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  "History's lesson is clear. When a war-weary America withdrew from the international stage following World War I, the world spawned militarism, fascism, and aggression unchecked, plunging mankind into another devastating conflict. But in answering the call to lead after World War II, we built from the principles of democracy and the rule of law a new community of free nations, a community whose strength, perseverance, patience, and unity of purpose contained Soviet totalitarianism and kept the peace. No society, no continent should be disqualified from sharing the ideals of human liberty. The community of democratic nations is more robust than ever, and it will gain strength as it grows.... abandonment of the worldwide democratic revolution could be disastrous for American security. History is summoning us once again to lead."

-- George Bush, December 15, 1992

In a new era of peril and opportunity, our overriding purpose must be to expand and strengthen the world's community of market-based democracies. During the Cold War, we fought to contain a threat to the survival of free institutions. Now we seek to enlarge the circle of nations that live under those free institutions, for our dream is that of a day when the opinions and energies of every person in the world will be given full expression in a world of thriving democracies that cooperate with each other and live in peace.

-- Bill Clinton, September 27, 1993

GEORGE BUSH BECAME PRESIDENT at a watershed moment in twentieth-century history. Like 1918 and 1945, 1989 was a year when the old great-power order had collapsed and the United States stood preeminent in world affairs. At the conclusion of World War I, Woodrow Wilson had held forth a vision of American national security protected by a peaceful community of democratic nations, engaged in nondiscriminatory trade, and associated to resolve their conflicts in a covenant of collective security called the l: League of Nations. He presumed that the peace of the world depended on peace in Europe, which in turn depended on democracy in Germany, Franco-German rapprochement, stability in Eastern Europe based on the principle of national self-determination, and American leadership of the emerging new order.

At the conclusion of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and then Harry Truman tried to promote an updated version of Wilsonianism. While relations with the Soviet Union were of fundamental importance, their proposals centered on the United Nations, on a set of accords creating the foundations for managing the world economy reached at Breton Woods, on the democratization of Japan, Germany, and Eastern Europe, on European de-colonization, and on a commitment to American leadership in world affairs. Once again, stability in Europe was seen as the centerpiece of world peace, although Washington understood that in the future the Far East would also weigh heavily in the balance.

George Bush took office as the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was breaking up and Moscow was looking for a new framework of understanding with the West. How would he approach the question of establishing a world order favorable to the national security at this third moment of American supremacy, when, indeed, the military, economic, cultural, and political preeminence of the United States was greater than it had ever been in international affairs?


President Bush's response to the challenge of world leadership was appropriately Wilsonian. Given the legacy of the Reagan years and that of Wilson and Roosevelt before him at other watershed moments, how indeed could it have been otherwise? Approaches critical of liberalism in the conduct of world affairs were mooted, and deep disagreement might exist as to where and how to operationalize various aspects of its agenda. But to the extent the United States had an established doctrine in foreign policy, one that linked the definition of its national security to a particular structure of international relations, it was liberal democratic internationalism.

In the opinion of most analysts, Bush differed from Ronald Reagan by being less ideological and more pragmatic or opportunistic--a difference summed up when Bush confessed that he did not possess "the vision thing." Nevertheless, he had been vice president in an administration that had circled Jericho for eight full years trumpeting the virtues of democracy. and once the walls of the adversary had fallen, no other reliable formula seemingly existed for policymakers to help chart American policy in what was now a very different world.

Bush's rhetoric was akin to that of the Reagan years, but the substance of his policies had its intellectual provenance in ideas set in place by Wilson three quarters of a century earlier. As Bush put it in his Inaugural Address:

Great nations of the world are moving toward democracy through the door of freedom. Men and women of the world move toward free markets through the door to prosperity. The people of the world agitate for free expression and free thought through the door to the moral and intellectual satisfactions that only liberty allows. We know what works: freedom works. We know what's right: freedom is right. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections, and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state. America is never wholly herself unless she engages in high moral principle. We its a people have such a purpose today, to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.

In implementing his program, Bush was assisted by Secretary of State James Baker, a man as close personally and philosophically to the president as any secretary had ever been in American history. While Baker was a consummate pragmatist and displayed enormous gifts as a diplomatic negotiator, he also declared himself to be a committed liberal democratic internationalist. As he put it at his Senate confirmation hearings early in 1989, "the only sure guide" for American foreign policy was "the compass of American ideals and values--freedom, democracy, equal rights, respect for human dignity, fair play--the principles to which I adhere:

I believe in freedom for the individual because it's a God-given right and the source of human creativity. The Founders of our country recognized that such freedom was preserved best by limited government--the checks and balances system that still provides the framework for our success.... economic freedom, the free market system, is an essential part of the framework. Finally and above all, I believe, like Lincoln, that the United States has a special role in this world, a special contribution to make--as he put it, "the last, best hope of earth."

In 1989-90 the administration's principal concern was how to deal with the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe; by the fall of 1991, it was how to respond to the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself. At first the administration seemed to hesitate, unsure how far to trust Mikhail Gorbachev. But by May 1989 Bush had been convinced in discussions with leaders of Solidarity and other democratic movements in Eastern Europe, as well as with West Europeans like Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and Jacques Delors, that Gorbachev's "new thinking" for Eastern Europe constituted a genuine basis on which to end the cold war on terms long espoused by the West.

Thanks to the terms of the Soviet leader's new thinking, the United States felt it might participate in the conversion of the Soviet Union and its East European empire to Western-style constitutional government. Late in 1989 the Congress passed the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act, tying funds for Eastern Europe to explicit promotion of democracy.

The President should ensure that the assistance provided to Eastern European countries pursuant to this Act is designed 1) to contribute to the development of democratic institutions and pluralism characterized by: a) the establishment of fully democratic and representative political systems based on free and fair elections; b) effective recognition of fundamental liberties and individual freedoms, including freedom of speech, religion, and association; c) termination of all laws and regulations which impede the operation of a free press and the formation of political parties; d) creation of an independent judiciary; and e) establishment of non-partisan military, security, and police forces.

Strong in these convictions, Secretary Baker addressed a committee of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow in early 1990. Asserting that the birth of democracy in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union represented the "taking root" of "universal democratic values," which were the basis of "a revolution in relations between nations and a revolution in human consciousness," the secretary foresaw the creation of "a Europe which is both whole and free."

Baker's visit to Moscow came several months after Washington had already made it clear that its ambitions were not restricted solely to the democratization of the Soviet empire, enormous as that undertaking was. In a speech to the United Nations in September 1989, the president sounded three major themes of an American foreign policy aimed at the construction of a Wilsonian world order. First, democracy would expand world-wide:

Make no mistake. Nothing can stand in the way of freedom's march. There will come a day when freedom is seen the world over to be a universal birthright of every man and woman, of every race and walk of life.... today is freedom's moment. You see, the possibility now exists for the creation of a true community of nations built on shared interests and ideals.

Second, the president repeated the traditional liberal presumption that "the power of commerce is a force for progress;" that is, open markets make for prosperity and promote democratic forces. Third, he emphasized, as liberal doctrine would suggest, an urgent need for disarmament--"we must move forward to limit and eliminate weapons of mass destruction"--while insisting that the way forward lay through more effective international institutions: "The United Nations can play a fundamental role in the central issue of our time . . . that the nations of the world might come to agree that law, not force, shall govern."

The fourth and final element of traditional Wilsonianism appeared in Bush's conviction of the need for American leadership in world affairs to make sure these arrangements held. As he asserted in his State of the Union Address in January 1990:

The anchor in our world today is freedom, holding us steady in times of change, a symbol of hope to all the world. And freedom is at the very heart of the idea that is America.... America, not just the nation, but an idea, alive in the minds of people everywhere. As this new world takes shape, America stands at the center of a widening circle of freedom--today, tomorrow, and into the next century.... This nation, this idea called America, was and always will be a new world--our new world.

The Soviet Union was far from the only place where the American commitment to aid the transition to democracy was evident. In May 1989, in a major address on policy toward Latin America, Bush insisted: "The day of the dictator is over. The people's right to democracy must not be denied." In December he showed what he meant, first in the Philippines, then in Panama. In reaction to a military threat against Corazon Aquino in Manila, the United States stood by her government with a show of air power. Washington was explicit that the defense of her regime was based on its democratic credentials: "The United States is totally, absolutely, and completely committed to the Aquino government as a government that was elected in a free, fair, and open election. We don't like to see governments that are duly elected democratic governments overthrown by bullets and bayonets."

In Panama the United States invoked the restoration of democracy as the principal justification for the American invasion and the extradition of the dictator Manuel Noriega to Miami to stand trial on charges of drug-running. Following the Panamanian incursion, Washington exerted even more pressure on the Organization of American States (OAS) to take a united stand in favor of democracy, leading to the Santiago Agreement of June 1991, pledging American states to act jointly to defend established democratic governments in the hemisphere from internal threats. Agreement on this principle represented the fulfillment of Woodrow Wilson's hopes, nearly eighty years old, to see a hemisphere united in this respect.

The Bush administration's greatest triumph with respect to furthering democracy in Latin America came with the election of Violeta Chamorro as president of Nicaragua in February 1990, ending nearly eleven years of Sandinista rule. Bush had shown himself less wedded to the contras and more willing to stake the future of relations with the region on free elections. Chamorro's victory was a striking endorsement of this policy. "Beyond containment lies democracy," Secretary Baker declared dramatically, seemingly articulating a new framework for American foreign policy.

Meanwhile, in public forums the president began to speak of what Reagan had called "the democratic revolution" as "the Revolution of '89."

In the case of Nicaragua, Baker explained, Washington had stood firm throughout the 1980s on the necessity of a democratic transition. Leaders in Central America then agreed to back the American proposals for a peace based on democracy. Faced with a regional consensus, the European allies lent their support. Then Moscow listened. Now that democracy had come to Nicaragua the example would be contagious:


For we have a broad vista--stretching from Guatemala to Panama--of new possibilities for democratization, demilitarization, and development which offers a bright future for all the peoples of the region. With our help and the help of other democracies, it can and will be done.... Democracy speaks to universal aspirations--to use those famous old American words, "regardless of race, creed, or color." I reject, and I hope America always rejects, the view that democracy is for certain societies but has no place in Africa or Asia or South America or even in the Middle East.... Because we trust the people, not only here or in Europe or in Central America but everywhere, we are using democracy and elections as valuable tools in helping end regional conflicts and to bring about national reconciliation.

An important element in Washington's promotion of democracy abroad during the Reagan years had been encouragement to deregulate and privatize foreign markets and to open them to the world economy. Aside from the Caribbean Basin Initiative, however, little had been done to operationalize these ideas. But in June 1990, in order to give concrete force to Republican convictions that prosperity, the free market, and democracy went hand in hand, Bush announced his Enterprise for the Americas Initiative (E.I.). Later that year, he saluted the Chileans and Venezuelans especially for sharing his belief in the link between liberal economics and democratic government.

It was with respect to the promotion of democracy in Mexico that the effects of a new economic order in North America might have the greatest consequences for U.S. security interests. In 1988 Carlos Salinas de Garter had been elected president of Mexico; in short order he introduced a package of economic reforms designed to deregulate, privatize, and open the Mexican economy. Aspects of Salinas's reforms were strictly Mexican; the state would presumably continue to play a large role in the macro management of the country's economy (as in Japan or South Korea, for example), and a "solidarity" fund would increase governmental expenditures on the infrastructure in order also to provide jobs for some Mexicans who might otherwise be hurt by the economic restructuring. But on the whole, the Salinas program corresponded well to the kind of thinking Washington had been promoting since the early 1980s.

Relations between the United States and Mexico had not been especially cordial during the Reagan years. Given the even longer history of strained relations (going back to the war of 1846-8), the Bush administration was careful to avoid any appearance of meddling in that country's political affairs, despite continued concern about drug-running and human rights abuses. Yet the effects of the trade and investment negotiations finally signed with President Salinas in December 1992 (the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA], also including Canada, and ratified by the U.S. Congress in November 1993) may eventually contribute handily to Mexican democratization. Commentators in both countries tended at the time to focus their analyses on the relative costs and benefits Mexico and the United States might expect in strictly economic terms. But from a longer-term political perspective, the changes the NAPHTHA introduced might be even more significant for Mexico and for relations between the two countries. In short, by encouraging Mexico to privatize its state economy and open it to foreign economic forces, the United States was assisting in what might well eventually be a domestic restructuring of power in Mexico unprecedented since the days of Lazaro Cardenas in the 1930s. Should the country ultimately become a stable democracy, the benefits for the United States would presumably be significant.

The power of the single party that has ruled Mexico in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1910--the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)--has in good measure rested on its control of the state and on the state's control, in turn, of the economy--through direct ownership, subsidies, exchange controls, and the domination of labor and peasant unions. Careful to avoid the pitfalls of the Soviet experience, Salinas restricted his program to efforts to restructure Mexico economically. While there are those who doubt that the PRI will ever willingly relinquish power, these socioeconomic reforms may eventually oblige it to democratize the country. Should this be the path of Mexican political development, presumably the NAFTA will have played a role in that country's democratization.

The common denominator to a wide range of policies adopted in Washington between the summers of 1989 and 1990 was their Wilsonianism: the Bush administration asserted that support for democracy abroad might reap handsome dividends for American security interests. In Nicaragua, Panama, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, authoritarian regimes hostile to Washington were replaced with governments with democratic credentials that were staunchly pro-American. Germany would soon be reunited and securely anchored in NATO and the European Community. The OAS was committed for the first time to intervention for the sake of preserving democracy in the Western Hemisphere. With the E.I., Washington could look forward to helping to consolidate democracy in places like Chile while coaxing along democratization in Mexico. In the Philippines, the United States had successfully aided a democratic government under siege. What was less evident to many at the time was how tentative and fragile many of these bids to establish democratic governments actually were.

In the midst of this apparent flood tide of democratization came the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait in August 1990. To be sure, democracy was not the issue; neither in Iraq nor in Kuwait could there be much hope of fostering so Western a style of government. Nevertheless, here was a challenge to regional stability in an area of special interest to the United States, so that in acting decisively, Bush might give still more shape to what he now called a "new world order" to be crafted by American leadership. The president's address to a Joint Session of Congress in September put the matter in Wilsonian tones:


We stand today at a unique and extraordinary moment. The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times . . . a new world order can emerge: a new era--freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony. A hundred generations have searched for the elusive peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we've known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice.

In mobilizing forces to combat Iraq, President Bush took a variety of initiatives that might be called Wilsonian. He asked the United Nations for its support to defend Kuwaiti sovereignty, and so showed his respect for the importance of international institutions. He involved the Soviet Union, and so seemed to be paving the way for a later collective security agreement with Moscow. And he affirmed the battle to be one to have lasting repercussions:


The triumph of democratic ideas in Eastern Europe and Latin America and the continuing struggle for freedom elsewhere all around the world all confirm the wisdom of our nation's founders.... For two centuries, we've done the hard work of freedom. What is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea: a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind--peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law. Such is a world worthy of our struggle and worthy of our children's future.

In retrospect, however, it appears that the Gulf War marked not only the zenith of Bush's liberal democratic internationalism but the beginning of its decline as a road map for American foreign policy as well. Saddam Hussein remained in power in Baghdad; the democratization process in Latin America began to appear reversible; the outbreak of bitter nationalist wars in the former Yugoslavia confronted Washington and the European Community with a conflict they could not manage; and an American electorate with growing concerns about economic problems at home started to tire of a presidency that only seemed concerned about questions of world order.

In fact, even before the victory over Iraq, the Bush administration had had to recognize the fragility of democratization efforts abroad and the limits on American power to do much about it. In the summer of 1989, after Chinese students and their supporters had erected a Goddess of Liberty modeled on the Statue of Liberty, demanded democratic reforms of their government, and had been crushed in Tiananmen Square, Washington did little to protest. Whatever the justifications for American reticence (there were many), they were not Wilsonian.

Again, by the winter of 1990-1, the Bush administration had become sensitive to the resistance to change within the Soviet Union. The resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze as foreign minister in December 1990, charging that Gorbachev was moving too far to the right, raised concerns about Gorbachev's ultimate intentions: perhaps he still was determined to reform Leninist party rule so as to preserve it, or perhaps he was preparing his own coup rather than moving toward democracy. As with Beijing, Washington had to recognize limits on its power to influence events in Moscow.

In short order Washington was to realize that its hopes for a new world order could be dashed by peoples less powerful than the Chinese and the Soviets. In retrospect, it appears that perhaps the most significant blow to the emergence of a new democratic world order was the failure of the administration and its European partners to act decisively with respect to Serbian assaults on Croatia beginning in June 1991. Critics of the administration's passivity lamented not only the high loss of life in the region, but also the wider political repercussions of inaction on civil strife in neighboring areas and the apparent inability of NATO (or the UN or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the CSCE) to define its mission in a new way to control such threats to the peace. What had happened to hopes far collective security or to the promise of American leadership (even if Washington could blame the European Community for having claimed it could handle the crisis)?

In September 1991 Washington reacted relatively passively to a military coup that overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president. Neither Washington nor the OAS was able to prevent Aristide's followers from being delivered to the wolves. In a region where American power was supreme, what had happened to the proud boast made only months earlier that the United States would work to establish "a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations?"

The Haitian case was the first of a series of setbacks for democracy in Latin America. The Venezuelan military attempted a coup against the democratic government of that country in February 1992, while in April the Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori arranged for his military to stage a coup on his behalf against his country's legislature. Washington remonstrated, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the prospects for consolidating democracy in Panama dimmed as drug trafficking, secret banking, and unaccountable government practices reasserted themselves.  The boost given to democratic forces in 1989-90 in Central America apparently was not to have its sequel in Latin America in 1991-2.

Even as conditions seemed to improve in Moscow, Washington continued to experience a sense of its own limits. Thus, in May 1991, when Shevardnadze visited Washington, the former Soviet foreign minister re-assured the Bush administration that Gorbachev was now committed to democratic reform, but he also warned that the economic situation in his country was worsening and that the fate of democracy hung in the balance. The coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991 confirmed the fears of many. The problem (which has continued to bedevil American leaders ever since) is that even with committed democratizers in the Kremlin, it is not self-evident that the United States can do a great deal to aid their efforts. By March 1992 former President Richard Nixon was nonetheless publicly embarrassing Bush, calling aid provisions for the former Soviet Union "pathetically inadequate" and warning that the old question of "who lost China" might soon be replaced by the far more serious question "who lost Russia?" Several weeks later, the front-running Democratic challenger for the presidency, Bill Clinton, repeated the charge, formulating an agenda to promote democracy abroad as if in contradiction to Bush: "No national security issue is more urgent than securing democracy's triumph around the world.... It is time for America to lead a global alliance for democracy as united and steadfast as the global alliance that defeated communism.''

by Tony Smith