By Erin Rodewald // October 25, 2017
(This article originally appeared in Providence magazine)
America in the 21st century is experiencing an identity crisis of sorts. The nation seems caught in a cultural maelstrom that is producing a crisis of confidence here at home. Free speech is disputed on college campuses, religious freedom is challenged in the courts, and the press is criticized for fabricating news to drive a particular political agenda. Our civic decency and national discourse have been compromised.
Meanwhile, economic, political, and national security concerns have sparked a renewed appetite among many Americans—private citizens and elected officials alike—to turn a collective gaze inward. An apparent downturn in what was once an enthusiastic embrace of the basic tenets of democracy and open markets may be jeopardizing what has been a robust and longstanding foreign policy engagement.
Is the liberal democratic order that has provided stability, prosperity, and freedom across the globe for the better part of 70 years in peril? Is America witnessing a slow fade of its core values, or is the country at a tipping point that will lead to a renewal of the spirit of liberty?
Animated by these questions, the George W. Bush Institute hosted a national forum called the Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World on October 19 in New York to discuss current challenges to freedom, free markets, and security at home and abroad.
Speaking to an audience of 400 business leaders, scholars, policymakers, and students, former president George W. Bush said, “The great democracies face new and serious threats—yet seem to be losing confidence in their own calling and competence.” Now more than ever, he asserted, American leadership is essential to the success of freedom in the world.
“We know, deep down, that repression is not the wave of the future. We know that the desire for freedom is not confined to, or owned by, any culture; it is the inborn hope of our humanity,” he said. “We know that free governments are the only way to ensure that the strong are just and the weak are valued. And we know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”
In an era when global freedom has been in a protracted state of decline, preserving and protecting democracy is not only prudent, it is a moral imperative.
Grace Jo would agree. She is a product of the brutal communist regime in North Korea, which remains one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world. As a young girl, Jo witnessed the starvation deaths of her grandmother, father, and brother before escaping to China with her mother and sister. In 2008, Jo risked everything to come to the United States in search of freedom. Addressing the Spirit of Liberty audience as a newly naturalized American citizen, Jo said:
It is my privilege to be an American. When freedom was absent in my life, it was dark, sad, desperate, and I was fearful. American leadership to advance freedom in the world is essential. Working together, Americans have the ability to change the world.
To that end, the Bush Institute announced two important initiatives at the forum. The first is a public opinion study in collaboration with Freedom House and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. The aim of the study is to learn what Americans think about democracy and democratic values in the 21st century and what they believe America’s role should be in spreading liberty abroad.
The second initiative introduced is a bipartisan call-to-action policy paper that recommends four areas of action by government, the private sector, institutions, and individuals to affirm American values at home and abroad. The first recommendation is a hardening of U.S. defenses, including those needed to address a proliferation of cyber-threats. Second is an emphasis on American leadership to help defend an international order rooted in freedom and free markets. Third is a strengthening of American citizenship through renewed civic learning. Finally, the paper calls for the restoration of trust in democratic institutions—government, Congress, the Supreme Court, organized religion and public schools, the media, big business and organized labor.
Rounding out the forum were two panels, one addressing American interests and leadership abroad and the other focused on delivering on democracy’s promise at home. The international panel featured a discussion with current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice.
At times the conversation took the tone of a mentoring session, with Albright and Rice each gently coaching Haley on the finer points of diplomacy. In response to the recent decision to pull the U.S. out of UNESCO, for example, Albright cautioned, “If funding for the United Nations is cut, and you go and try to work on reform, you are not going to be listened to because you don’t have the leverage.”
Likewise, Rice encouraged a measured approach when trimming programs. “When you take on what is not working, always affirm what is.”
Many in the media characterized Bush’s remarks at the forum as a thinly veiled rebuke of the current Trump administration. Indeed, the timing of the forum is interesting. Former President Barack Obama gave a separate and unrelated speech on the same day, also viewed by many as a critique of the Trump presidency. And days earlier, Senator John McCain had pointed words about the current state of American leadership abroad:
To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain “the last best hope of earth” for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.
McCain went on to say, “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad…we have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent.”
Despite the timing of remarks by the three statesmen and the appearance of a common thread of criticism, however, Bush’s comments seem to transcend a mere indictment of the current administration. More accurately, his commentary points to a slow fade in the collective understanding and appreciation of first principles.
“In recent decades, public confidence in our institutions has declined,” noted Bush. “Our governing class has often been paralyzed in the face of obvious and pressing needs. The American dream of upward mobility seems out of reach for some who feel left behind in a changing economy. Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts. Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seem more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
These are not trends that happen overnight or under a single administration’s watch. These are systemic challenges that have been years in the making; the slow drip of complacency.
More important than the questions who (who is to blame?) or when (when did this all happen?) is the question how. How does America renew its spirit of liberty?
“It’s a shame that we have to reassert the values of democracy and liberty here at home and how it intersects freedom and national security. But we do, and we will,” said Ken Hersh, President and Chief Executive Officer of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
The Bush Center hopes to use its platform to start a movement. “People pay attention when a former president asks them to join an effort,” said Lindsay Lloyd, Deputy Director of the Bush Center’s Human Freedom Initiative. “A former president can bring together unique constituencies” to solve problems.
Such an effort brings to mind the sobering words of another American president, steadfast in his own belief of America’s indomitable spirit. Long before he took the oath to “preserve, protect and defend,” Ronald Reagan said:
“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”
This generation’s turn has come.