Events ranging from the crimes photographed at Abu Ghraib prison to the debate over John Kerry's "pragmatic" position on exporting democracy have brought the question of what "exporting democracy" really means into sharp relief.

Borders and Freedom

From the revelations of sadism behind closed doors at Abu Ghraib to the crash in American popularity overseas, the process of bringing democracy to Iraq has not gone well. While many of the problems that now beset the American enterprise in Iraq stem from mismanagement, they raise a question: can a nation such as the United States really export democracy? Does the use of force to compel people to accept democratic institutions carry within it a fatal contradiction? Can the United States export American ideas and institutions by force without losing the very qualities that give American life and the political system of the United States their appeal?

Respect for borders, and the rights of those in other countries to work out their destinies without interference, has always involved a creative tension. While democracy will not work unless national borders divide countries into sizes where the individual vote can have an effect, borders also shelter criminal governments from interference. I believe that resolving this contradiction requires renewed respect for international law, rather than efforts by one dominating nation to export one particular vision of freedom and law.

Borders and Freedom... Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Two Georges

International Order and Responsibility

I have addressed these issues in the context of American policy, because the current trends in that policy represent a significant departure from historic American values. That does not mean that other governments bear no responsibilities. Just as American leaders do their country no favours by rejecting any and all internationalist initiatives, the leaders of other governments do themselves (and the international community) no good with reflexive resistance to American initiatives.

For example, the flat refusal of the French government to consider the American proposal to remove the Baath government of Saddam Hussein rightly provoked dismay. As we now know, President Bush's invasion of Iraq had serious flaws, but the French refusal to consider it under any circumstances did not advance the goal of responsible policy-making at the UN. Any decent policy had to face the reality that Saddam Hussein ran a particularly vicious government, and leaving him in power did the Iraqi people no favors. Reflexive promotion of American power does not make for good policy; neither does automatic dismissal of American goals.

In the same way, countries outside the United States do our democratic traditions no credit by leaving the leadership role to the United States. In this, as well, our problems play off one another. Many other countries leave security matters to the Americans, and blame them if anything goes wrong. The American government insists on retaining control of international security, and blaming other countries for not taking a hand. The two attitudes play off each other all too well, and the solution cannot come from one side alone.

Many Americans point with pride to their world-leading achievements in science and technology, their renowned attachment to democracy, and their humanity, and ask why the world objects to their status as a leader among the nations. Why shouldn't they keep, even define, the international order? The best answer to their question comes from the founders of the United States. In the American Revolution, the states revolted against the world's leading democratic power. England then led the world in science and technology, democracy, and humane social policies. The British colonial system of government of the time had many virtues and one fatal flaw: the government in London was not accountable to the Americans it governed. The British would not find a way to make their colonial governments accountable until Lord Durham's report, sixty years after the American Revolution. Unfortunately, the popular view of American history obscures the origin of the American Revolution by pointing to the supposed evils of George III. In fact, on most of the points of contention, the British had a more ethical position than the Americans, from Native rights to tolerance for minorities. The royal proclamation of 1763 forbade settlement in Native lands without permission, and added that would-be settlers could not obtain this permission by supplying liquor; the Quebec act acknowledged the right of French-speaking Catholics to hold office and serve on juries, something many Bostonians took great umbrage at. The American revolution teaches the lesson that all governments, however benevolent, must always answer to all of the people they govern.

Even if the good intentions of a ruler will not replace accountability, the United States rules very few people without their consent. Establishing a transitional government for a year in Iraq hardly compares with the quarter-millennium of colonial rule by the European powers. In fact, the United States does not exercise anything like a world-wide, unaccountable rule; Americans have not experienced the resistance such a rule, however benevolent, would provoke. Yet the exercise of American power in the war on terror has provoked resistance, because the United States refuses to state, or accept, any limits to its actions. Indeed, conservative advocates of unchecked American muscle have revelled in the chilling effect Saddam Hussein's fate has had on potential American enemies. But when anything can potentially serve as a justification for the use of force by the United States, governments may frequently need to placate a powerful segment of American society which might otherwise identify them as an "enemy". When does this begin to compromise other people's freedom? When does a power whose displeasure nobody can risk begin to usurp the rights of national governments, or much more important, of the people who elected them?

People who argue that the United States cannot or should not operate within a framework of international law tend to take one of three positions. The first position holds that such urgent dangers as terrorism require an instant response, and that waiting for international consensus could prove fatal. The men who wrote the American declaration of independence and the constitution would probably not have agreed. They knew that freedom meant risk, and refused to give it up for personal or collective safety. Even if freedom means danger, we ought to embrace freedom; but in this case, we have no reason to believe it does. Responses to genuine emergencies, such as removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in response to the terror attacks of September 11, do not threaten anyone's freedom and enjoyed general support through the international community.

A second, and troubling, argument simply holds that the powerful ought not to account for their actions to the people they hold sway over: that the idea has something unnatural about it. This argument sometimes finds expression in the metaphor of Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians. The idea that rulers ought to see themselves as giants and their subordinates as midgets seems more suited to Ramses II than to the inheritors of Thomas Jefferson. I cannot help wondering how long those who see 96% of the world's people as Lilliputians will manage to resist the temptation to see their own fellow citizens in the same way.

A third position identifies itself with Andrew Jackson, seeing the United States as properly assertive, indeed prickly, in defence of its independence and honour. Again, invoking Andrew Jackson's legacy to justify a government with unaccountable power runs counter to Jackson's aggressive frontier egalitarianism. Indeed, the core of Jackson's political philosophy, the idea of personal honour in a society of equals, offers a basic blueprint for an international society of nations, equal under a basic law.

A more pertinent issue concerns the burdens of making an international system work. Many people claim that since the United States carries the lion's share of the load, the American government should have essentially unlimited freedom of action. Again, this contradicts basic American principles of government, which hold that no person, whatever their contribution, can claim an exemption from the constraints of law. Under the American system, wealthy and successful people may have greater influence and prestige, but they cannot claim an exemption from the laws. The principles advanced in support of American dominance of the international scene directly contradict the principles that uphold democracy in the United States. In any case, many of the same people who argue that American arms should dominate the international arena advocate measures to prevent other nations from developing military forces that could share the burden effectively. Indeed, the ideologues of unconstrained American power regularly object to any measures to build military forces which could resist the United States; as MSNBC reported:

At the far right of the Bush administration, and among its most fervent supporters outside of government, this French desire to create a European military force is cited as the most egregious evidence that the two long-time partners are well into a separation period and heading for a bitter divorce.

Ethics, Nationalism and Internationalism

Whether or not Saddam Hussein had nuclear or biological weapons programs, invading Iraq did not prevent any weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. As the evidence for this piles up, the advocates of regime change in Iraq claim that at least Saddam's regime no longer feeds people into industrial shredders. Unfortunately, people shredders around the world continue to operate; we call them land mines. Throughout the world, these devices shed the limbs of people, many of them children, and most of them poor.

As President Bush seeks to build up the world's safeguards against nuclear proliferation, the importance of one of the tools for doing so, the comprehensive test ban treaty, will probably grow increasingly apparent.

The American government has strong practical and ethical initiative for cooperating with at least some of the international initiatives such as these. The United States cannot confront the world's problems without resources, initiative, and resolution; it cannot effectively deal with them without international cooperation and flexibility.

In this, the conservative advocates of unrestricted American power part company with many ordinary Americans. Americans will defend their country, its honour and its interests, but they expect the rest of the world to take responsibility for itself. The American ideologues who aim to quash moves in that direction by the Europeans probably put themselves at odds with a great many Americans. Certainly, I suspect the national guard members photographed driving a truck with the slogan "one weekend a month, my ass" in the window would not object to an international force that could relieve them to go home to their families sooner.

The United States, and the world with you, faces three choices. First, accept unlimited American dominance, with its satisfaction for a few ideologues, its burdens for many Americans, and its potential loss of freedom for most of the world's people. Second, we can try to revert to the traditional balance of power system, with two or more equal states or coalitions played against each other; that carries a serious risk of war. Or third, we can try to build an international order based on law. Few of us expect building such an international order to be easy, or to be satisfied with the result. A rule of international law will, at best, give us the best of a very unsatisfactory set of alternatives. Making the principles of freedom under law work in a world where most people live in undemocratic states presents formidable challenges. Finding ways to put appropriate limits on the power of sovereign states also involves immense difficulties, particularly when accepting these limits means learning to live with other nations whose people hold completely different values. Turning over any of our governments' freedom of action to international bodies involves more than difficulty; it means risk as well. But does it really make any more sense to hope that American politicians can walk the tightrope required to militarily dominate the world without taking away the freedom of the 96% of us who are not American? Will the American military volunteers, or the taxpayers who support them, agree to carry the resulting burdens?

Over the last decade, many American political leaders have taken a "just say no" approach to attempts to extend the concept of freedom under law to international relations. This follows the line of least resistance in American politics, but it doesn't have any other discernable advantages. Considering the stakes, it would make sense for American politicians to look backwards and ask how well their international policies accord with historic American principles. It also makes sense to look ahead, and ask whether these policies make sense for their children, and for the children of the world.

Borders and Freedom... International Law, Ideology and Freedom

Popular discussion of the war on terror has revealed an important contradiction between ideology and patriotism. Americans commenting on various Islamicist terror attacks frequently display an outraged sense of family feeling, a feeling that terrorism directed against any American represents a direct and personal attack on every American. Just after the terror attacks of 9/11, I wrote about the most visible expression of that reaction, the huge number of American flags which defiantly, and movingly, appeared everywhere. Although the sense of unity I felt in those days seems to have abated, the sense of the American people as a family remains very much alive. Commentators invoke it frequently. At the same time, many proponents of the war on terror have invested it with an ideological meaning, and the ideology has usually trumped the patriotism when it comes to making policies in the war on terror. To the ideologues, patriotism provided a justification for policies primarily motivated by ideology. That means the policy contains a contradiction, because patriotic feeling does not, by definition, extend across national boundaries, but ideologies certainly do. Whether or not a truly national ideology has ever existed, today all major ideologies transcend national communities. Over the past decades, conservatism has grown into an international movement; think of Thatcher and Reagan. Many conservatives have taken an internationalist view of the war on terror; they have set as a primary goal the fostering of their view of democracy in the Middle East. That goal forms just a small part of the overall international conservative program: promoting their vision of Western civilisation worldwide.

World Governors

Under the American system, politicians frequently delegate the work of policy formation to qualified groups. In a number of policy areas, this has meant giving considerable power to so-called "think tanks". In international and defence policy making, a number of "defense intellectuals" have assumed considerable influence.

The word intellectual manages to fit neatly between categories. Unlike scholar, which refers to someone who fits well-defined criteria for competence, an intellectual can mean nothing more than someone who writes for a living; we have no specific standards for such people. The title of "think tank" may mean a rigorous research institution, such as RAND, MITRE or Brookings, or it may cover a glorified advertising agency. An alarming number of "think tanks" and their staffers who deal with international policy fall into the latter category.

Consider for a moment Richard Perle, one of the most eager (and optimistic) advocates of American power. His resume lists no military service, he has never run for political office, and plenty of high school and community college teachers have more impressive academic resumes than he provides. By all accounts a man of considerable influence, Mr. Perle may well have passed some rigorous tests of competence, but his own account of himself does not mention them.

If the American government has unchecked power over the world's people, should the American system grant such influence to people without requiring demonstrations of competence? What does that mean for those of us (the vast majority) who do not have the right to send representatives to Washington?

The conservative vision of Western Civilisation has grown both more comprehensive and more "mainstream" with time. Conservatives confronting Islamicism have discovered the value of feminism; they seem to have learned to love popular culture, even in its MTV manifestation. As this advocacy of "westernisation" has broadened, it has grown more insistent; where in the past, opposition to Western Civilisation would lead to the classification of a state as a "rogue state", today the former "rogue" states themselves belong to the so-called "axis of evil", while the rhetoric describing Islamic culture frequently invokes not only evil but also madness, infection and filth. Prescriptions for "reform" in the Muslim world do not stop at political change; they also aim to rework Islamic society from the family up, along lines which most North Americans would find familiar. The basic prescription follows a familiar TV plot line: a family member, usually the old patriarch, insists on upholding a tradition that the rest of the family finds alienating, irrelevant, and downright inconvenient. Various characters chip away at the traditionalist, until he admits his adherence to the past does more harm than good, and concedes the issue with a hang-dog grin to a chorus of good will all around. Some people seem to believe the process will work on Arab Muslim culture as a whole, particularly if you substitute bombing for the tearful appeals and the rolled eyes that wear down the traditionalists in the TV shows.

Leaving aside the question of whether this will work for a moment, the question arises: what does it mean for our system of freedom under law? The American vision of freedom has grown to place a great emphasis on the individual and the capacity to make individual decisions, but many freedoms have no meaning outside a community. Freedom of speech does not mean much with nobody to speak to. The kind of community we live in affects the way we can exercise our freedoms; unless you believe some invisible hand will shape an ideal community out of individual decisions, you must accept that human freedom includes the right to build a community framework. This means the doctrine that individual choice should always trump community interests suffers from a fatal contradiction. Individualism actually means freedom for the individual only in the context of the relatively small range of communities which a strictly individual choice will create. The sentimental TV plot, in which the thwarted teenager pushes a parent to discard some meaningless tradition, does not uphold freedom the way we sometimes think it does; it denies the freedom to choose the form of your community. This does not mean we should uphold tradition no matter what; we should discard many traditions on the grounds of ethics, and we should not uphold tradition simply for its own sake. But we should also not pretend that rejecting tradition always increases freedom, or that sacrificing the community for individual choice comes without a cost.

Calls for "reform" of the Islamic world go much further than a simple disdain for community and tradition. They reflect a nearly absolute belief in modernity, and a corresponding hatred for traditional Muslim forms of community. While this hatred, with its corresponding calls for far-reaching change, obviously stems from conflicts with elements in the Muslim world, its implications go further. The current calls for sweeping changes to the way a billion people live raise the question: in the long run, can an individualistic society accept any other form of social organisation? Must individualist society restrict group choices? What does that mean for our claim to uphold and embody an ideal of freedom?

Much of George W. Bush's foreign policy seems directed to the goal of making other nations fit to occupy the same planet as the United States. Aside from the question of whose vision of things American he wants the world to live up to, this goal also raises questions about freedom. Latitudes and longitudes on the map locate us in space; a border, on the map as on the Earth, delineates our choices. Borders, at their best, offer us the opportunity to choose to live in different ways and according to various laws, customs, and institutions. The choices this involves, and the ability to experiment these choices provide, uphold two particularly American concepts: freedom and progress. In that sense, American ideals conflict with American vanity, for if you make the claim, as some conservatives appear to, that the United States represents the pinnacle of human possibility, nobody needs freedom, and progress can no longer happen. The goal of enticing (or forcing) the entire world to conform to American norms thus conflicts with American ideals. For the American people, it also means enormous government and insupportable expense.

At its best, a system of international law offers an alternative, with the possibility for freedom, experimentation, and change in a loose framework of law and cooperation. Finding a workable form for that cooperation has never proven easy, and will remain a serious challenge for the future. However, such a system does not suffer from the flaws of the alternatives; it does not mean a relative handful of ideologues dictate to the peoples of the world, while a handful of entertainment organisations tells us what to think and feel. In fact, it offers the world's people what the triumph of ideology or the end of history does not: the opportunity to make real choices.

John Spragge is president of DancingCat Software of Ann Arbor Michigan and Toronto Ontario. His Medicine Line columnsappear from time to time in the Ethical Spectacle.