Obama and the cause of democracy
For a long time now, I have worried that liberals and progressives would so react against President Bush's use of rhetoric about democracy that they -- we -- would retreat into pure realism. That's why I was heartened by President Obama's speech to the United Nations Thursday.
Lord knows, realism looks a lot better to some of us than it used to in light of the Iraq War, which did far more to weaken American power in the world than strengthen it. But the battle for human rights and democracy is and ought to be a central liberal and progressive cause. Liberals should not abandon their own honorable history just because Bush liked to talk about democracy, too, and used it to justify policies we disagreed with.
To say the United States must stand forthrightly for democracy does not mean we will seek to impose it by force. Nor does it mean we will never have unsavory alliances. We allied with Stalin against Hitler because of the moral and practical imperative of defeating Nazism. But the democratic idea is so central to what it means to be an American liberal, to be a progressive, that to give up on it as a moral cause is to abandon the core of our own commitments.
I have written before that I wanted the Obama administration to be more forthright in addressing democracy and human rights, so I was glad to see the president deliver this key passage:
The idea is a simple one -- that freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings. And for the United States, this is a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity. As Robert Kennedy said, "the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit." So we stand up for universal values because it's the right thing to do. But we also know from experience that those who defend these values for their people have been our closest friends and allies, while those who have denied those rights -- whether terrorist groups or tyrannical governments -- have chosen to be our adversaries.
Human rights have never gone unchallenged -- not in any of our nations, and not in our world. Tyranny is still with us -- whether it manifests itself in the Taliban killing girls who try to go to school, a North Korean regime that enslaves its own people, or an armed group in Congo-Kinshasa that use rape as a weapon of war.
In times of economic unease, there can also be an anxiety about human rights. Today, as in past times of economic downturn, some put human rights aside for the promise of short term stability or the false notion that economic growth can come at the expense of freedom. We see leaders abolishing term limits. We see crackdowns on civil society. We see corruption smothering entrepreneurship and good governance. We see democratic reforms deferred indefinitely.
As I said last year, each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its own people. Yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty; that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply, democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens. And I believe that truth will only grow stronger in a world where the borders between nations are blurred.
Words matter. I’m glad the president made this commitment.
| September 24, 2010; 1:57 PM ET
Categories: Dionne | Tags: E.J. Dionne
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