John Lewis Gaddis, one of the most perceptive historians of the Cold War, writes in the current issue of The American Interest that President George W. Bush may be the author of a foreign policy doctrine that ranks in greatness and consequential impact with the Monroe and Truman doctrines.
Gaddis’ article will confound those who have accepted the conventional liberal view of Bush as intellectually incurious and dominated by a neoconservative cabal. Bush, writes Gaddis, “reads more history and talks with more historians than any of his predecessors since at least John F. Kennedy.” Even more important, he “is interested — as no other occupant of the White House has been for quite a long time — in how the past can provide guidance for the future.”
The Bush Doctrine, Gaddis believes, received its most coherent formulation in Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, wherein the President proclaimed that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Gaddis discerns “two concepts of liberty” inherent in Bush’s speech: spreading democracy and ending tyranny; what Isaiah Berlin called “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.”
“Positive liberty,” according to Berlin, is based on the belief that you know what is best and attempt to impose it on others. Efforts to impose “positive liberty” on others have usually ended in failure and sometimes ended in tyranny. “Negative liberty,” on the other hand, seeks to encourage conditions, institutions, and habits that will restrain authority. “[N]egative liberty commands more support,” writes Gaddis, “than the claim of one to know what is best for all. The totalitarian tyrannies of the twentieth century collapsed because their single solutions promised liberty but failed to provide it. Democracies survived and spread because they allowed experimenting with multiple solutions.”
If the legacy of the Bush Doctrine is “ending tyranny” instead of “spreading democracy,” it may achieve enduring success rivaling that of the Truman or Monroe doctrines. Those doctrines survived and endured because, in Gaddis’ words, “[t]hey drew on a long history, they related that history to a current crisis, and in doing so they set a course the nation could feasibly navigate into the future.”