This is the core of America’s approach to the world. We do not accept a firm distinction between our national interests and our universal ideals, and we seek to marry our power and our principles together to achieve great and enduring progress. This American approach to the world did not begin with President Bush. Indeed, it is as old as America itself. I have referred to this tradition as American Realism.
It was American Realism that enabled the United States to come into being in the first place. It was American Realism that led us to rally our allies to build a balance of power that favored freedom in the last century. And in this century, it is this American Realism that shapes our global leadership in three critical areas that I’d like to talk about tonight: the promotion of a just economic model of development; the promotion of a freer, more democratic world; and the role of diplomacy in overcoming differences between nations.
And, close to my own discussions, a perspective on the Middle East:
As we work for a more just economic order, we must also work to promote a freer and more democratic world – a world that will one day include a democratic Cuba, a democratic Burma, and a fully democratic Middle East.
Now, this emphasis on democracy in the Middle East is controversial, I admit, and some would say, “Well, we’ve actually made the situation worse.”
I would ask: Worse compared to what?
Worse than when the Syrian army occupied Lebanon for nearly 30 years? Worse than when the Palestinian people could not hold their leaders accountable, and watched as a chance for peace was squandered and evaporated into the second intifada?
Worse than the tyranny of Saddam Hussein at the heart of the Middle East, who terrified his neighbors and whose legacy is the bodies of 300,000 innocent people that he left in unmarked mass graves?
Or worse perhaps than the false stability which masked a freedom gap, spawned hopelessness, and fed hatreds so deep that 19 men found cause to fly airplanes into American cities on a fine September morning?
No, ladies and gentlemen, the past order in the Middle East is nothing to extol, but it does not make the challenges of the present less difficult. Even when you cherish democratic ideals, it is never easy to turn them into effective democratic institutions. This process will take decades, and it will be driven, as it should be, and as it only can be, by courageous leaders and citizens in the region.
Different nations will find ways to express democratic values that reflect their own cultures and their own ways of life. And yet the basics are universal and we know them – that men and women have the right to choose those who will govern them, to speak their minds, to worship freely, and to find protection from the arbitrary power of the state.
The main problem for democracy in the Middle East has not been that people are not ready for it. The problem is that there are violent forces of reaction that cannot be allowed to triumph.
The problem is that too many Lebanese journalists and parliamentarians are being assassinated in a campaign of intimidation, and that the Lebanese have not been permitted to elect their president freely.
The problem is that too many peaceful human rights activists, and journalists, and bloggers are sitting in prison for actions that should not be considered crimes in any country.
The problem is not that a group like Hamas won one free election; it is that the leaders of Hamas still refuse to make the fundamental choice that is required for any democracy to function: You can be a political party, or you can be a terrorist group, you cannot be both.
We should be under no illusions that the challenges in the Middle East will get any better if we approach them in a less principled fashion. In fact, the only truly effective solutions to many of these challenges will emerge not in spite of democracy, but because of it.
Democracy is the most realistic way for diverse peoples to resolve their differences, and share power, and heal social divisions without violence or repression.