“America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom-that it is the yearning of all who live in the shadow of tyranny and despair.”

-Barack Obama (2007)

It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

-George W. Bush (2005)


Heated debate surrounds George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda; however cheerleading democracy is nothing new in presidential rhetoric.  As one scholar observes, “advancing freedom is an expression of the United States’ most sacred ideals” and has an “established parentage” of American executives, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.[1]

In contrast to gallons of ink spilled on theories of democracy promotion and critiques of the Bush Doctrine, this essay considers the Freedom Agenda as foreign policy and assesses the results of the implementation of this constellation of discrete policies.  We argue that the Freedom Agenda is more than words-it was an integral part of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy which has been funded and institutionalized by Congress, but which has only seen mixed results to this point.  Because the Obama campaign pledged support for democracy promotion, we conclude with five lessons that the new Administration should consider when taking the next steps in promoting democracy and advancing human freedom.

9/11, the Bush Doctrine, and the Freedom Agenda

George W. Bush entered office pledging to follow a “humble” foreign policy and concentrate on domestic reform, but was goaded by 9/11 to formulate a new approach to address the dangers of state-sponsored terrorism. Traditional approaches to foreign policy (realism, liberal internationalism, etc.) were powerless to address the exigencies of the current strategic dilemma. The principles to this approach began taking form in a number of speeches such as a commencement address at West Point in the summer of 2006 and were shortly thereafter articulated in a uniform approach in the National Security Strategy of 2002, which mentions freedom and liberty five dozen times.[2]

That approach was the Bush Doctrine.  Mark Amstutz points out four distinct elements of the Bush Doctrine for U.S. foreign policy, the fourth of which is the foundation for the Freedom Agenda:

  1. A preponderant American is good for the world.
  2. Multilateral cooperation is best, but the U.S. will act alone when necessary.
  3. Every tool, including prevention and preemption, should be used to stop terrorists and rogue states from acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction.
  4. The U.S. must champion human rights, freedom, and democracy.[3]

Many, such as Robert Jervis and John Lewis Gaddis, recognized that the Bush Doctrine outlined in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) was a “grand strategy” for the United States.  Gaddis argued that one way the NSS was innovative was its argument that hopelessness, not poverty, is the root cause of terrorism.  The NSS asserts that lack of social and political liberty causes this hopelessness; therefore it is a vital national security imperative for the U.S. to spread freedom.[4]

Where did these ideas, particularly the focus on liberty and democracy, come from?  Certainly, they are a part of historical U.S. discourse, and undoubtedly between 2002 and 2004 they were germinating within and being debated in the White House, U.S. government agencies, and Bush’s reelection campaign.  They were also influenced by the book The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky, which Douglas Feith called “required reading” within the Administration.  A former Soviet political dissident and Israeli politician, Sharansky champions the transformative capacity of democracy. His thesis, based in large part on his experience as a political prisoner who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union from the inside, is that the desire for freedom is universal, democracies do not make war upon one another, and democratic regimes should act in unison, demanding concessions from dictatorships to allow more freedom in order to foster internal change from within.[5]

In Bush’s case, he received a copy of the book just after the 2004 election. The president was taken with this vision. Sharansky’s argument paralleled and extended many of Bush’s ideas elaborated in the NSS and numerous speeches, they seemed to take the President’s notions to their logical conclusion. It was then that the President decided to meet with Sharansky just weeks later.[6] The result of this exchange was to formalize the thinking about democracy promotion and human liberty as the Freedom Agenda.[7]  Six weeks later the president fully outlined the Agenda in his Second Inaugural address:

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.[8]

In his speeches, President Bush outlined a philosophy of freedom.  That worldview is based on a number of key assumptions, rooted in the Western liberal tradition and U.S. history, from the Declaration of Independence to Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, including:

  • contra realpolitik, politics have moral content.
  • the desire for freedom is universal
  • those who are free have a moral obligation to help others who aspire to it
  • free societies are characterized by human and civil rights and civil liberties.
  • history is on the side of freedom due to inherent human desire for liberty.
  • advancing human freedom is a vital interest of U.S. foreign policy.

In short, for President Bush the Freedom Agenda was not a tertiary policy priority it was at the center of his foreign policy after 9/11.  The questions before us are how, how well, and with what consequences has the Freedom Agenda been implemented as foreign policy?

Implementing the Freedom Agenda

In a series of public speeches and fact sheets the Bush Administration trumpeted its activities under the Freedom Agenda.  What did Administration do to advance the cause of freedom? In its early fact sheets,[9] the Administration focused specifically on democracy promotion and human rights initiatives, such as the following:

  • Increased funds for democracy building. Doubled the federal budget for democracy programs, such as support for good governance, human rights and election monitoring, and funding for civil society, political parties, and independent media.  For example the FY2009 budget requested $1.72 billion for such activities, as compared to $650 million in FY 2001.
  • Publicly recognized champions of democracy. The President personally met with over 100 activists and dissidents from dozens of “unfree” countries and directed U.S. ambassadors to seek and meet such activists in their postings. This included not only dissidents from autocratic regimes like Burma and Belarus, but also individuals from China, Pakistan, Russia, and even Spain.  Also, initiated legal funds and awards to recognize individuals, from the new Human Rights Defenders Fund to the Secretary of State’s Freedom Defenders Award and Diplomacy for Freedom Award.
  • Engaged in multilateral democracy promotion. Proposed and supported the UN Democracy Fund, launched an annual Roundtable on Democracy at the UN General Assembly, and supported the G-8’s Partnership for Progress and a Common Future for countries in the “Broader Middle East and North Africa” (BMENA).
  • Pressed “valued partners” like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to transition to free political systems. President Bush and his secretaries of state have met privately with foreign leaders and urged them to open their political systems to real competition as well as respect civil liberties and human rights.

More recently, the Administration broadened its reporting on the Freedom Agenda to include a broader array of initiatives that are integrated with democracy promotion, such as rational foreign aid, free trade, and humanitarian assistance.[10]  Specific examples include the following:

  • Smartened foreign aid strategies to focus on good governance, such as through the Millennium Challenge Accounts. The Millennium Challenge Corporation has provided $6.5 billion to 18 countries who meet stringent accountability criteria and commit via a compact to accountability.[11]
  • Promoted free trade. The Administration strongly advocated the Doha Round, implemented 11 new bilateral free trade agreements, and has pressed for others (e.g. Colombia).
  • Supported vital humanitarian aid. The President’s signature program was the AIDS program (Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief-PEPFAR), but the Administration also had initiatives on malaria, river blindness, and hookworm as well as has spent $1.8 million on food aid in 2007-2008.

Finally, many things are not mentioned in the fact sheets, such as support for democratic transitions and/or consolidation around the globe, including the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, support for a two-state solution in the Middle East, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).  Writing about MEPI, Wittes and Yerkes demonstrate that Administration had profoundly increased its attention and financial resources to promoting democracy in the broader Middle East, by consistent cultivation of this forum as well as supporting the G-8’s Broader Middle East and North Africa effort (BMENA).[12]

Moreover, in order to institutionalize the Freedom Agenda, President Bush signed a new classified national security presidential directive (NSPD-58) in July 2008.

Congress and the Freedom Agenda

One aspect of institutionalization of the Freedom Agenda that has largely gone unreported is the role of Capitol Hill.  Congress funds the Federal government, provides oversight and direction to the State Department and related agencies, and has been responsible in the recent past for major human rights and civil liberties legislation such as the Trafficking in Victims Protection Act of 2000 and the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.  What has been missed in the growing literature on the Bush Administration and the Freedom Agenda is how Congress has evolved on the issue, and come to support it.

We can best see this in how the 107th Congress gave little attention to democracy promotion in its fiscal year (FY) 2003 budget, and how that markedly changed over the subsequent five years.  The State Department Authorizations Act for FY 2003  (passed just a year after 9/11 as part of Public Law 107-228) “expressed the sense of the Congress that the budget for the [State Department’s] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor should be substantially increased,” but did not provide extra funding to that end.  Congress also established and funded a modest “Human Rights and Democracy Fund” administered by the Bureau to “support defenders of human rights” and “promote and encourage the growth of democracy…in other countries.”  That was all-two short paragraphs tucked into a massive authorization bill.

By 2005 a far more robust set of legislative options were promulgated by the Congress.  Senators John McCain (R) and Joe Lieberman (D) introduced the “Advance Democracy Act of 2005,” which was simultaneously presented in the House of Representatives by Tom Lantos (D) and Frank Wolfe (R).  Although the legislation did not proceed far in the 109th Congress, the original version of the Advance Democracy Act of 2005 would have instituted the following:

  • Spent approximately two pages defining and defending human liberty and representative government.
  • Declared that freedom and democracy in foreign countries is “a fundamental component of U.S. foreign policy.”
  • Elevated issues of democracy promotion by adding it to the title of an existing Under Secretary of State: the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs.
  • Created a new office of Democratic Movements and Transitions as well as Regional Democracy Hubs in U.S. missions in six regions.
  • Established a Democracy Promotion and Human Rights Advisory Board to advise the Secretary of State.
  • Called for a website reporting on democracy and human rights.
  • Required each embassy in non-democratic countries to develop a plan to promote democracy and support individuals and organizations committed to democratic ideas.
  • Provided monies for various funds on democracy promotion and human rights.
  • Expressed the “sense of the Congress” that the U.S. government should strengthen its ties to other democratic countries and multilateral institutions (e.g. the Community of Democracies).
  • Authorized an additional $250 million for democracy promotion over the next two years.

It is easy to gloss over the significance of this proposed piece of legislation.  The Advance Democracy Act was profound in declaring freedom and democracy as “fundamental components” of U.S. foreign policy, and for providing real tools for promoting democracy such as a sizable new financial investment, additional staff, and clear directives to U.S. missions.  All of this was in a text presented to Capitol Hill less than two months after the President’s Second Inaugural Address, clearly putting a large part of the Congress squarely in the President’s camp on this issue.  This was a clear victory for the Administration and added valuable resources to implementation of the Freedom Agenda.

Indeed, between September 2002 and the introduction of the Advance Democracy Act on March 3, 2005 an evolution in thinking had not only occurred in the White House, but also on Capitol Hill.  The President’s argument at West Point and in the National Security Strategy of 2002-that the expansion of liberty was fundamental to American ideals and interests-became a viewpoint shared across the political aisle.  The hopes of securing the peace in Afghanistan and Iraq and the inspiration of an “Arab Spring” and the “Color Revolutions” combined with President Bush’s Second Inaugural speech to provide a vision of a free twenty-first century world empowered (in part) by the U.S.

In 2005 the Advance Democracy Act failed to pass the 109th Congress.  However, the 110th Congress folded it into Public Law 110-53 as Title XXI, the “Advance Democratic Values, Address Non-Democratic Countries, and Enhance Democracy Act of 2007” or the “ADVANCE Democracy Act of 2007” which was signed by the president in August 2007.[13] The 2007 law closely mirrored the original version from 2005, and although it did not set up a new Office of Democratic Movements and Transitions, it does implement most of the other points adumbrated above, as well as the following:

  • Directs the Secretary of State to staff new “Democracy Liaison Officers” assigned to regional and multilateral organizations, combatant commands, and regional public diplomacy centers.
  • Directs the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor as well as Chiefs of Mission abroad to seek out, consult, support, and provide assistance to democratic actors in civil society as part of country-specific strategies for democracy promotion, including “issuing public condemnations of violations of … human rights, including violations of religious freedom, and visiting local landmarks and other local sites associated with nonviolent protest in support of democracy.”
  • Mandates that the Secretary of State provide training (e.g. Democracy Fellows) and recognition (awards, incentives) for Foreign Service officers engaged in democracy promotion.
  • Funds U.S. government and international democracy programs, such as $28 million for the UN Democracy Fund (2008-2009) and $3 million for Hungary’s International Center for Democratic Transition (2008-2010).

What is striking is that this fiscal authorization bill is unusual in its rich language of liberty and representative government.  At times the document reads like the president’s Freedom Agenda speeches, referencing the Declaration of Independence and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  For instance, early in the Advance Democracy Act a lengthy justification of democracy and democracy promotion is advocated:

“It is the policy of the United States to promote freedom and democracy in foreign countries as a fundamental component of the United States foreign policy … to affirm fundamental freedoms and international recognized human rights … to condemn offenses against those freedoms and rights as a fundamental component of United States foreign policy … to protect and promote such fundamental freedoms and rights, including the freedoms of association, of expression, of the press, and of religion, and the right to own private property; to commit to the long-term challenge of promoting universal democracy … to support … free, fair, and open elections, … to strengthen cooperation with other democratic countries…”

The language herein often sounds as if it were directly lifted from President Bush’s speeches, such as the following from Section 2102 of the Act: “The development of democracy constitutes a long-term challenge that goes through unique phases and paces in individual countries,” or “to use the instruments of United States influence to support, promote, and strengthen democratic principles, practices, and values.”  Likewise, the action items derive, or parallel, activities that President Bush called for two to four years ago.

In sum, the Freedom Agenda is simply not just presidential oratory, it is an integral part of the Bush Doctrine and the Administration’s “grand strategy” for U.S. foreign policy.  Moreover, the intellectual commitments of the Agenda found strong allies on Capitol Hill that implemented far-reaching changes in how the Department of State approaches issues of democracy, civil liberties, and human rights.  These changes were enshrined in law, buttressed with increased funding, and nurtured with Congressional oversight and annual reports. [1265]

Evaluating Success: the Freedom Agenda as Foreign Policy

We have argued that although President Bush’s Freedom Agenda fits clearly within trends in U.S. foreign policy that champion democracy, the Administration’s active commitment to this Agenda surpassed its predecessors by a significant margin.  Furthermore, we have reported on the activities of the White House, the Executive branch, and the Congress to advance representative government and individual liberty worldwide.

So, how has the Freedom Agenda fared as a foreign policy?  In other words, has the Freedom Agenda been successful?  This begs the question, what is the measure of success for foreign policy?  Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright says, “The purpose of foreign policy is to influence the policies and actions of other nations in a way that serves your interests and values. The tools available include everything from kind words to cruise missiles.”[14]  With this in mind, has the Bush Administration accomplished what it wanted?  Has it laid a foundation for future success of the Freedom Agenda?  To answer these questions, we will briefly look at the elements we can analyze to report on success or failure: the inputs, outputs, and outcomes of the Freedom Agenda.

One way to think about the success of any project is to begin with its goals, consider the inputs and outputs of the system, and then evaluate the outcome against the original objectives.  If we were designing a product, our goal would be to build and sell the product, our inputs would include human capital and materiel, the output would be the product, and a successful outcome would be the sale of said product.

First, the “inputs.”  U.S. presidents and other high officials have routinely called for greater democracy abroad, but provided little real stimulus toward that end.  Therefore, if President Bush was serious about the Freedom Agenda, then we should find more than words-we should find evidence of concrete activities, “inputs,” that were sown and cultivated over time into a harvest (outcome) of democracy and liberty.  Are there such inputs?

The Administration would certainly have said so.  Indeed, earlier in this paper we presented material from the White House’s “fact sheets” that detail numerous activities directly designed to promote freedom around the globe: presidential meetings with dissidents, speeches by the president and his proxies, the expansion of free trade agreements, work on Middle Eastern democracy such as MEPI and BMENA, increased funding for democracy programs, the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and support for democratic movements and transitions, especially in Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and the greater Middle East.  Thus, the Administration meets the “input” test: certainly President Bush and his team took some specific, concrete actions to advance the Freedom Agenda.

However, inputs are not the ultimate measures of success.  A job, such as building a house or a car, is not successful based on its inputs (e.g. hours labored, money spent, number of people on the project), but rather in terms of the outputs and ultimate outcome.  Inputs are at best building blocks.  In other words, inputs must coalesce into meaningful outputs, or products, of the system.  Are there “outputs” of the Freedom Agenda?

The most important outputs of the Agenda are those structural changes and institutionalized practices adopted to implement the Freedom Agenda.  On the domestic front, perhaps the most important “outputs” are when the president’s directives have been codified into law by the Congress.  For instance, President Bush ordered the Secretary of State to direct her chiefs of mission to meet with supporters of democracy and speak against repression in their host countries.  The President also called for increased funding for democracy promotion.  In many cases, these ideas developed concurrently with the Congress, ultimately resulting in the Advance Democracy Act of 2007, which does these things and more (outputs).  In addition, in July 2008 the president signed a new National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD 58) to institutionalize the Freedom Agenda within the federal government.  One can also point to five years of investment in Iraq and seven years invested in Afghanistan, as well as various free trade agreements, and the on-again, off-again Middle East peace process based on the Roadmap’s “two state solution” as “outputs” of the Administration.  Some of the outputs turned out to be “lemons,” but in the end, the Freedom Agenda in law was a major success “output” for the Administration.

Nevertheless, outputs again only tell a partial story with regards to measuring success.  Real success is not measured just in outputs, but in outcomes.  To return to an automobile analogy, a corporation can engineer and build a car, but if no one purchases it, the successful operational “output” can nonetheless be a failure with strategic consequences.

Foreign policy outcomes are intricate and therefore notoriously tricky to parse, both due to the difficulty of examining direct causal evidence as well as the complexity of independent variables affecting the desired outcome.  Additionally, the lengthy time horizon makes such analysis problematic (e.g. George Kennan’s containment and the end of the Soviet Union).  It is simply impossible to completely control for all the variables involved, just as it is impossible for the U.S. to control world populations and foreign governments.

Can the Agenda point to successful outcomes of democracy and human flourishing?  Are we closer to that vision in 2008 than we were in 2000?  Are the seeds sown in the last few years likely to make the world a more free and democratic place in the next five years?  The next ten years?

The world is a more democratic place than it was a decade ago, largely due to the Color Revolutions and the continuing consolidation of democracy in parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  However, these were not caused by the Bush Doctrine.  Ongoing democratic transitions and consolidations, from Liberia to Ukraine, did receive some modest “inputs” along the way, but it is unclear that the Freedom Agenda played any role.  It is simply too soon to tell in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq-both of which were established as democracies following military intervention justified in terms of U.S. national security interests, not democracy promotion.  Similarly, the Middle East Roadmap appears to be dead and, as one scholar points out, we are experiencing a concurrent rise in authoritarian alternatives like China and Venezuela.[15]

It is more likely that the “hard evidence’ of the Freedom Agenda’s efficacy will be in the areas of free trade (establishing new free trade areas), smart development aid (e.g. the Millennium Challenge Corporation) and human flourishing (e.g. PEPFAR, the malaria initiative) rather than in terms of regime change.  Perhaps most importantly, these initiatives-when combined with other ventures such as MEPI-weave the Agenda into a larger tapestry of interconnected policies and values that are now well established.

Finally, the Freedom Agenda and its progeny, most notably the Advance Democracy Act, are now a standard by which the content of U.S. foreign policy goals are evaluated by people around the world.  The Agenda has forced the U.S. government to decide in favor of universal democracy promotion as a key objective of U.S. foreign policy and willfully connect it to issues of human rights, private property, and religious freedom.

Hence, the U.S. will find itself under increasing pressure to address the anachronisms and perceived hypocrisies that are discordant in its foreign policy, such as support for authoritarian regimes in the interests of “stability.”  Most importantly, as the Freedom Agenda was largely embraced by candidate Obama, it seems obvious that American will continue contributing toward the desired outcomes of global freedom and democracy.

Conclusion: Lessons for the New Administration

It is critical for the new Administration to learn from the successes and failures of the Bush era.  Both of the recent presidential contenders supported the Freedom Agenda.  Senator McCain was one of the primary sponsors of the Advance Democracy Act and Senator Obama got on the bandwagon as a co-sponsor.  Regarding the victor, political scientist Amy Zegart writes, “Obama has managed to out-freedom Bush.”  She concludes that Bush’s “grand strategy will undoubtedly set the course of American foreign policy for the next administration, and possibly the next generation.”[16]

“Out-freedom Bush?”  Consider one of Obama’s most important foreign policy speeches, made in 2007 at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs:

“We have heard much over the last six years about how America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom-that it is the yearning of all who live in the shadow of tyranny and despair.

“I agree.  But this yearning is not satisfied by simply deposing a dictator and setting up a ballot box.  The true desire of all mankind is not only to live free lives, but lives marked by dignity and opportunity; by security and simple justice…. It also requires a society that is supported by the pillars of a sustainable democracy: a strong legislature, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, a free press, and an honest police force.  It requires building the capacity of the world’s weakest states and providing them what they need to reduce poverty, build healthy and educated communities, develop markets, and generate wealth…. As President, I will double our annual investments in meeting these challenges to $50 billion…. Part of this new funding will also establish a two billion dollar Global Education Fund that calls on the world to join together in eliminating the global education deficit, similar to what the 9/11 commission proposed.  Because we cannot hope to shape a world where opportunity outweighs danger unless we ensure that every child, everywhere, is taught to build and not to destroy…. Finally, while America can help others build more secure societies, we must never forget that only the citizens of these nations can sustain them.[17]

Similar language by the president-elect and his advisors abounds.  So, what are the lessons regarding a Freedom Agenda for the Obama Administration?  First, remember that the Freedom Agenda was not, and is not, without its skeptics in government.  The most important of those skeptics are those within the Administration or within the bureaucracy who do not support the Agenda, or in the latter case, do not support the president.  It is telling, for instance, how rarely senior Bush Administration officials spoke about the Agenda, freedom, and democracy in their speeches.  This hush is obvious when one combs through the speeches of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor’s first year in office, as well as the language of other senior leaders such as Vice President Cheney, Secretaries of Defense Rumsfeld and Gates, the Deputy Secretaries at the Departments of State and Defense, and the like.[18]  Many of these individuals are self-proclaimed “realists” and they may have thought that President Bush’s early speeches on liberty and democracy were just rhetoric to smile at.  If this is the case, the president ultimately surprised them with his dogged determination to press the Freedom Agenda.

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 http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/06/20070605-6.html.

[10] See the July 24, 2008 “Fact Sheet: Advancing the Freedom Agenda”  at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/07/20080724-8.html.

[11] See http://www.mcc.gov/press/releases/documents/release-092308-billions.php.

[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, www.thomas.loc.gov.

[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 http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=19688.

[17] The transcript of this address is available at http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/dynamic_page.php?id=64.

[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 journal.org/ID6557.

[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.