Forced by 9/11 to leave his critical view of "nation-building" behind, President Bush could easily use his Inaugural Address Thursday to quote Woodrow Wilson, that consummate advocate for US leadership in building up other nations and expanding democracy.
In the midst of World War I, just before sending US troops to help free Europe from German expansionism, the 28th president used his second inaugural to make this point about America's place in the world: "We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the 30 months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world." Then he added that all nations are "responsible" for maintaining world peace, including the "political stability of free peoples."
The idea of spreading freedom has waxed and waned in US history. Such an expensive undertaking requires dollars and lives that Americans may not want to give to help others. But President Bush has identified this goal as the main foreign-policy thrust of his second term. He now recognizes that democracy, because of the self-determination it provides, is the best guarantor for peace during a long campaign against Islamic terrorism.
His theme could be an ennobling unifier for Americans, who remain polarized in their politics. In her Senate confirmation hearings this week, Secretary-of-State designate Condoleezza Rice gave a reminder of how the nation can come together when it struggles for its basic values. She spoke of her experience growing up in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"The story of Birmingham's parents and teachers and children is a story of the triumph of universal values over adversity," she stated. These values, she added, "unite Americans of all backgrounds." And indeed, the sacrifice of a Martin Luther King and those of American soldiers liberating others from tyranny do have common cause.
Dr. Rice reminded her Senate questioners that the freedom struggle will take decades (a hint to anyone looking for full democracy in Iraq).
Getting Americans behind Bush's democracy goal may be easy. The difficult issue is how to carry it out, especially in the need to win over allies.
Whether by necessity, or because of a genuine change of heart, the president has finally learned that Washington needs to treat its global partners better. As Rice put it: "Our interaction with the rest of the world must be a conversation, not a monologue."
She plans to put a greater emphasis on diplomacy - more travel for her, and more personal persuasion. Her picks as her top two assistants - the US trade negotiator and the US ambassador to NATO - hint that Washington will be more inclusive of allies and rely more on international institutions.
A good example was the US coordination with Europe during the tense elections in Ukraine late last year. That joint pressure helped Ukraine's democratic protesters overturn a rigged election that would have perpetuated authoritarianism in that strategic country.
Still, the task of creating more new democracies takes more than diplomacy. Trade and military assistance are also useful. The president has yet to signal how proactive he will be to push authoritarian leaders. The neo-conservatives in his administration see aggressive promotion of democracy as essential to protecting the democracies that exist, even to the point of invading nations like Iraq. Bush needs to indicate whether those kinds of controversial choices are still possible.
In identifying six "outposts of tyranny" (Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Belarus, and Zimbabwe), Rice indicates the neoconservative outlook is alive and well (although she specifically said the US has no plan to attack North Korea, while Bush suggested he retains a military option against Iran's nuclear program).
Many constraints will hinder an aggressive approach. Rice pointed to increasing authoritarianism in Russia, but the reality is that the US relies on Moscow as an ally in the war on terrorism. And won't the unresolved situation in Iraq continue to eat up time, focus, and dollars?
The most immediate need for US support of democracy is in creating a Palestinian state. That would do more to spawn Middle East democracies than the effort in Iraq. Rice should make an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact her top priority.