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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

13 April 2006

Is freedom universal?

“I want you to understand this principle, and it's an important debate and it's worth debating here in this school [SAIS], as to whether or not freedom is universal, whether or not it's a universal right of all men and women. It's an interesting part of the international dialogue today.”

George W. Bush, speech @ Johns Hopkins SAIS, 10 April 2006

I doubt I will take the president’s advice. Freedom is universal, I have no doubt. But I find the question profoundly uninteresting, if not futile. It offers no answers: so what if freedom is universal? All people long to be free—the president is right. But it is unclear what this means for policy; not only because freedom is one desire among many, but because the idea that freedom is universal is a particularly bad starting point for foreign policy.

For a foreign policy centering on democracy promotion, the universality of freedom appears a solid basis. But this misreads the link between democracy and freedom: freedom is not the cornerstone of Western democracies, restraint is. Democracies exist not because of freedom, but as a way to safeguard it. Elections are meant to diffuse power, rather than just allow voters to choose their leaders. Democracy translates the desire for freedom by creating a space in which it is exercised—and this is done mainly through limiting everyone’s freedom.

The difference is not semantic. It raises the question of whether the desire for freedom can create a political order. Freedom is necessary but not sufficient in this view: the ability and willingness to compromise is more important. This is explains the disillusionment that often accompanies the first attempt to democracy—people think they will be free, but they rarely are. Their freedom depends not on their ability to vote (as many think), but on the success of the political system that will emerge from that voting to diffuse power. Their freedom depends on the inability of everyone else to have too much freedom.

Even more important is the misplaced emphasis on freedom for foreign policy: “I think elections are the beginning of the process, not the end,” the president said in that same speech. Elections work better when they express a variety of interests that already exist rather than when they try to produce that variety out of thin air.

The more important critique, however, is that the acceptance of state legitimacy, the cornerstone of realist thinking and the anathema to its critics, is fundamental to relations between states. When a state does not accept another’s legitimacy, there is no basis for cooperation. American policy often falters because it depends on regimes whose legitimacy America challenges; unwilling to punish or overthrow them, American policy is unable either to extract cooperation or to coerce it. Think of Syria or Iran: what agenda can America pursue with these countries when they know that nothing other than regime change will satisfy America—why comply?

It is against this contradiction that America has to conduct its foreign policy. The belief in freedom is noble—but it distorts both the promotion of democracy, which is better achieved when there is a basis upon which society can turn democratic, and it also hinders the advancing of many other fundamental American interests—say Syria allowing jihadis into Iraq, or Iran negotiating seriously over its nuclear program. That’s a high price to pay for not much in return.

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