democracies and improve the odds for the large number of nations that might go in either direction.

A new and better freedom agenda, grounded in realistic promises of economic betterment as well as a core commitment to FDR's Four Freedoms -- freedom of speech and religion; freedom from want and fear -- would do far more than parrot the pronouncements of the current administration. It would bring hope to hundreds of millions of people who still live in societies in which disease, illiteracy and the lack of opportunity make promises of freedom something of a distraction.

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