Globalising freedom

Thomas N Hale
15 March 2005

What does President Bush mean by “freedom?” It seems worthwhile to ask following inaugural and State of the Union speeches in which the president dedicated the United States under his leadership to spreading freedom around the globe. There are elaborate philosophical debates surrounding the meaning of the word, but the president was making a case as appealing as it was simple – that people throughout the world should govern their own political destinies.

Anatol Lieven puts George W Bush’s speeches of early 2004 in the context of modern American nationalism; see “Bush’s choice: messianism or pragmatism?” (February 2005)

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Why then do so many believers in rule by the people – on the American left, in Europe, in the developing world, and especially in the middle east – respond to these speeches with apprehension? Furthermore, why do critics like Naomi Klein remain sceptical in the wake of what serious observers are describing as a “groundswell” of democratic sentiment in the middle east (see Youssef M Ibrahim, “Will the Mideast Bloom?”, Washington Post, 13 March 2005). Certainly not because they “hate freedom”. Rather, the answer seems to rest in how they define the scope of democracy. The president’s speeches advocate expanding democracy at the national and sub-national levels. However, in a globalised world dominated by a lone hegemon, governments must also consider the transnational aspects of democracy.

At the risk of oversimplification, let’s say that at its heart democracy means giving people control over decisions that affect their lives. Totalitarian regimes like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq patently fail to provide such control to their citizens; constitutional republics like the United States do so rather well.

That seems to be where the US administration’s thinking on democracy ends. But what are the implications for democracy when decisions made in one country start mattering to people who live elsewhere? The problem arises especially in relation to the United States, which – because of its size, power, and policies – matters almost everywhere. It seems fair to argue, for example, that the average citizen of Fallujah has been more affected by US policy in the last year than the average American. Yet Americans are allowed to decide how the US government acts in the Iraqi city while its own residents are not.

That is an extreme example, but the disparity extends far beyond Iraq. Consider global warming. America creates far more greenhouse gases than any other nation, yet it is other places – places with no influence over American policy – that will face the harshest effects as the sea rises and tropical diseases spread to new regions. Would the US oppose the Kyoto treaty if Florida were a small island nation and Ohio were situated just north of the malaria line? Similar parochialism can be seen in US agricultural subsidies, Aids medicine patents, and a host of other cases in which US policies impinge sharply on the lives of foreigners, often with negligible benefit to Americans.

In our “American power & the world” debate and our Letters to Americans series, openDemocracy writers both map and cross the gulf between the United States and the rest of the world

There are good reasons why people outside the United States cannot vote in US elections. After all, critics will contend, the American government is elected to represent Americans. Nonetheless, it is important for advocates of freedom to realise that defining democracy exclusively at the national level can lead to serious problems when political concerns become transnational.

The experience of the international financial institutions provides a fitting warning. During the 1990s environmental groups, labour unions, and poor countries condemned the “democracy deficit” they saw at organisations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation. In their view, globalisation was making these institutions’ decisions increasingly important and painful to them, yet they had no way to make the bureaucrats in charge hear their pleas.

Today, US hegemony and the administration’s foreign policy have created a similar situation, a “democratic mismatch” in which the people most affected by US policy feel increasingly locked out of decisions that can literally destroy their lives. The result is that citizens of states around the world increasingly see America as illegitimate and arrogant, even imperial. To answer a question asked with unfortunate frequency in recent years, this is – at least in part – “why they hate us”.

It is also why so many people greeted the president’s inaugural address and State of the Union speech with scepticism. Until the administration realises that spreading democracy across the world means giving people a say in all the decisions that affect them – including the ones that originate in Washington – it will fail to achieve its admirable goals.

Resolving the democratic mismatch does not require building a global republic. It does, however, necessitate giving greater weight to the concerns of people affected by American foreign policy. For a superpower, multilateralism is a necessary component of democracy because it gives people a say in decisions that touch their lives. In this sense, the United States spreads freedom when it consults with people and nations affected by its actions and works with international institutions and within international law.

The president is right to make country-level democratisation the centrepiece of US policy, and certainly democracy cannot be meaningful at the transnational level if it is denied locally. But it is equally true that in a globalised world dominated by one powerful nation, democratic values must spread beyond borders in order for the world’s people truly to be free.

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