Ten Years Later

T he terrorist attack of 9/11 changed America in many significant ways, refocusing our foreign policy on the dangers emanating from the broader Middle East and forcing us to introduce domestic security measures that have affected the everyday lives of all Americans. But in the case of assisting democracy abroad, which is a relatively recent dimension of America’s international engagement, the effect was not to introduce something new but rather to restore the idea that such work has a fundamental strategic purpose and serves a compelling national interest.

This idea was the core of President Ronald Reagan’s seminal Westminster address of June 8, 1982, when he famously declared it to be the US objective “to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” Reagan was explicit in asserting that the pursuit of this objective had to be understood in the context of the global struggle to support democracy against the alternative system of communist totalitarianism. While acknowledging that military strength was “a prerequisite to peace,” he emphasized that “the ultimate determinant in the struggle that is now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.” The goal, he boldly declared, was to aid “the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

The Westminster address led to the creation in 1983 of the National Endowment for Democracy, a congressionally funded private organization that I proudly head. At the time it was a modest program of less than $20 million a year, but it made its mark by aiding the Solidarity movement in Poland and dissident groups in other communist countries, and by providing significant support to democratic efforts in Latin America at a time when the third wave of democratization was beginning to gather momentum.

And then, unexpectedly, the whole world changed. Within less than a decade after Reagan’s address, communism collapsed in Central Europe and the Soviet empire dissolved, bringing the Cold War to a surprising and triumphant conclusion. The world was deemed to be unipolar, with no enemies threatening our vital interests and our democratic ideals facing no apparent challenge from any rival power or anti-democratic movement with global ambitions.

This historic turning point had the ironic effect of disconnecting the objective of aiding democracy that Reagan had enunciated from American strategic interests. Democracy assistance continued during the immediate post–Cold War period, and it even expanded dramatically as the US Agency for International Development began spending hundreds of millions of dollars aiding democratic consolidation in post-communist and other transitional countries. But such work was carried out on the margins of US policy, without any sense of how it served vital national interests. The problem, of course, was not the irrelevance of democracy assistance but the absence of a coherent foreign policy at a time of strategic complacency. Michael Mandelbaum complained at the time that foreign policy had become a form of “social work,” focusing not on relations between states but on “the social, political, and economic conditions within borders.” Looking back on the 1990s, Charles Krauthammer called it “our holiday from history,” a time when “every major challenge to America was deferred,” the most important being the growing threat of terrorism.

This brief interlude of self-delusion was abruptly ended by the 9/11 attack upon the United States. At first the US responded militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by passing such domestic legislation as the Homeland Security Act and the USA Patriot Act. But in time President George W. Bush began to enunciate a new “freedom agenda” as the most effective long-term way to promote national security. His most comprehensive statement of this policy came in a speech delivered on the occasion of the NED’s twentieth anniversary, in which Bush repeatedly referenced the theme of democratic universalism contained in Reagan’s Westminster address. Arguing that “sixty years of . . . excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe” because dictatorship produced “stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export,” Bush declared that the US had adopted “a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” In his subsequent second inaugural address, he globalized this new policy by stating that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands” and that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”

The association of this freedom agenda with the controversies of the war in Iraq obscured Bush’s message that America has both a deep belief in democratic universalism and a vital stake in the success of democracy in the Middle East and beyond. But with the passage of time and subsequent events, the importance of this message has become clearer. Just as Reagan’s vision of democracy’s triumph over communism was affirmed by the events of 1989, the Arab Spring has vindicated Bush’s belief that Arab dictatorships were inherently unstable and that democracy has more appeal to the people of the Middle East than jihadist violence and ideology.

Moreover, despite the policy divisions of the recent past, this same belief has now been embraced by President Obama, who declared in his May 19th address on the Middle East that “America’s interests” are not just consistent with peoples’ hopes for determining their own future through free elections and other democratic processes, but also “essential to them”; and that US support for universal rights and political and economic reform is “a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools at our disposal.”

Thus, there is now strong bipartisan support for the idea that aiding people fighting for democracy abroad serves the US national interest. The fact that this support exists at a time of sharp partisan division here at home is worthy of note. It is one of the enduring consequences of the terrorist attack that occurred on 9/11, and this is worth reflecting upon as we observe the tenth anniversary of that terrible day.


Carl Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

OG Image: