Admit it, George Dubya's medicine is not all bad

March 18, 2005

The policies of the US President draw on academic ideas, so just watch who you call stupid, says Niall Ferguson

In Europe and American universities alike, George W. Bush has a very large number of detractors. Yet even his most bitter critics should acknowledge that the US President has picked up one or two important ideas from the academy.

The first of these, implicit in what he says and does, is that free markets accelerate economic growth and that economic growth makes democracy more likely to succeed.

The second idea, central to January's inaugural and State of the Union addresses, is that democracies are much less likely to make war than authoritarian regimes.

The theory of democratic peace is a well-established academic theory. I for one find it fascinating to hear it enunciated by a man often mocked for his lack of intellectual attainment as a student but who today is clearly open to serious intellectual ideas.

I have called President Bush an idealist realist, because he is at once an idealist and a realist. He is a realist compared with Woodrow Wilson, who after the First World War was convinced that international relations could be remade on the basis of collective security and legal order centring on the League of Nations. In President Bush's view, power is far more important than law in the relations between states.

But he is also as much an idealist as Wilson when it comes to the idea of spreading economic and political freedom around the world. President Bush believes that the US can renew its efforts to democratise first the Middle East and then countries further safield and that by doing so can enhance its own security.

I was at a dinner recently with some splendid pillars of the Upper East Side Democratic Party establishment. They told me: "It appals us but we have to admit that there are signs that this awful President's strategy of democratic revolution in the Middle East is working."

It's not just the success of free elections in Iraq. It's what's happening in Lebanon, not to mention local elections in Saudi Arabia. It begins to look as if freedom is really on a roll.

But there are four reasons why we should not be too idealistic about what the combination of capitalism and democracy can achieve.

First, free markets create not only growth but also volatility in economic performance and often contribute to widening inequality. That can also be a recipe for a backlash against liberal institutions.

Second, democracy can give people an opportunity to vote for antidemocratic parties. It is not inconceivable that free elections held throughout the Middle East could bring to power more than one Islamic theocracy.

Third, the combination of free markets and free politics can blow a multiethnic society apart, if not through civil war then through peaceful fragmentation.

Fourth, elections are not everything. It is just as important to establish enduring constitutional and legal frameworks within which both the market and democracy can operate but without which both are almost bound to fail.

The implications for the US are clear. President Bush's democratic revolution can't be a matter of simply lighting the blue touch paper in Iraq and standing back. The spread of freedom requires an ongoing engagement.

For this reason, it helps to think of the US Empire as a kind of sequel to the British Empire. The paradox is that, despite having far more fire-power, superior economic power and a more attractive popular culture, the US seems to find it much harder to be an empire.

In particular, it struggles to do that one thing without which this president's achievements could prove all too ephemeral and that is to follow through.

To lay the foundations of a market economy and democratic system in Iraq, to say nothing of the rest of the Middle East, may call for an American commitment measured in decades not months or years. Even if he succeeds in establishing both capitalism and democracy, there is no guarantee that either will endure if the US withdraws its forces too soon. That is the clear lesson of 100 years of American overseas interventions.

The dilemma of American power is that the spread of liberty is conditional on the exercise of American power. But that power may itself pose a danger to liberty both on the imperial frontier and at home.

Nevertheless, I believe a decline in US power would be even more worrying. That is surely something about which idealists and realists can agree.

Niall Ferguson is professor of international history at Harvard University. This article is abridged from his Callahan lecture delivered at the Rush D. Holt history conference at West Virginia University.

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