Ergo, a lesson for the next president is that the senior leadership must be on board and must speak consistently about human liberty and democratic values, because the world community can easily spot the lacunae.  So too can the bureaucrats who populate federal agencies.

A related, second barrier to implementation of the Agenda is institutional and bureaucratic resistance.  Those who represent the U.S. abroad, be they in military uniform, a government aid worker, or a diplomat, are busy people with a full range of prescribed activities.  They feel they do not have time for more work.  And the Freedom Agenda is not just more work, it is uncomfortable and tiresome work because it demands that U.S. officials at foreign embassies report on barriers to democracy, including religious persecution, as well as meet with representatives from civil society who are challenging barriers to democracy.  Such actions are not just more tasks, they have every likelihood of disrupting the relationship between the ambassador’s team and their local interlocutors.

As one goes through the documents and statements of U.S. government agencies such as the State Department, it is remarkable how little the Freedom Agenda has been accepted as central to the life of the Foreign Service.  A single glaring example may suffice: in early 2008 the United States recognized the independence and statehood of Kosovo, a tiny new “country” that had won its freedom from Serbia thanks to a NATO bombing campaign nearly a decade ago.  Amazingly, when one goes through the rationale for supporting Kosovar independence in the speeches of Secretary of State Rice, Under Secretary Burns, and Assistant Secretary Fried, there is absolutely no linkage whatsoever to the Freedom Agenda or even normative support for national self-determination and democratization.  The Agenda has just not sunk in.

Consequently, the president-elect must have a disciplined message across his Administration on advancing freedom and enforce the implementation of such efforts.  However, if the President of the United States finds it difficult to control his Cabinet and the massive bureaucracy of the federal government, it is even truer that the U.S. simply cannot control outcomes around the world.  The U.S. can speechify, fund, pamphletize, praise, caution, and even invade other countries in order to advance democracy, but its success largely lies in the hands of local leaders in foreign countries.  Thus, the next president needs to concern himself with what type of activities are most likely to actually promote human liberty and democratic institutions around the world.  It may very well be that some of our current efforts do not result in our preferred outcomes and that we will have to change course, such as diverting funds from supporting election in foreign countries to supporting foreign elementary education in order to cultivate a literate citizenry.

Another problem of the Freedom Agenda faced by the Bush Administration was its weak connections to other strands of U.S. foreign policy.  This disconnectedness can be seen in at least two areas.  The first is the disjointed nature of the essential freedom argument: the Freedom Agenda spends much of its rhetorical energy on notions of political liberty and democratic structures, but says little about other features such as religious liberty or private property.  In other words, the Freedom Agenda as a normative vision privileges certain elements of liberty (e.g. voting) over others (e.g. religious freedom).  Government actors engaged in these issues are scattered across multiple bureaus and agencies with little interaction.  A good example of this is the complete disconnect between the Freedom Agenda and the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (with its own State Department Office and an independent Commission on International Religious Freedom).  A new president should re-tool the Freedom Agenda by explicitly defining how its constituent policies (e.g. human rights, private property, free trade, and religious freedom) relate to and reinforce one another.

Even more problematic, however, is the disjuncture between the Agenda and other major U.S. foreign policy goals.  As Jennifer Windsor has argued, it is simply unclear how the Agenda relates to energy policy, education, engagement with the UN, and a host of other priorities.[19]  The U.S. government needs to be explicit about the limits of the Agenda, about how we try to mediate between this and other vital interests (such as access to petroleum or fighting terrorists), and the fact that the Agenda will not always trump other strategic objectives.  The new president must engage in this kind of frank discussion enhance the credibility of U.S. democracy promotion efforts.

By far, the majority of criticism of the Bush Administration is about the means of advancing the Freedom Agenda, not its ends.  Wittes and Yerkes are among many who argue that linking democracy promotion to the war in Iraq has harmed the Freedom Agenda worldwide.[20] Larry Diamond, a foremost scholar of democracy and a thought leader for Paul Bremer’s Coalitional Provisional Authority, recently critiqued the Bush Administration as “pretentious, unilateral, and impulsive,” but recently wrote in a “progressive” magazine, “As we disengage from Iraq, we must find ways … to renew the freedom agenda if we are going to serve our long-term security interests in the region.”[21]  Thomas Carothers, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, does not dispute that democracy promotion must continue into future administrations, but he scathingly demands a “decontamination” of U.S. foreign policy from George W. Bush’s policies (e.g. Guantanamo and the detention of enemy combatants) and a “repositioning” and “recalibration” of democracy promotion.[22]  The argument that these scholars are making is that democracy can never be promoted by force.  We tend to disagree-democracy was imposed at the end of World War II on Germany and Japan, but it is worth remembering that the Bush Administration said little about promoting democracy in the lead up to the Iraq invasion-the war was a national security imperative.  The application of the Freedom Agenda to Iraq was murky before March 2003.

Nonetheless, the next Administration will undoubtedly confront at least one opportunity for intervention, most likely in response to an armed crisis in the developing world.  A lesson to be drawn from the past decade is that a stated goal of any military intervention, whether national security or humanitarian in focus, should be human liberty and democratic structures.

In conclusion, the ideas within the Freedom Agenda are nothing new-it is an expression of American values that hearkens back to the founding of the republic.  Nevertheless, the Bush Doctrine is new for it defines the Freedom Agenda of individual liberty and democratic institutions as a key U.S. foreign policy goal.  What is also new is the institutionalization of democracy promotion and related activities by executive order and Congressional legislation as well as the embrace of this signature piece of President Bush’s grand strategy by both of his would-be successors.  The Freedom Agenda is foreign policy, but only time will tell us if our children’s world will be freer and more prosperous due to the vision and actions of this Administration.


[1] Jennifer Windsor, “Advancing the Freedom Agenda: Time for a Recalibration?” in The Washington Quarterly 29:3 (Summer 2006), p. 32.

[2] Mark Amstutz reports that in the 2002 National Security Strategy “the term freedom is used at least forty-six times, while the notions of democracy and liberty appear, respectively, thirteen and eleven times.” Mark Amstutz, “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism and the Bush Doctrine” in Christianity and Power Politics Today, Eric Patterson, ed. (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), p. 124.

[3] I have paraphrased Amstutz’s longer material.  Here it is in its entirety: 1. Belief that unipolarity is conducive to peace and that a preponderance of American power can contribute to a peaceful and prosperous world order 2. The need for multilateralism to advance peace, freedom, and security, but a willingness to act unilaterally when necessary 3. Belief that the United Sates must be willing to use preemptive and preventive force to confront terrorist groups and rogue states with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) 4. The need for the United States to champion human rights and help foster political democracy.

[4] John Lewis Gaddis, “A Grand Strategy” in Foreign Policy (November/December 2002).  Robert Jervis recognized the Bush Doctrine as a grand strategy, but strangely left out the democracy promotion component entirely.  See his “Why the Bush Doctrine Cannot Be Sustained” in Political Science Quarterly 120, no. 3 (2005).

[5] First page of Preface to the paperback edition by Ron Dermer.

[6] Others have reported the importance of Sharansky’s book and the author himself on the Bush Administration.  Former Under Secretary of Defense and Rumsfeld confidante Douglas Feith, in his book War and Decision (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), says he did little outside reading while in office due to the pace of the job, but he did read Sharansky as it was virtually “required reading” in the Administration (p. 452).  Interestingly, Glenn Kessler, in The Confidante (London: St. Martin’s, 2007), a book about Condoleezza Rice, concurs about the influence of Sharansky on top Administration officials (pp.89-91).  Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy (New York: Random House, 2008)  lambasts President Bush, the Administration, and Sharansky.  He calls the Freedom Agenda “the exfoliated version” of “Sharanskyism”


[7] Fourth page of the Preface to the paperback edition by Ron Dermer.

[8] Second inaugural.

[9] For instance, see the June 5, 2007 “Fact Sheet: Advancing Freedom and Democracy Around the World” at

[10] See the July 24, 2008 “Fact Sheet: Advancing the Freedom Agenda”  at

[11] See

[12] For a thoughtful description and discussion of MEPI, see Tamara Cofman Wittes and Sarah E. Yerkes “The Middle East Freedom Agenda: An Update” in Current History (January 2007).

[13] PL 110-53 is the “Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007” and it is a large, consolidated bill covering many agencies that includes much of that year’s Foreign Relations Authorization Act.  The bills mentioned in this essay can be found at the Library of Congress website,

[14] Madeline Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty (New York: Harper Collins, 2007): see her chapter “Dueling with Dictators” for a discussion of this oft-quoted remark.

[15] Windsor, 2006.

[16] Amy Zegart, “The Legend of a Democracy Promoter” in The National Interest Online (September 16, 2008).  Available at

[17] The transcript of this address is available at

[18] We have done a careful search of the speeches of these individuals and found that until about 2007, Administration officials rarely mentioned the Freedom Agenda.  Since then, it is primarily Secretary of State Rice and National Security Advisor Hadley who utilize the president’s language on the issue.  Bizarrely, Secretary Rice talks about a “democracy agenda” about as much as the President’s “freedom agenda,” suggesting a political scientist’s focus on institutions rather than the President’s emphasis on values.

[19] Windsor, 2006.

[20] Wittes and Yerkes, 2007.

[21] Larry Diamond, “Pursue a New Freedom Agenda” in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Issue #6, Fall 2007.  Available at  www.democracy

[22] See Carothers, 2007 and Thomas Carothers, “The Backlash Against Democracy Promotion” in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2006).  To be fair, Carothers recognized that the Bush Administration had a particularly hard path in front of it in advancing the Freedom Agenda: it did so in the aftermath of 9/11,  it took the Agenda to the area least favorable to democracy in the world (the Middle East), it was hampered by a reluctance within the entrenched American bureaucracy and senior officials in the Administration itself to move forward on the Agenda, and the U.S. has competing imperatives such as rooting out terrorists and access to oil.