On Liberal Democracy

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Thank you very much. Well, listening to Jack, I'm sure you understand why I value his counsel and his friendship and why the people of the United States are so pleased that we have such a good friend in the Foreign Secretary here in the United Kingdom. The partnership that we forged over this past year, I think is a reflection of our nations’ historic alliances, but more than that is a reflection of the values that we share as peoples, because ultimately the work of governments cannot be sustained, particularly democratic governments if there is not a deep bond between their peoples. And the peoples of Great Britain and of the United States, of course, have that historic bond.

Today, on behalf of President Bush, I would like to thank the citizens and the government of Great Britain for the willingness to share in the sacrifices for freedom, no more so than in the last several years since the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and on the Pentagon really revealed again to America in ways that we had not seen for a very, very long time in our history, our own vulnerability to outside attack and to the forces of hostility to democratic values. And, of course, on July 7th when Britain also experienced that hostility, I hope that Britain felt the support of the United States in our joint desire to defeat those forces that are so hostile to our democratic principles.

I also want to thank Jack for inviting me here to Blackburn and for allowing me to share the stage with Jim Naughtie. Thank you very much for the work of the BBC in this and I am really honored that Lord Hurd would be here, a great public servant whom we've all admired for many years. Thank you very much for being here. Jack invited me to see a different side of British society, one that's not normally seen by Secretaries of State and already I have seen how this old cotton city is finding new prosperity and building airplanes and a knowledge-based economy. And of course, I've just had the opportunity to walk around the "pitch" – is that right? — of the Blackburn Rovers football club. And, Jack, if Blackburn is "the center of the world," then I suspect that this stadium is the center of the center of the center of the world.

American college football in the Southeastern Conference, you just don't know what that means. I think it's safe to say, though, that even though Jack loved the experience, I'm not absolutely certain that he knew what was going on. Had I had the opportunity to watch Blackburn play Wigan here next week, I'm certain that I would have been just as clueless. And it is true that the European stereotype of America — Americans that we do not have the attention span for a 90-minute game that doesn't have that much scoring and where there isn't full contact. Yeah, it's true. But I would remind you that the man who keeps the ball out of the Rovers’ goal is an American, Brad Friedel.

I'm delighted to be here to deliver this lecture. As a professor myself, I like to take every opportunity to put on my academic hat, to reflect broadly on the issues of the day. So this afternoon, I want to talk about an idea — an idea that has defined the modern era since the dawn of the Enlightenment, an idea that has now captured the imagination of a majority of humanity, and made our world more secure as a result, so that idea is liberal democracy.

What do I mean by "liberal" democracy? Well, first of all, I mean capital "L" in Liberal, as in Liberalism, the theory of politics that took shape in the minds of Englishmen like Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke, and even a Scot or two, like Adam Smith. The ideas of Liberalism were, of course, later refined and applied and written into the American Constitution by men like Hamilton, and Jefferson and Madison. And all of these individuals were trying, in their own way, to solve one of history's oldest quandaries: How can individuals with different interests, and different backgrounds, and different religious beliefs, live together peacefully and avoid the evil extremes of politics: civil war and tyranny, or as they would have said, the state of nature or the oppression of the state?

In their answer to this question, the theorists of Liberalism transformed politics forever. They declared that all human beings possessed equal dignity and certain natural rights — among these, the right to live in liberty, to enjoy security, to own property and to worship as they pleased. These universal rights, established and embodied in institutions and enshrined in law, would then establish the principled limits on state power. But that was not all. They had another equally bold idea: For government to be truly legitimate, they argued, it had to be blessed by the consent of the governed.

Now, those were truly revolutionary ideas, and not surprisingly, they inspired revolutions. You made yours here in Britain in 1688. We made ours, after a few false starts, in 1776 and 1789. And I do not, therefore, mean to imply that there is only one model of liberal democracy. There is not. Even two countries as similar as Britain and the United States embraced liberal democracy on our own terms, according to our own traditions and our cultures and our experiences. That has been the case for every country and every people that has begun the modest quest for justice and freedom — whether it was France in 1789; or Germany and Japan after World War II; or nations across Asia, and Africa, and Latin America during these past decades; or in countries like Ukraine, and Afghanistan, and Iraq today.

The appeal of liberal democracy is desirable, but its progress has not been even nor inevitable and there's a reason for that. The challenge of liberal democracy is always two-fold: to ensure majority rule and to respect minority rights, to strengthen communities and to liberate individuals, to empower government and to limit that power at the same time. And for societies accustomed to thinking in zero-sum terms, or for diverse communities that have never shared power among themselves, liberal democracy can seem difficult and frustrating and even threatening, and that feeling is entirely understandable.

Too often, we forget how long and hard liberal democracy has been for us. At times in our history and cities like Blackburn and Birmingham for that matter, the challenge of liberal democracy seemed so severe that it would split societies in two.

Once the cotton business moved out of this city, inequality and alienation were so rampant that many thought a revolution was not just likely, but inevitable. In my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, the legacy and the birthmark of slavery persisted for a century in the brutal and dehumanizing form of segregation. I spent the first 13 years of my life without a white classmate. It was when we moved to Denver, Colorado, that I had my first white classmate. And one Sunday morning in 1963, four little girls, including my good friend Denise McNair, were murdered in church by a terrorist bomb.

So even today, we know that we are still wrestling with the two-fold challenges of liberal democracy. Consider, for example, our efforts to strengthen national security and to protect civil liberties at the same time. In the attacks of 9/11 or 7/7 here in Britain, the United States and Britain saw the true threat of global terrorism. No matter of just police work of course, because if we wait for terrorists to attack, then 3,000 people die on one September morning or dozens are murdered on their commute to work. This forces us to think anew about how we will keep our societies both open and safe at the same time and that is no easy task, and we're all finding our own solutions within our own democratic systems.

I know that there is a lot concern in Britain as well as in Europe and in other parts of the world, that the United States is not adequately guaranteeing both our need for security and our respect for the law. We in America welcome the free exchange of opinions with our allies about this issue, especially here in place like Britain. But I also want to say that no one should ever doubt America’s commitment to justice and the rule of law. President Bush has stated unequivocally, as have I that the United States is a nation of laws and we do not tolerate any American, at home or abroad, engaging in acts of torture. We also have no desire to be the world’s jailer. We want the terrorists that we captured to stand trial for their crimes. But we also recognize that we are fighting a new kind of war, and that our citizens will judge us harshly if we release a captured terrorist before we are absolutely certain that he does not possess information that could prevent a future attack, or even worst, if we meet that terrorist again on the battlefield.

Now, these difficult issues, still for us affirm the value of liberal democracy. But from our present and past experience, we know that liberal democracy is no panacea. It is a living regime, a never-ending conversation, a perpetual struggle to balance democratic demands within the limitations of Liberalism. This is genuine liberal democracy and this is its genius, its flexibility and its dynamism, how it helps diverse societies and diverse peoples reconcile their differences peacefully. Even for mature liberal democracies like ours, with centuries of experience, these balancing acts are often painstaking and time-consuming and frustrating. So when we talk about young democracies, like those emerging in the Broader Middle East today, we must do so with great humility and with great patience and with great sympathy for their historic undertaking.

Too often, I think, we forget this perspective. Recent elections in places like Egypt and the Palestinian territories — the freest by far in both of those places — have led some to argue that our policy of supporting democratic change in this region is creating not liberal democracy, but illiberal democracy: elected governments that view no inherent limitations to state power. Some American and European commentators even argue that democracy is impossible in the Middle East, and that perhaps it should not be tried for fear of its consequences in destabilizing the Middle East. Now, this criticism seems to assume that our support for democratic reform in the Middle East is disrupting somehow a stable status quo there. But do we really think that this was the case?

Does anyone think that the Lebanese people were better off under the boot of Syria? Does anyone think that Yasser Arafat pretending to make peace while supporting terrorism was better for the Palestinian people? Does anyone think that the Middle East was more secure when Saddam Hussein was massacring the Iraqi people, invading his neighbors, using weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors and his people, funding terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and exploiting a failed sanctions regime for billions of dollars? And who today would honestly defend Arab authoritarianism, which has created a sense of despair and hopelessness so desperate that it feeds an ideology of hatred that leads people to strap bombs to their bodies and fly airplanes into building? The old status quo was unstable. Any sense of stability was a false sense of stability. It was not serving any interest and democratic reform had to begin.

It's hard to imagine, as some do, how this process of reform — it's hard to imagine for some critics how this process of reform might go forward in the Broader Middle East. But I can tell you this; it cannot go forward in the Middle East without freeing its citizens to voice their choices. For decades, authoritarian regimes in this region have completely closed off the political space of their countries. If things remain as they are, it is not very likely that a vibrant civil society is somehow going to emerge under the heel of authoritarianism. Real change will begin and is beginning in the Middle East when citizens — men and women — are free to make demands of their government. It would be illiberal in the extreme to think that disagreeing with a people’s free choice means that we should deny them the freedom to choose altogether.

Elections are the beginning of every democracy, but of course they are not the end. Effective institutions are essential to the success of all liberal democracies. And by institutions I mean pluralistic parties, transparent and accountable legislatures, independent judiciaries, free press, active civil society, market economies and, of course, a monopoly for the state on the means of violence. One cannot have one foot in terrorism and one foot in politics. Now, if these institutions that transform a government of imperfect citizens — it is these institutions that transform a government of imperfect citizens into a government of enduring laws.

I think that we in the West need to reflect long and hard before we write off entire societies as inherently despotic because of some notion of their cultures. Remember, cultural determinists were once so certain that democracy would never work in Asia because of "Asian values," or in Africa because of tribalism, or in Latin America because of its military juntas. It was even said, in my own lifetime, that blacks in America were "unfit" for democracy — too "childlike," too "unready," too "incapable," too "unwanting" of self-government.

The criticism assumes that human beings are slaves to their culture, not the authors of it. Liberal democracy is unique because it is both principle and process, an end toward which people strive, and the means by which they do so. The daily work of negotiation, and cooperation, and compromise, the constant struggle to balance majority rule with individual rights — this democratic process is how people create a democratic culture.

All too often, cultural determinists misunderstand culture in many places in the world. But we've seen it most especially lately in Iraq. It is certainly true that Iraq rests on the major fault lines of ethnicity and religion in the Middle East. It is also true that, for many centuries, Iraqis have settled their differences through coercion and violence, rather than compromise and politics.

But in the past two generations, it was Saddam Hussein who took a society that was already rife with sectarian and religious divisions and drove it to the brink of the state of nature. He committed genocide and filled mass graves with 300,000 souls. He slaughtered entire villages of Shia and Kurds. And he carried out a nationwide policy of ethnic cleansing to make Iraq’s Sunni minority dominant throughout the country. To be certain, he repressed a good number of Sunnis, too. So when we look at Iraq today, we must take care to separate the culture of its people from the near-term legacy of a tyrant. And we must support the millions of Iraqi patriots who are striving nobly to redeem their country.

This is an incredibly difficult endeavor, but the Iraqis are moving forward. In just three years, the people of Iraq have regained sovereignty and voted in free elections. They've written and ratified a constitution, then voted again, and their elected leaders are now working to form a national government. This steady progress has occurred in the face of truly horrific violence. Terrorist attacks, like the one that destroyed the Golden Mosque in Samarra, seek to inflame Iraq’s divisions and tear the country apart. But in response to that, some Iraqis have given into the temptation to take justice into their own hands, to engage in reprisal killings.

Yet, at the same time, we are witnessing something else, something very hopeful. After the Samarra mosque bombing, Iraq’s new democratic institutions helped to contain popular passions. Iraq’s leaders joined together to stay the hand of vengeance and violence in their communities. In these actions and events, we see the early contours of a democratic culture, forged in cooperation and strengthened by compromise.

The majority of Iraqis are formulating their own democratic answer to the question that first inspired the Enlightenment four centuries ago: How can different individuals and communities live together in peace, avoiding both the state of nature and the tyranny of the state? With time, with painstaking effort, and with our steadfast support, Iraqis will build up their fragile democratic culture, and eventually, many decades from now, people will take it for granted; that that democratic culture was always to be, just as we in America and Britain now take for granted our democratic culture.

In a tale of two cities, that the Secretary and I have now visited, Birmingham and Blackburn, Britain and the United States have seen how the impossible dreams of yesterday can become the inevitable facts of today. Who would have imagined, fifty years ago, that Birmingham would have been a thriving and desegregated capital of the New South? Or that Blackburn today would be revitalizing and modernizing and growing into a hub of enterprise for Northwest England and beyond?

Someday, people in Baghdad and Beirut and Cairo and, yes, in Tehran will say the same thing about their great cities. They will wonder how anyone could ever have doubted the future of liberal democracy in their countries. But most of all, they will remember fondly those fellow democracies, like Britain and the United States, and dozens of others, who stood with them in their time of need – believing that advancing the cause of freedom is the greatest hope for peace in our time.

Thank you very much.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).