The American experiment

COMMENTARY Political Process

The American experiment

Jul 5, 2007 3 min read

Former Senior Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Helle’s work focused on the U.S. government’s institutions and programs for strategic outreach to the public of foreign countries.

The American experiment was unique and improbable in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and the American colonies defied Britain, the most powerful nation on earth at the time. As we look around the world at how difficult it is for democracy and freedom to take hold and flourish, America seems like a political miracle.

In 1787, when the Founding Fathers had hammered out the U.S. Constitution in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin told an inquiring woman what the gathering had produced, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it." Jefferson also knew how great the American experiment's appeal would be to others. "The flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776, have spread across too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume the engines and all who work them." The self-evident truth that "all men are created equal; endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" remains the powerful philosophical and moral foundation of a successful foreign policy no less than it is the foundation of the American republic itself. Yet, as we are seeing today, the advance of freedom and democracy is not a straight path, but one that also sustains setbacks.

Americans have kept their republic and built it to be strong, but it will only remain so under constant vigilance. The bombing scare in Britain, where an ineffectual bomb was detonated in Glasgow airport and several other plots unfurled in London, helps remind us that freedom's enemies are as determined as ever. After a full decade of progress following the end of the Cold War, democracy is still under attack and retreating in other parts of the world. The Muslim Arab world presents a persistent and difficult challenge; China continues on its own path, which it hopes will prove that freedom and economic prosperity do not have to go hand in hand; Russia is taking the road toward a kind of authoritarianism of the past; in Africa, democracy's progress has been uneven to say the least; and some countries in Latin America are seeing autocratic populism resurging.

President Bush's ambitious declaration of the advance of freedom and democracy to be his banner causes has run into a tempest of radical terrorist opposition in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, calling into doubt a once promising Iraq policy. Ironically, those on the left who in the past declared themselves democracy's champions have responded with cynicism to the goal of bringing freedom to oppressed nations. Advancing the American model of governance is regarded by some both here and in Europe as naive and imperialist. This is a sad state of affairs.

A Pew Research Center poll released last week on global views of America illustrates the problem. Public rejection of American democracy is prevalent in most countries. This may reflect opinions about the way in which the United States has implemented its pro-democracy agenda, and also about America's democratic values themselves. In 43 of 47 countries surveyed, a majority say that the United States promotes democracy mostly where it serves its interests, rather than as a matter of principle. Even more unfortunately, this cynicism also includes 63 percent in the United States itself. Only 45 percent of Americans have faith in American leadership in the world.

How to restore faith in the American political system -- and in its importance as a model for democracy to be exported and shared -- will, for the most part, be the job of the next president of the United States. Meanwhile, history will likely look more favorably on the vision of Mr. Bush than we see today. By comparison, the star of President Reagan has been ascending since he left office, and it is worth recalling that the Berlin Wall fell during the presidency of Mr. Reagan's successor, the current President Bush's father. Mr. Reagan's vision of worldwide freedom earned him scorn at the time, whereas history has vindicated him.

As Mr. Reagan stated at Yorktown in 1981, "Our Declaration of Independence has been copied by emerging nations around the globe, its themes adopted in places many of us have never heard of. Here in this land, for the first time, it was decided that man is born with certain God-given rights. We the people declared that the government is created by the people for their own convenience." As powerful as that message is, it has to receive constant reinforcement from those who remain convinced of its promise.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Times