from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Republican Debate: Where Was the Freedom Agenda?

September 17, 2015

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Watching the Republican debate last night, I was very glad to see the field (with Rand Paul as the only real exception) acknowledge George W. Bush’s foreign policy achievements-- not least keeping America safe, and providing global leadership of the sort so badly missing in the last seven years. In a recent trip to Australia, I was struck by the degree to which that leadership is missed on the Left as well as the Right. There were of course many references last night to the leadership provided by Ronald Reagan.

But one part of the Reagan and Bush legacy was largely missing: support for freedom. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fate of the Arab Spring, have of course given rise to plenty of pessimism and to a desire to avoid "nation-building" especially when that is thought to mean starting wars to spread democracy (a ridiculous interpretation). But Reagan and George W. Bush were believers in America’s role as the beacon of freedom in the world. From Reagan’s "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" and establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy, to Bush’s "Freedom Agenda" and his meetings with scores of dissidents and democracy advocates (including the Dalai Lama), American leadership for freedom was central to both men and both their presidencies. Last night we heard a lot about military strength, but less about leadership for the cause of freedom.

There was one exception, and it deserves note: Marco Rubio’s final remarks:

RUBIO: One of the things that made Ronald Reagan a great president, is that he understood that America was a unique nation, [un]like any other that had existed throughout human history. He knew it was founded on universal principles that were powerful, the dignity of all people, human rights, the rights of all to live in freedom and liberty, and choose their own path in life. He didn’t just believe it, he acted on it. That’s why bringing down communism was so important to him. If I’m honored with the opportunity to be president, I hope that our Air Force One will fly, first and foremost, to our allies; in Israel, in South Korea, and Japan. They know we stand with them. That America can be counted on.

It would also fly to China, not just to meet with our enemies, not just to meet with those adversaries of ours that are there, but also to meet with those that aspire to freedom and liberty within China. I would even invite them to my inauguration.

We would also fly into Moscow and into Russia. And not just meet with the leaders of Russia, but also meet with those who aspire to freedom and liberty in Russia. And ultimately, I hope that my Air Force One, if I become president, will one day land in a free Cuba, where its people can choose its leaders and its own destiny.

The "Freedom Agenda" is unfashionable today, so Rubio’s effort to revive it deserves credit. The implicit criticism of Obama’s Cuba policy is clear. So is the criticism of Obama’s focus on regimes while forgetting the people who suffer under them, whether in Iran or China or Russia--or Cuba. One can hope that in future debates the theme of American support for freedom in the world will be heard again--and again.

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