After the Freedom Agenda

After the Freedom Agenda

The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did)
by James Traub
Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2008, 272 pp., $25.00

“Stepping Back from Democratic Pessimism”
by Thomas Carothers
Carnegie Papers, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2009, 19 pp.

The promotion of democracy has fallen on hard times. The fiasco of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq gave democracy promotion, the invasion’s last and most desperate justification, a bad name. Fueling the retreat from such projects is pessimism about the worldwide prospects for democratization. Democracy itself seems to be in retreat after the “third wave” that brought a tide of democracies to Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America in the 1990s. Pointing to the failure of the new democracies to deliver material welfare and to the rise of autocratic China, the deepening authoritarianism in Russia, and the successful defiance of theocratic Iran, pundits now proclaim an age of authoritarian advantage. But recent studies suggest that the pessimism is overdone, and democracy is still worthy of prudent and principled promotion.

In The Freedom Agenda, James Traub, a journalist for the New York Times Magazine, sets out to rescue U.S. democracy promotion from the choke hold of the Bush administration. He begins his lively account with Bush’s remarkable second inaugural address in January 2005, when the president declared, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Using classic doctrinal prose, the president proclaimed, “So 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.” The words “democracy,” “freedom,” “liberty,” and “tyranny” appear forty-seven times in the short address.

Barack Obama set a very different tone in his inaugural this past January. He stood before his fellow citizens and said he was “humbled by the task before us” with “an economy badly weakened,” seeking “a new way forward” that includes an offer to “extend a hand” if those who rule through corruption and the silencing of dissent will but “unclench their fist.” “Democracy,” “freedom,” “liberty,” and “tyranny” appear only five times in the address. Most strikingly, he ended his address not with global transformation but with an evocation of the spirit of local resistance, recalling the winter patriots of George Washington’s bedraggled army of insurgents, driven from their new capital by a mighty imperial army, hungry and chilled in the fields of Valley Forge.

Obama’s foreign policy truly seemed to push the “reset” button, and not just in relations with Russia. Indeed, given the record of the previo...