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Freedom Agenda, Take Two

“Democracy fatigue” might be an understandable reaction to the Bush administration. Yet turning away from freedom as a touchstone of our national security policy--especially today--would be dangerous. The neocons in the Bush administration focused primarily on structural elements such as elections in their attempts to support democracy, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip. Instead, we ought to make the cultivation of constitutionalism--a vibrant, anti-authoritarian civic culture that acts as a sort of self-sustaining bulwark against instability--a primary goal of a post-Bush foreign policy.

For decades, political scientists have debated the role of variables like economics and political institutions in creating a successful constitutional democracy like America’s. Since James Madison, some have argued that democracies succeed primarily because of checks and balances. Classical liberals thought economic institutions could save democracy. The political scientist Samuel Huntington focused on historical or structural facts, listing no fewer than 27 variables to explain democratic success, including a country’s experiences as a feudal aristocracy or a British colony, or its possession of a market economy.

A vibrant constitutional culture arrests the cycle of regimes in two ways. The first drives each citizen outward--the “chastening of political authority,” in the words of the contemporary political theorist George Kateb--by making acceptance of limits a precondition to power. We saw an example in the United States in 1937 when thousands of ordinary citizens turned back FDR’s attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court. The second turns inward, leading individuals to value their human potential as free citizens and to take responsibility for the future of their democracy. The lack of this sense among countless ordinary Afghanis today partly helps explain the resurgence of the Taliban there.

A foreign policy grounded on constitutionalism would invest substantially in a constellation of concrete policy goals, including the expansion of civic education, market economics, and election training. It would also affect what might be called the “touch and feel” of America’s engagement with the world, in three new directions.

First, our representatives abroad should share the American experience of constitutionalism everywhere they go. From the secretary of state to our ambassadors and diplomats to our business and nonprofit leaders, they should directly advocate for the pursuit of political freedom, the free exchange of ideas between citizens, and the tolerance of dissent while they personally embrace a range of opinion and belief--revealing to the world the genuineness of America’s culture of individualism and limited authority. This approach would differ dramatically from the Bush years, where an ideological mindset prevailed in our diplomatic corps, promoting a unilateralist, neoconservative point of view and brooking no dissent.

Second, we should accept the plain fact that constitutionalism, as an artifact of culture and belief, will differ from place to place. General Douglas MacArthur’s constitution for post-WWII Japan incorporated elements of the previous Meiji constitution, for instance, and retained the nation’s emperor. Similarly, constitutionalism in multi-ethnic societies such as Iraq and Afghanistan should be tailored to their histories and cultures--meaning, for instance, that elements of shar’ia law could be incorporated into Muslim countries’ constitutions, and clerics could be accorded political status. Throughout, we will need to view other nations and groups not primarily as calcified categories that operate in an unchanging, preset manner, but as groups of individuals, invested with the ability to control their own destiny.

Finally, we should recognize that a demagogue’s best weapon is a hated, external force, and that we can too easily play into his hands. President Bush’s neocon foreign policy seeded suspicion and enmity among the peoples of the world, who then became easy targets for demagogues. We must decouple democracy and military interventionism, removing democracy as a pawn in regime change. It’s a deceptively obvious point. If we want the world’s nations--and the people who live in them--to desire democracy, we must not inspire them to resent and fulminate against history’s greatest democracy.

In the years ahead, we’re going to need to work directly with peoples, rather than just leaders and institutions. We will need to view a successful liberal order in a country as a product of culture and values, not just political structures like elections. And we’ll have to accept that there are certain areas--such as the Gaza Strip, where the terrorist group Hamas won elections in 2006--where constitutionalism is a more important end than short-term “democratic” outcomes that perversely end up damaging freedom in the world.

“For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,” Walt Whitman once wrote, “For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders,/ The attitude of him cheers up slaves and horrifies foreign despots.” We are going to need to dust ourselves off from the mishaps of the Bush administration and focus once again on the promise of democracy. The challenges in the world demand that the United States strike out, once again, on the path to our “great Idea.”

Michael Signer is Senior National Security Policy Fellow at the think tank Third Way and the author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemy (Palgrave Macmillan 2009). He is currently a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.

By Michael Signer