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International Security 29.4 (2005) 112-156

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The Roots of the Bush Doctrine

Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in U.S. Strategy

The promotion of democracy is central to the George W. Bush administration's prosecution of both the war on terrorism and its overall grand strategy, in which it is assumed that U.S. political and security interests are advanced by the spread of liberal political institutions and values abroad. In an approach variously characterized as "democratic realism," "national security liberalism," "democratic globalism," and "messianic universalism," the Bush administration's national security policy has centered on the direct application of U.S. military and political power to promote democracy in strategic areas. In a summer 2004 interview, Bush expressed his "deep desire to spread liberty around the world as a way to help secure [the United States] in the long-run."1 According to Bush, "As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace."2 This generic statement of cause and effect is also applied specifically to terrorism: "democracy and reform will make [Middle Eastern states] stronger and more stable, and make the world more secure by undermining terrorism at its source."3 More broadly, the Bush administration proposes a liberal international order grounded in U.S. military and political power; as its 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) contends, the unparalleled U.S. position of primacy creates a "moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe... [the United States] will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world." This view appears to be contingent on the belief that U.S. power is "the sole pillar upholding a liberal world order that is conducive to the principles [the United States] believes in."4 [End Page 112]

Although a radical departure in many other respects, the current U.S. grand strategy's privileging of liberalism and democracy falls squarely within the mainstream of American diplomatic traditions. For reasons unique to the American political experience, U.S. nationalism—that is, the factors that define and differentiate the United States as a self-contained political community—has historically been defined in terms of both adherence to a set of liberal, universal political ideals and a perceived obligation to spread those norms internationally. The concept of the United States as agent of historical transformation and liberal change in the international system therefore informs almost the entire history of U.S. foreign policy. As Jeanne Kirkpatrick has observed, no modern idea "holds greater sway in the minds of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments anytime, anywhere, and under any circumstances."5 Or as Thomas Paine wrote to George Washington in the dedication of The Rights of Man, the United States was founded to see "the New World regenerate the Old."6 Democracy promotion is not just another foreign policy instrument or idealist diversion; it is central to U.S. political identity and sense of national purpose.

Although grounded in the same nationalist premise of liberal exceptionalism, two contending schools have developed with respect to the long-term promotion of democratic change. One perspective—which, following historian H.W. Brands, may be termed "exemplarism"—conceives of the United States as founded in separation from Old World politics and the balance of power system. It suggests that U.S. institutions and values should be perfected and preserved, often but not exclusively through isolation. The United States exerts influence on the world through the force of its example; an activist foreign policy may even corrupt liberal practices at home, undermining the potency of the U.S. model. A second perspective—"vindicationism"—shares this "city-on-a-hill" identity, but argues that the United States must move beyond example and undertake active measures to spread its universal political values and institutions.7 Henry Kissinger observes these "two contradictory attitudes" in [End Page 113] how the United States...


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