Spreading Democracy: Sept. 11 Changed Bush, Too

A few years ago, presidential candidate George W. Bush made it clear that he didn't like nation building.

“I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building,” he said. “I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.” When it comes to helping weak or collapsed countries, Bush stated firmly what he would do as president:

“I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I'm missing something here. I mean, we're going to have a kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not.”

That's what presidential candidate Bush believed then. This is what President Bush believes now: “Rebuilding Iraq [and Afghanistan] will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own: We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more.”

In his second inaugural address, he expanded that concept beyond just the nations with which we've been in conflict:

“All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”

Many think the president made a big mistake expanding his position on nation building. The president's critics argue that when Iraq ceased to be a clear, present and imminent threat to the United States with its alleged weapons of mass destruction, our mission in Iraq should have ended. Moreover, critics point out that we fought and worked hard to build our own democracy. No one else did it for us. We should give other people that courtesy.

In spite of mounting criticism, the president plans to stick to his nation-building policy. Is he right to do so?

The president's nation building policy seems to rest on several key ethical principles. Take, for example, the ethical principle of international solidarity. This principle reminds us that we all belong to one human family. As such we have mutual obligations to promote the rights and development of all people across communities, nations, and the world, irrespective of national boundaries. More precisely, richer nations have responsibilities toward the poorer ones.

Before 9/11, the United States believed it could safely brush aside the pandemonium in out of the way places like Afghanistan.

Not any more.

The Bush administration understands now that the greatest threat to U.S. security will come from weak and dysfunctional states. I think the president sees nation building as an effective way to combat terrorism. As he said in his second inaugural, “The defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom.”

Isolationism, a mind-your-own-business foreign policy, is dangerous. Pearl Harbor taught us that, and after World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War, when the United States thought rebuilding Germany and Japan would ensure peace, we were right. It did.

The president appears to think the same will work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nation building understood as international solidarity represents an ethically compelling way to work for peace.

The president's nation building policy also includes the virtuous endeavor to spread democracy. While Catholic Social Doctrine doesn't officially endorse any one form of government, it sees the diffusion of democracy as a moral good.

In his encyclical letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern), Pope John Paul II said, “Nations need to reform certain unjust structures, and in particular their political institutions, in order to replace corrupt, dictatorial and authoritative forms of government by democratic and participatory ones. This is a process which we hope will spread and grow stronger.”

President Bush also hopes that the democratic process will spread and grow stronger in the world. He sees nation building as an effective way to do this.

Moreover, political experience shows that democratic participation in decision-making is the best way to respect the dignity and liberty of people.

John Paul emphasized the ethical value of democracy in his encyclical letter Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum). He stated:

“The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility of both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.”

All of this nation-building zeal to some sounds like a type of neo-colonialism. Who are we, many say, to jump-start democracy around the globe? Isn't that presumptuous? Hardly.

We need to keep in mind an important distinction. Colonialism seeks only the self-interest of a particular nation at the expense of others. But democratic nation building seeks to promote the ethical principle of the international common good, which benefits everyone. It's not based entirely on self-interest like colonialism.

The international common good refers to the sum total of all the political, social and cultural conditions that make social living possible. Democracy inherently promotes these conditions. Moreover, the international common good puts in place the infrastructure for the diffusion of political and economic rights. These rights range from voting and free speech to food, shelter, work and education. To call nation building colonialism or imperialism falsifies the truth of the matter.

Our mission to spread and to defend the precious gift of freedom will demand hard work, sacrifice and determination. This fact could tempt us to raise the same question as the biblical Cain: “Am I my brother's keeper?”

Christians and all people of good will have only one answer to this: Yes.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair is a theology professor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, R.I.