These are extraordinary times in the history of freedom. In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. The idea that Arab peoples are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever.
Yet we have also seen instability, uncertainty and the revenge of brutal rulers. The collapse of an old order can unleash resentments and power struggles that a new order is not yet prepared to handle.
Some in both parties in Washington look at the risks inherent in democratic change—particularly in the Middle East and North Africa—and find the dangers too great. America, they argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of stability.
But in the long run, this foreign policy approach is not realistic. It is not within the power of America to indefinitely preserve the old order, which is inherently unstable. Oppressive governments distrust the diffusion of choice and power, choking off the best source of national prosperity and success.
This is the inbuilt crisis of tyranny. It fears and fights the very human attributes that make a nation great: creativity, enterprise and responsibility. Dictators can maintain power for a time by feeding resentments toward enemies—internal or external, real or imagined. But eventually, in societies of scarcity and mediocrity, their failure becomes evident.
America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on.
The day when a dictator falls or yields to a democratic movement is glorious. The years of transition that follow can be difficult. People forget that this was true in Central Europe, where democratic institutions and attitudes did not spring up overnight. From time to time, there has been corruption, backsliding and nostalgia for the communist past. Essential economic reforms have sometimes proved painful and unpopular.
It takes courage to ignite a freedom revolution. But it also takes courage to secure a freedom revolution through structural reform. And both types of bravery deserve our support.
This is now the challenge in parts of North Africa and the Middle East. After the euphoria, nations must deal with questions of tremendous complexity: What effect will majority rule have on the rights of women and religious minorities? How can militias be incorporated into a national army? What should be the relationship between a central government and regional authorities?
Problems once kept submerged by force must now be resolved by politics and consensus. But political institutions and traditions are often weak.
We know the problems. But there is a source of hope. The people of North Africa and the Middle East now realize that their leaders are not invincible. Citizens of the region have developed habits of dissent and expectations of economic performance. Future rulers who ignore those expectations—who try returning to oppression and blame shifting—may find an accountability of their own.
As Americans, our goal should be to help reformers turn the end of tyranny into durable, accountable civic structures. Emerging democracies need strong constitutions, political parties committed to pluralism, and free elections. Free societies depend upon the rule of law and property rights, and they require hopeful economies, drawn into open world markets.
This work will require patience, creativity and active American leadership. It will involve the strengthening of civil society—with a particular emphasis on the role of women. It will require a consistent defense of religious liberty. It will mean the encouragement of development, education and health, as well as trade and foreign investment. There will certainly be setbacks. But if America does not support the advance of democratic institutions and values, who will?
In promoting freedom, our methods should be flexible. Change comes at different paces in different places. Yet flexibility does not mean ambiguity. The same principles must apply to all nations. As a country embraces freedom, it finds economic and social progress. Only when a government treats its people with dignity does a nation fulfill its greatness. And when a government violates the rights of a citizen, it dishonors an entire nation.
There is nothing easy about the achievement of freedom. In America, we know something about the difficulty of protecting minorities, of building a national army, of defining the relationship between the central government and regional authorities—because we faced all of those challenges on the day of our independence. And they nearly tore us apart. It took many decades of struggle to live up to our own ideals. But we never ceased believing in the power of those ideals—and we should not today.