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Fiat democratia pereat mundi (Let’s take democracy alive even if the world is going down)



Is the United States the leading nation of freedom and democracy? What is the self-identity of the United States? How has this identity evolved and what is the current situation? Has there been remarkable change?  A lot of questions cannot be answered in just one way; America’s history in relation to the terms, and active creation of, freedom and democracy is characterized by ambiguities, contradictions, tensions and complexities.  It is a history that includes failures in the democratic realm, but simultaneously it is a history of progressing democracy and freedom.  The overall question of America’s global role is fundamental for the future of democracy in the world, especially when facing current international challenges. This question is one that must not only examine the present but also the past—drawing on the political realities of today, as well as the historical foundations of American ideals.  Particularly, one can draw on the precedents set by Franklin D. Roosevelt in forming a collective view of American democracy and the ways in which the idea(l) of American democracy is put into practice globally, today.  A particular perspective on the role of America as a leader of freedom and democracy is provided by academics; therefore, four interviews with academics from a variety of political and intellectual backgrounds were conducted.  These individuals are: Chris Breiseth, President Emeritus of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, who raises the question of the historical responsibility of the United States; Peter Schuck, Professor of Law at Yale University, who emphasizes the domestic manifestations of democracy, which give rise to the United States’ status as a leading nation; Aristide Zolberg, Director of the Internaitonal Center for Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship at New School University, who underlines the ambiguity in the American history of democracy; and who David Woolner, the Executive Director of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, stresses the tension between an American desire for isolationism and the Wilsonian ideal of facilitating the foundation of democracy abroad. 

The Historical Setting

The threat of American isolationism was first demonstrated under Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, when the United States failed to intervene in World War I until 1917.  Following the Great War, Wilson introduced the Fourteen Points, forming the idea of the League of Nations—focusing on all countries’ need for simultaneous political independence and cooperation; however, Congress failed to enter the League of Nations, an action that is today remembered as the biggest failure of Wilson’s presidency.  The inadequate structure of Europe after WWI led somehow to the second catastrophe of the twentieth century—WWII.  Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933. Within America’s long history, the actions of Franklin D. Roosevelt represented a turning point in American self-identity. This was the finishing process of President Woodrow Wilson’s delayed attempt to bring the United States to the forefront of international policy.  Initially, President Roosevelt refused to send American troops to fight in World War II.  However, he soon learned to understand the importance of intervention and changed his policy, joining the allied forces in Europe against Germany and Italy.  Following the war, Franklin D. Roosevelt set the intellectual foundation for the United Nations and emphasized four fundamental points of freedom: freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.  With this political agenda, President Roosevelt opened the door to U.S. hegemony.  

Within this historical setting of America as “the last best hope on earth,” Chris Breiseth, the President Emeritus of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute underlines that President Roosevelt’s policy was a step forward in enacting the ideals of America: the embrace of every human being as important in the creation and manifestation of democracy. Professor Breiseth emphasizes that American ideals include: individual worth, political participation, democratic rights and religious freedom.  These ideals are today in danger due to the policies of the current government; in other words, Professor Breiseth raises the question of whether American ideals have been not violated but manipulated and expresses fear about the image of U.S. democracy in the world. “I think we’re at the fascinating time where for the first time in our history in a profound way, America is hated by other peoples.”  He underlines that the U.S. cannot force democracy in other countries as it has tried to do and has even gone beyond this basic failure to violate American democratic rules and foundations. 

The United States currently manipulates values both domestically and internationally.  One way in which this is accomplished is through the adoption of democratic rhetoric; language in its various forms becomes a powerful political tool.  The changing meaning of terms both reflects changing circumstances and they themselves become the means for changing perceptions.  Professor Breiseth finds that it will be a challenge for the U.S. to correct its failure in this realm in the years to come.  He raises a point that is raised time and time again—that of conflicting potentials and ambiguities in relation to U.S. democratic policy. “At our best America reflects and we’re proud of the embrace of every individual as having worth and being entitled to equal protection before the laws.”  Professor Breiseth underlines that Franklin D. Roosevelt was an initiator in taking these particular ideals to a higher level—underlining the “responsibility of society” in creating both local and global democracy.  In his opinion, this has been manifested in the United States constitution, particularly in the 14th amendment, which is the ultimate standard in which all societies have come to measure themselves: “that’s what America represents to the world.”  However, he stresses that each country has the right to develop its own forms of democracy. If there is one thing that is sure, it is that we cannot “export” democracy only through the military. In addition, in regards to military involvement, in the face of a western history of imperialism, Professor Breiseth raises the question of some conservatives, who see in the unique (“exceptional”) position of the United States the right to form an age of American imperialism—the modern American “empire.”  Drawing on the historical precedent of Roosevelt’s global initiatives, Professor Breiseth emphasizes the need for the United States to set both literal and figurative boundaries for itself—in order to foster its legitimacy as a leading nation of democracy and freedom. In addition, it is his hope that the rest of the world “put a collar” around the United States—holding it responsible for the failure of democracy. According to Professor Breiseth, both of these actions—internal and external—speak to a basic reality: every true democratic power is limited.

Domestic Framework for U.S. Democracy

However, some leading academics believe that the United States is currently at its pinnacle in facing the challenges of modern society.  In general, Professor Peter Schuck expresses the opinion that some particular agreements (e.g. the constitutional framework) are needed to establish a democratic society.  America exudes a story of success in bringing to life such democratic accords. This domestic system of democracy has forged a path for a strong domestic and international democratic framework.  The strengths of this particular American system are of fundamental importance to global politics and economics. He underlines that modern American society is at its core a society of immigration and thus resulting diversity, which characterizes every element of American life.  This diversity is at once religious (i.e. there is no state religion); political (i.e. partisanship is embraced); and economic (i.e. even corporate America is characterized by a flexible market).  All of these social realms are “venues for democracy.” The unique immigration history has facilitated a multicultural and thus socially/economically/ politically multifaceted democratic process.  The existence of a single accepted language is a means through which immigrants integrate into American society.  The free market plays a vital role in creating jobs for the majority of America’s diverse citizens through “a dynamic economy where a vast amount of Americans have done very well” (even outsourcing has created more jobs in the United States than it has displaced).  Through such access to jobs, the United States creates the foundation for active societal participation; politics in the United States is populist, drawing on/drawing in individuals from all economic and social backgrounds.  The American democratic system puts more responsibility on the individual than other democratic societies; this goes hand and hand with a higher risk of poverty, of “bad outcomes,” for the individual, as there is less focus on a centralized welfare state for individuals to fall back on.  It also leaves room for political disorder, as extreme individual choice creates the space for deference to authority; “the problem with democracy is that authority is somehow in tension with democracy.” 

However, this focus on individual rights and responsibilities does not mean that there exists no modern welfare state.  In fact, according to Professor Peter Schuck, the welfare state in the United States has strengthened over the past forty years.  Professor Schuck emphasizes not that the United States is faultless in its creation and development of democracy, but rather that it is the main actor in progressing global democracy and therefore subject to critique from both within and without.  For example, when examining the situation in Iraq, many individuals fail to take into account the long-term effects of U.S. political policy.  In addition, the complexity of politics, in general, does not allow us to raise the question of morality: there are moral strengths and violations that charcterize every political strategy.  Such an international framework of power has left the United States between a rock and a hard place; “it is the destiny of the United States and any hegemon to be disliked, criticized, condemned. I think to some extent that goes with the territory.”

The Multiple Faces of Democracy

Professor Aristide Zolberg emphasizes the ways in which domestic history shapes the role of U.S. democratic leadership abroad; he underlines the ambiguities of being a leading nation of democracy and a nation of historical contradictions (i.e. slavery).  Professor Zolberg supports this idea of ambiguous relations through historical accounts: the failure of the United States to accept refugees from Europe in the 1930s, when it was first seen as a leading nation of democracy; the role of the United States in forming but failing to enact the regulations of the League of Nations; and even the desire of the American public to “return to isolationism” today in the face of extreme U.S. global involvement, as was shown in a recent New York Times poll.  He raises the point that there is a tendency to focus on U.S. democracy as the only viable form of democracy; however, many countries are doing very well through their development of individualized (e.g. by taking into account traditional and historical characteristics) systems of democracy.  While America remains the figurative “leading nation,” in practice the world does not depend on America as a leading nation of democracy anymore.  This is not to deny that there did exist a historical need for America (i.e. during the post-WWII era in Europe) in developing democracy abroad.  In other words, America is still the hegemon in the world but outside perspectives have changed; America was formally seen as a representation of freedom but the ambiguities of America have challenged the positive perceptions of its global dominance. 


If the U.S. is not going to lead the world, who will ? What about the tensions and ambiguities among the U.S. population’s opinions and even the historical framework in which the United States has developed its renowned democracy? The terror attacks on the World Trade Center, the questionable elections of George W. Bush, the invasion of Iraq based on dubious reasons: all this has led to a domestically and internationally unprecedented challenge that the US (and the world) is facing today. In the words of Professor David Woolner, the Executive Director of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the citizenry of the United States is characterized by, or “wrapped up in”, two fundamental impulses. The one impulse is to isolate the United States from the rest of the world—engaging only economically, but “leaving the troubles of the world alone.”  On the other hand, there exists the classic Wilsonian view to make the world a better place to live—a very strong moral belief that has been engaged with since the 1930s. Americans themselves struggle with a pride in the nation and what it stands for and a disappointment in many political policies—in being patriotic without becoming “un-American.”  External forces are quick to critique the United States, without taking into account its particular role in the world or offering alternatives. When looking at the current situation, one must address the question of whether the United States has already hit its high point in history as a leading nation of freedom and democracy.  As the interviewees emphasized, this high point may have been American intervention in Europe after World War II; and the successful of development of democracy in Europe and throughout the world during the Cold War period.  Perhaps the decline started with the first Iraq war in the 1990s and has reached a new dimension with the recent invasion of Iraq.  Maybe we are in the midst of a downfall of the United States as a leading nation in terms of freedom and democracy; although the United States is still a hegemon, not its democratic foundations, but current motivations, are being questioned.  Among these interviewees, a multiplicity of critiques of the domestic and international roles of American democracy were expressed.  However, it seemed to shine through all of their voices that it is time for the rest of the world to assume greater global responsibility and answer to FDR’s offer of America to defend democracy.  If America is falling in this respect of being a true leader in freedom in democracy, or has already “failed” in some sense, it must return to the ultimate position that FDR stressed fifty years ago in partnership with the world:

“This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory."


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