America has – since its inception – been a major influence on the world order, from the explosive idea of American democracy that reverbrated through Europe in the 18th century – to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points and FDR’s dismantling of the colonial empires and George W. Bush’s calls for elections to drain the swamps of tyranny. Since the 20th century, American presidents have been judged in a large part by how they affected the world order. Which is why today it is worth speculating what impact Barack Obama’s young presidency will have – and what vision of a world order Obama has already sought to articulate. I predict – and propose – that Obama’s vision will be of a world order grounded in the proposal that each nation must obtain the free consent of it’s people to govern. This idea is an interesting variation on the themes of American presidents since Woodrow Wilson, and indeed since America’s founding.
Since the beginning of the 20th Century, American presidents have had an outsize role on the world stage, especially in shaping the world order by laying out standards for the moral legitimacy of nations. The world order at the turn of the 19th century would be turned on it’s head by American interventions. At that point, colonialism was accepted; the right of a people to govern themselves was not; and most rules related to international warfare – from standards for treating prisoners to a respect for the sovreignty of nations (or at least European ones). But this system broke down and conflagration that followed was only ended with timely American intervention. Woodrow Wilson used this intervention as leverage to explain how the world order should change – and his vision of a world at peace captured a weary Europe. At the core of Wilson’s Fourteen Points was an amendment to the world order, as Wilson saw peace as contingent on granting peoples’ their right of self-determination:
We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve.
Wilson believed this goal – of democracy and therefore, peace – was best accomplished and maintained through treaties and a League of Nations. Of course, we all know that Wilson’s vision collapsed as he lay debilitated by a stroke and the Senate refused to ratify the treaty he had fought for. The next three presidents had a less expansive view of the American role in the world – and mainly ignored foreign policy matters.
Franklin Roosevelt focused on domestic matters as well as he sought to end the Great Depression at home. But as he positioned the country to enter World War II he framed the conflict as one of democracy against tyranny. And FDR saw the colonialism of Europe as another form of tyranny. Thus, as he, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin decided on the outline of a post-war world, FDR was able to secure the independence of many countries throughout the world from their colonial masters in Europe. At the same time, he bargained away Eastern Europe to the tyranny of Communism, convinced that the Soviet Union would take it anyway. FDR thus set in motion a new world order in which colonialism was no longer tolerated, but Communism was.
This set up the Cold War as a battle of two competing attempts at changing the world order. Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK were less concerned about shaping the order of things than they were in securing advantages against the Soviet Union. What mattered more than how a regime acted or how it was legitmized was whose side it was on. So, while all spoke highly of democracy – they were willing to accept all allies in their struggle against the Soviet Union - democratic or not. And they were willing to overthrow democratically elected governments if it fit their interests. Later, Richard Nixon, as a proponent of real politik, did not believe in the attempts to shape the world order with moral commandments, and thus he did not attempt to do so. But his significant contribution was to recruit China into the American-led world order (or at least ensure that it was not opposed to it) – thus paving the way for its gradual acclimation to the American-led order over the next decades.
When Jimmy Carter came into the White House, he attempted to redefine again what the world order saw as a legitimate government. Rather than focusing on the struggle against the Soviet Union, he attempted to set universal standards by which to judge both the American-led order and the Soviet order. He described this universal standard as “human rights”:
Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clearcut preference for these societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights. We do not seek to intimidate, but it is clear that a world which others can dominate with impunity would be inhospitable to decency and a threat to the well-being of all people.
With his focus on human rights, Carter and more hawkish liberals such as Scoop Jackson attempted to point out the grave flaws of the Soviet system. This focus also explains why Carter championed the rights of Palestinians and pushed the Shah of Iran to allow greater freedoms to his citizens to protest his regime, leading in 1979 to his downfall.
Ronald Reagan used this foundation to call the Soviet Union the “evil empire” – though he abandoned the self-criticism that came with setting a universal standard. However, Reagan soon began to see the Soviet Union and the leaders he met with as more than the caricatures of evil he had railed against – and he sought to negotiate, to the consternation of many of his staff. Reagan believed that Communism was contrary to human nature – and that traditional forces – greed, laziness, religion – would be its downfall. Reagan’s genius was to combine in clear, forceful terms the human rights approach of Carter with the anti-tyranny framework of FDR – and to push the world to reject the Soviet world order as “evil.” Perhaps more importantly, he benefited from America’s dynamic economy and the Soviet Union’s dependence on oil revenues which, in sinking, sank the USSR.
George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – despite all the talk of a “New World Order” as the Soviet Union fell – only sought to enforce through diplomacy, sanctions, and when necessary military action, the previous conceptions of the world order. Bush condemned the crackdown at Tianamen on Carter-like human rights grounds and pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait as he violated the primary rule of the world order for the past century: do not invade another country. Bush and Clinton did begin to expand free trade as a component of the world order – and Clinton sought to create a consensus around amending the world order – creating delegitimizing exceptions beyond invading sovereign nations and the maltreatment of prisoners for terrorism, genocide, the development of weapons of mass destruction, and drug trafficking.
With September 11, though, George W. Bush felt compelled to shake up the world order – and instead of seeking mere amendments, he sought to change the basic ground upon which a regime was legitimized, recalling Woodrow Wilson’s demand and justification for self-determination. As Bush declared in his second inaugural:
We have seen our vulnerability and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder, violence will gather and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.
But while Wilson had sought to use the leverage America had in the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, and FDR sought to use the leverage America in the aftermath of World War II, Bush seemed to believe the sheer rhetorical power of his words were enough. As Gregory Scoblete described it:
President Bush did speak out boldly against North Korea and Iran. And both made considerable gains in their nuclear capabilities. From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush … wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.
George W. Bush had radically declared that no nation was legitimate if it was not a democracy – and he declared that it was a vital national security interest for America to ensure that other nations were in fact democracies. This – if applied – would overturn the entire world order. Under this Bush Doctrine, America would become a revolutionary state exporting our values via force, invading for ideology, and fomenting revolution. It would mean that many of our allies were illegitimate governments. But these powerful words were undercut by apparent hypocrisy – as Bush, after insisting on elections, rejected those whose results came out contrary to his wishes – from Hamas in Palestine to Chavez in Venezuala At the same time, Bush was open to charges of hypocrisy as he had supported a coup against the democratically-elected Hugo Chavez – and as he rejected the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories. This freedom he sought to export to the world was also threatening to many – as majority-Muslim nations and their sharia law were seen to conflict with the Western model of freedom.
But the opportunity Bush left Obama was a significant one – by not being Bush, and by being a black man who had captured the imagination of America and much of the world, and most importantly, by coming into office after America’s radical actions had severely undermined the world order, Obama begins his presidency with a greater opportunity to re-shape the world order than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It remains to be seen what Obama will do with this opportunity – and if he will pursue the agenda that some in his campaign, including Samantha Power, believe is necessary – reinventing the international institutions maintaining the world order. So far, what Barack Obama has seemed to suggest is an amendment to Bush’s radical notion of democratic revolutions in his Cairo speech, as he referred not to “democracy” but to “consent”:
So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere…
No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
America has re-defined its moral goals for the world over the past century: from self-determination, to freedom from tyranny, to freedom from Communism, to human rights, to the free market, to democracy, and now, with Obama, the consent of the governed.