George W. Bush based his “freedom agenda,” in early 2004, on a similar assumption: that democracy is the natural state of mankind and that it blossoms spontaneously once a dictatorship is toppled. Bush saw elections as freedom’s vehicle, while Romney sees capitalism as the agent. Either way, the two share the notion that the transference is direct and immediate, like a lightning bolt.
President Obama’s U.N. speech harbors no such illusions. At first glance, Obama may seem to share Bush’s premise, declaring that “freedom and self-determination” are “not simply American values or Western values” but “universal values” and that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.”
But Obama also realizes that this road is often laced with “turmoil”; that “transitions to a new political order” produce “convulsions”; that “true democracy, real democracy is hard work.” The road doesn’t “end with the casting of a ballot.” Rulers will be tempted, in crises, to crack down on dissidents or to “rally the people around perceived enemies” rather than focus “on the painstaking work of reform.”
Speaking of the anti-Muslim video that sparked violence in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere, Obama said he recognizes that not all countries share the American concept of freedom of speech. But, he added, in the era of cell phones and the Internet, “the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.”
Besides, he noted to spirited applause, “There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents … no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.”
The real conflict going on in the world, especially in the Middle East, he said, is between those who want to angle onto the road to democracy and those who want to blow it up—“a choice,” Obama put it, “between the promise of the future or the prisons of the past.”
This was no “apology” for American values; it was a realistic assertion of their power and appeal. It was in fact an invitation—a demand—for the world’s leaders, especially those facing militant challenges within their own borders, to step up and choose sides, to set a course.
“No government or company, no school or NGO will be confident working in a country where its people are endangered,” Obama said. “For partnerships to be effective, our citizens must be secure and our efforts must be welcome.”
This is a simple fact, not a threat, and it’s a far more potent incentive than the dangled carrots of Romney’s Prosperity Pacts. Obama added, “America stands ready to work with all who are willing to embrace a better future.” He said nothing about what other countries had to do to earn our largesse. He certainly said nothing about teaching them how to run their economies. There is no such agenda because Obama seems to know that there can’t be, that disparate countries—with disparate societies and political systems—can find common ground in common battles.
Romney’s speech, at its best moments, was a sidebar to a broader statement about the nature, scope, and prospects of today’s global crises. Obama’s speech was that statement.