A transatlantic taskforce to fight for freedom

By Guillaume Parmentier

Financial Times

Published: March 10 2005

The "expansion of freedom all over the world" - as George W. Bush put it in his inauguration speech - has the potential to alter the dynamics of the transatlantic relationship by putting Europeans in an invidious position. It is impossible to disagree that the expansion of freedom is a desirable objective. Mr Bush was right to say in his State of the Union speech that "if whole regions of the world remain in despair and grow in hatred, they will be recruiting grounds for terror, and that terror will stalk America and other free nations for decades".

On the other hand, making the expansion of freedom "the organising principle of the 21st century", as Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, said in Paris last month, creates serious risks for the stability of the international system. She did qualify her statement by adding that freedom could not "be imposed by force" but, in the light of what America has tried to do in Iraq, the qualification was unconvincing.

As a group of democracies, the countries of the European Union cannot oppose the principle of extending freedom around the world, even if this does not mean the expansion of democracy on the US or British model. If Europe were seen as lukewarm, it would not only be detrimental to transatlantic relations but could give the impression Europeans were satisfied to let tyranny reign in some parts of the world.

But if opposition is impossible, unconditional support is inconceivable. Spreading freedom by force of arms would run contrary to the preference of Europeans for peaceful and negotiated solutions. Furthermore, American policy could never be consistent in its pursuit of freedom. US attitudes towards Russia or China will always be influenced by their sheer weight and their nuclear power status. The US needs friends in many areas of the world and cannot afford to shun countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Uzbekistan, all unlikely standard-bearers of liberty. If the Bush administration were inconsistent in applying the principal tenet of US policy there would be serious fallout in terms of the credibility of and respect for the US.

Europe needs the expansion of freedom to be one of the tenets of US policy rather than its overarching principle. Europeans should therefore embrace the objective pursued by US policy and state their desire to contribute to the expansion of democracy. While doing so, they should remind their American partners that such a change cannot take place without a preceding evolution in the societies concerned. Democracy can only be established in countries where individuals are trained to think outside the references provided by their family or ethnic group and where people identify primarily with their nation. Tolerance of opposite rule can only come in this framework. Freedom given to peoples without these conditions is likely to lead to dictatorships run in the name of the majority or to civil strife between opposing groups.

Enhancing freedom and building democracy is therefore largely a matter of education. Western countries can help with international training and exchanges of students, teachers and professors, opinion formers and young decision makers, as well as through an improvement in economic conditions. The US and some European countries have run such programmes in the past and some continue to this day. The Alliance for Progress bore fruit in Latin America only years after it was launched but it has provided an important contribution to the new solidity of democracy in that region.

Europeans should propose to Americans the establishment of a "transatlantic initiative for progress", under the joint auspices of the EU and the US government. This initiative could give a common framework to existing programmes, which would would continue to be run by member countries. It must also include new programmes, aimed in particular at the Arab and Muslim worlds, some of which could be run jointly. This undertaking would help convince people in the recipient countries that there are several different paths to democracy and freedom and that adopting these concepts would not align them with the US. Coupled with aid and the opening of economic and commercial exchanges on terms that would benefit the people in the recipient countries, such an initiative would do far more to build democracy and expand freedom than the rattle of arms.

The writer is director of the French Centre on the United States (CFE) at the French Institute for International Relations