January 25, 2005
If you're going to end tyranny in the world, writes George Soros, you have to respect and understand how open societies work. Bush does not—and his inaugural address shows this clearly. While Bush is right when he says what goes on inside other countries is of vital interest to the United States, intervention can only be successful if there are clearly established rules, which in turn require international law and institutions.President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address set forth an ambitious vision of the role of the United States in advancing the cause of freedom worldwide, fueling worldwide speculation over the course of American foreign policy during the next four years. The ideas expressed in Bush’s speech thus deserve serious consideration.
“It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture,” Bush declared, “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
There is a bow to diplomacy in the assurance that fulfilling this mission “is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend our friends and ourselves by force of arms when necessary.” Similarly, Bush recognizes that outsiders cannot force liberty on people. Instead, “Freedom by its nature must be chosen and defended by citizens and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities.”
Finally, there is acceptance of diversity, for “when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom and make their own way.”
I agree with this goal, and have devoted the last 15 years of my life and several billion dollars of my fortune to attaining it. Yet I find myself in sharp disagreement with the Bush administration. It is not only that there is a large gap between official words and deeds; I find that the words sometimes directly contradict the deeds in a kind of Orwellian doublespeak.
When Bush declared war on terror, he used that war to invade Iraq. When no connection with Al Qaeda could be established and no weapons of mass destruction could be found, he declared that we invaded Iraq to introduce democracy. Now the elections in Iraq are about to be converted into a civil war between a Shi’a-Kurd dominated government and a Sunni insurrection.
In Iraq and beyond, when Bush says that “freedom will prevail,” many interpret him to mean that America will prevail. This impugned America’s motives and deprived the United States of whatever moral authority the country once had to intervene in other countries’ domestic affairs. If, for example, America offers support to Iranian students who are genuinely striving for greater freedom, they are now more likely to be endangered by U.S. support, as the regime’s hardliners are strengthened.
To explain what is wrong with the new Bush doctrine, I have to invoke the concept of open society. That is the concept that guides me in my efforts to foster freedom around the world. The work has been carried out through foundations operating on the ground and led by citizens who understand the limits of the possible in their countries. Occasionally, when a repressive regime expels our foundation—as happened in Belarus and Uzbekistan—we operate from the outside.
Paradoxically, the most successful open society in the world, the United States, does not properly understand the first principles of an open society; indeed, its current leadership actively disavows them. The concept of open society is based on the recognition that nobody possesses the ultimate truth. To claim otherwise leads to repression. In short, we may be wrong.
That is precisely the possibility that Bush refuses to acknowledge, and his denial appeals to a significant segment of the American public. An equally significant segment is appalled. This has left the United States not only deeply divided, but also at loggerheads with much of the rest of the world, which considers our policies high-handed and arbitrary.
President Bush regards his re-election as an endorsement of his policies, and feels reinforced in his distorted view of the world. The “accountability moment” has passed, he claims, and he is ready to confront tyranny throughout the world according to his own lights.
But the critical process that is at the core of an open society—which the United States abandoned for 18 months after 9/11—cannot be forsaken. That absence of self-criticism is what led America into the Iraq quagmire.
A better understanding of the concept of open society requires that promoting freedom and democracy and promoting American values and interests be distinguished. If it is freedom and democracy that are wanted, they can be fostered only by strengthening international law and international institutions.
Bush is right to assert that repressive regimes can no longer hide behind a cloak of sovereignty: What goes on inside tyrannies and failed states is of vital interest to the rest of the world. But intervention in other states’ internal affairs must be legitimate, which requires clearly established rules.
As the dominant power in the world, America has a unique responsibility to provide leadership in international cooperation. America cannot do whatever it wants, as the Iraqi debacle has demonstrated. At the same time, nothing much can be achieved in the way of international cooperation without U.S. leadership, or at least active participation. Only by taking these lessons to heart can progress be made toward the lofty goals that Bush announced.
George Soros is president of Soros Fund Management and chairman of the Open Society Institute.
© Project Syndicate, January 2005.