The Liberty Doctrine

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

The immediate response of President Bush and his administration to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States was superb, both purposeful and principled—a military, political, and diplomatic success. But what comes next? In his State of the Union address, Bush suggested specific targets of future phases of the war—the “axis of evil” of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. But what has been missing in the discussion of the second stage (and perhaps the third, fourth, and fifth stages) of the war on terrorism is an articulation of the general principles that will guide policy in difficult times ahead.

The new threat to American national security and the American way of life is no less threatening than such earlier challenges as the defeat of fascism in Europe and imperialism in Japan during World War II or the containment and ultimate destruction of world communism during the Cold War. A grand vision of the purposes of American power is needed not only to shape strategy but also to sustain support from the American people and America’s allies.

During the twentieth century, the central purpose of American power was to defend against and, when possible, to destroy tyranny. American presidents have been at their best when they have embraced the mission of defending liberty at home and spreading liberty abroad. This was the task during World War II, and it was again our objective (or should have been) during the Cold War. It must be our mission again. In fact, the war on terrorism is a new variation of the old war against the antidemocratic “isms” of the previous century.

The Next Phase in the War Against Terror

Adherence to a liberty doctrine as a guide to American foreign policy means pushing to the top of the agenda the promotion of individual freedoms abroad. The expansion of individual liberty in economic and political affairs in turn stimulates the development and consolidation of democratic regimes. To promote liberty requires first the containment and then the elimination of those forces opposed to liberty, be they individuals, movements, or regimes. Next comes the construction of pro-liberty forces, be they democrats, democratic movements, or democratic institutions. Finally comes the establishment of governments that value and protect the liberty of their own people as the United States does. Obviously, the United States does not have the means to deliver liberty to all subjugated people around the world at the same time. And the spread of liberty and democracy will not always be simultaneous. In some places, the promotion of individual freedoms must come first, democratization second. Nonetheless, the spread of liberty should be the lofty and broad goal that organizes American foreign policy for the coming decades.

By defining the purposes of American power in these terms, American foreign policymakers achieve several objectives not attainable by narrower or less moral doctrines. First, the liberty doctrine, like containment during the Cold War, is useful in clarifying the relationship between often very different policies. Toppling Saddam Hussein does in fact have something in common with providing education to Afghan women, and a liberty doctrine allows us to see it clearly. Second, the liberty doctrine properly defines our new struggle in terms of ideas, individuals, and regimes—not in terms of states. Allies of liberty exist everywhere, most certainly in Iran and even in Iraq. Likewise, not all the enemies of liberty are states; they also include nongovernmental organizations like Al Qaeda. Third, the liberty doctrine provides a cause that others—allies of the United States as well as states, movements, and individuals not necessarily supportive of all U.S. strategic interests—can support. For example, the Iraqi regime constitutes an immediate threat to American national security but does not pose the same threat to France or Russia. A campaign against Iraq defined in terms of “national interests” means that we will go it alone. A credible campaign for liberty in Iraq, however, may attract a wider coalition. Fourth, the liberty doctrine underscores two phases of engagement with enemy regimes—the destructive phase and the constructive phase. To demonstrate real commitment to this mission of promoting liberty abroad, the United States must also devote substantial rhetorical attention and concrete resources to the constructive phase of the promotion of liberty. If not, we will be waging military campaigns against new tyrannical regimes over and over again.

Moments for redefining America’s place in the world are rare. Pearl Harbor was one. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 was another, as the Western response helped crystallize the need for a vigorous containment strategy in Europe, including the creation of NATO the following year. The invasion of South Korea in 1950 was a critically important moment, prompting the quick adoption of NSC-68 as the strategic blueprint for containing communist aggression worldwide. The September 11 attacks against innocent Americans on U.S. soil can be another seminal event in refocusing the American mission. The task, however, requires conceptual framing, choices, and articulation. It will not happen naturally and organically as the result of events. The end of the Gulf War and the end of the Cold War could have been pivotal moments in the redefinition of American foreign policy and the international system, but they were not. Bush has correctly stated that “we’re in a fight for civilization itself.” But to undertake such a colossal task, we must clearly define the enemies of civilization and freedom, map a strategy for defeating those enemies, and then commit to a plan that expands civilization and freedom.

Multiple Means for Spreading Liberty

To effectively promote liberty abroad over the long haul, the United States must maintain its overwhelming military advantage over the rest of the world. American hegemonic power deters other great powers in the international system from allying together against the United States. Massive military might offers incentives for less powerful countries to cooperate with the United States. The ability to defeat antidemocratic enemies—Hussein in Iraq, Milosevic in Serbia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan—decisively, quickly, and with minimum loss of life for American armed forces offers a powerful argument for the benefits of friendly relations with the United States. If American leaders begin to make internal liberalization a condition of friendly relations with the United States, then sustaining unipolarity helps to promote democracy abroad. Maintaining American economic prowess is also necessary.

In addition to maintaining American power, U.S. foreign policymakers must develop policies and military doctrines that can deploy this power to effect regime change. The United States should try to avoid the export of revolution through the barrel of the gun. Yet the United States must have the fortitude, plans, and means available to assist the overthrow of antidemocratic regimes. On rare occasions, discussed below, these resources have to be used. Nevertheless, the mere presence of such resources will help to make American threats about deploying them look more credible. The quick defeat of both Milosevic and the Taliban—predicted by few at the beginning of these campaigns—has demonstrated once again that the American armed forces are second to none. Decades of sustained investment in military training, technologies, and personnel have paid off. Yet U.S. armed forces need to continue to retool and reorganize for dealing with the new security challenges of the post–Cold War era. The tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany waiting to repel a Soviet tank offensive need new missions. Fat budgets cannot be an excuse for avoiding reform.

The American capacity to destroy states is formidable. The American capacity to battle nonstate actors is less impressive. Thankfully, the Bush administration has recognized this weakness and has earmarked new resources to develop the intelligence agencies, the monitoring and safeguarding of weapons of mass destruction (which could fall into the hands of nonstate actors), and the tracking of terrorists and their sources of financial support.

If President Bush decides that Saddam Hussein’s regime must go, he can have confidence that his military planners will devise a blueprint for achieving this objective. The president should have much less confidence, however, that his advisers have the ideas or resources for assisting the development of a new and stable, let alone democratic, state in Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall. For too many years, American presidents and Congresses have neglected the development of nonmilitary tools for undermining enemy regimes as well as the instruments for rebuilding new states and societies after the collapse of unfriendly regimes.

Foreign Aid and National Security

The Bush administration proposed a budget for 2003 that will allocate nearly $400 billion to the Department of Defense—a $48 billion increase over the previous year—but earmarks only $15 billion for foreign assistance. Of this paltry total, nearly a third will go to two countries, Israel and Egypt, the latter a corrupt dictatorship. The Bush budget is building greater American capacity to destroy bad states, but it adds hardly any new capacity to construct good ones. Equally disturbing is that only a small fraction of this budget, less than $1 billion, will go to democracy assistance programs—aid that can be vital to weakening autocratic enemies of the United States. When used properly, this kind of assistance can also bolster democratic consolidation and thereby turn enemy states into friends of the United States. Instead of foreign aid, this money should be relabeled “preventive defense” funds.

Democracy-promotion is also an important facilitator of economic growth in the developing world. Aid to autocratic regimes often fuels corruption and impedes reform. Recent experience suggests that economic aid to democratizing regimes usually facilitates both economic reform and economic growth. Strikingly, no democracy in the world has ever let its people starve. Old thinking posited that development had to come first, democracy second. New thinking and new data suggest that democracy should be considered a critical component of development. Democracies are also immune from genocide and mass murder. Basic human rights, including the right to eat and the right to live, are best guaranteed in liberal democratic systems.

Some argue that promoting new forms of governance in a country such as Afghanistan, where only 30 percent of the men and 15 percent of the women are literate, is futile and fanciful. In the short run, a country like Afghanistan may have more immediate priorities. Yet a long-term strategy for combating radical Islamic fundamentalism must include policies that promote new government and new development in the region and end a decade of neglect. Democracy and economic growth may be the enemies of Osama bin Laden, but they are not the enemies of Islam.

Lessons from the Cold War

Aid is not charity. Aid is an instrument of American national security. The history of the twentieth century, including most importantly the American victory in the Cold War, offers powerful evidence. The Marshall Plan helped rebuild market economies and democracies in Western Europe. These states in turn helped contain communism. Likewise, American policies of state construction in Japan and South Korea helped create powerful American allies in Asia. When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, South Korea had a per capita GDP roughly equal to that of North Korea or India. After four decades of military and economic assistance from the United States, South Korea emerged as one of the economic powerhouses of the region. The successful example of these prosperous regimes also underscored to the rest of the world the advantages of close relations with the United States.

This demonstration effect is exactly what the United States must work to promote in Afghanistan. The new regime in Afghanistan must succeed. Afghanistan is our new West Germany. The new regime there must stand as a positive example to the rest of the region of how rejection of tyranny and alliance with the West can translate into democratic governance and economic growth. Such a tremendous undertaking cannot be left to the Europeans or the United Nations, not least because such a division of labor would undermine America’s reputation as a country devoted to spreading liberty.

The Cold War offers some important positive lessons for fighting the next war against tyranny. Complementing the military campaign against communism were new weapons, including the World Bank, the Peace Corps, Radio Free Europe, and the National Endowment for Democracy. Scholarship programs designed to bring foreigners to study in the United States were another vital tool. All of these Cold War–era tools need development and refinement, and new programs may also prove useful—for example, the Freedom Corps Bush announced in his State of the Union address.

These nonmilitary components of the new war also need reform and rethinking. For too long, “aid” has been considered a lesser, softer, peripheral component of American foreign policy. Hard-liners worked on nuclear weapons, not education programs. Only leadership at the top can change this culture. As an immediate, symbolic move, President Bush should consider changing the name and elevating the job of the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. “Administrator” is hardly an inspiring title. More important, the best and the brightest must be encouraged to devote more intellectual attention to devising new nonmilitary strategies for fighting tyranny and promoting liberty. What set of ideas should the United States be promoting in the Islamic world? How can these ideas best be propagated? Which moderate leaders and movements in the Islamic world are worth engaging, and which are to be avoided? What reforms are needed within American aid agencies to make them less wasteful and more effective? The intellectual challenge is huge.

To fight a sustained battle against communism, the United States also invested billions in education and intelligence about the enemy. The U.S. government sponsored centers for Soviet studies, provided foreign-language scholarships, and offered dual competency grants to compel graduate students to gain expertise in both security issues and Russian culture. Such programs aimed to combat the new “ism” exist today but are underdeveloped. We lack “human intelligence”—covert agents, spies, and informants—in the Middle East. But we also suffer from shortages of National Security Agency linguists, academic scholars, and senior policymakers trained in the languages, cultures, politics, and economics of the Middle East. In the departments of political science at Harvard and Stanford—the two highest-ranked programs in the country—there is not one tenured faculty member who is a specialist on the Islamic world.


The battle against communism took more than a century. This new battle against a new “ism” could take longer. Yet the West eventually did win the war against communism, an outcome that few predicted just a few decades ago. Our new war against terrorism will be long and difficult. But armed with the proper conceptual framework and grand strategy—the liberty doctrine—it can and will be won.