Bush’s Whitehall Palace Speech

John Zvesper

November 1, 2003

When a speech says so much that is right, it may seem uncharitable to draw attention to questions that it raises but does not answer. But one of the strengths of President Bush’s speech at Whitehall Palace is precisely that it raised several good questions, and in this case it would be uncharitable not to pursue them.

Of course, Bush suggested many answers, too, but sometimes he simply provided food for thought, leaving us to reach our conclusions by reflecting on his remarks. In this way, it was a very challenging speech. His immediate audience in London was a collection of international politics specialists, and his remarks could well inspire reconsideration by such experts of their views. The speech should encourage a thoughtful rededication to constitutional democratic politics, even by those who will disagree with some of its arguments.

The central thesis of Bush’s speech was that “the peace and security of free nations” now rest on “three pillars”: their encouragement of strong and effective “international institutions,” their willingness in the last resort “to restrain aggression and evil by force,” and their “commitment to the global expansion of democracy.” It is not surprising that outlining in a thirty-minute speech such a comprehensive and ambitious policy left many questions for us to ponder.

President Bush began his speech by light-heartedly noticing the “enthusiastic” exercise of the right to free speech that he had witnessed in London. This referred to demonstrations mounted in the streets of London by anti-war and anti-Bush organizations. He immediately turned this into a more serious point—and a brief but powerful response to these demonstrations—by remarking that “They now have that right in Baghdad, as well.”

Bush was aware that many outspoken people in the United Kingdom (not to mention continental Europe or the United States itself) see and fear him and his administration as a dangerous bunch of crazies, who embody the worst kind of American moralism and religiosity, and who are too inclined to use force and too reluctant to act in concert with other governments. He did not apologize for any of what is behind this image, but he did respond to his critics.

His first response was amusingly to trace some of the moral and religious concerns of many Americans to some of their British roots. Having already noted the important similarity between the United States and Britain in their traditional right to free speech, he proceeded to recall a few other traditions that he insisted were shared by people in America and Britain, although these traits are often seen as more American than British. Do Americans have “a naive faith that liberty can change the world”? Well, he said, that faith can be traced to the British political philosophers, John Locke and Adam Smith. Are Americans (especially, it could be added, Americans who support him) too moralistic, too inclined to “speak in terms of right and wrong”? Again, claimed Bush, this tendency has been inspired by British examples. He offered as one example British antislavery campaigners—coupled with “the firm determination of the Royal Navy over the decades to fight and end the trade in slaves.” (Unsurprisingly, this coupling of right and might in long conflicts will return as a major theme of Bush’s speech.) Finally, are Americans “a religious people,” with “a puritan streak”? Again, that is (“in part,” he carefully specifies) because of the influences of such Britons as William Tyndale, John Wesley, William Booth, and of course the English Puritans.

Two unspoken but obvious and serious questions lurk beneath this playful little sketch of how the American “national character” owes so much to certain British leaders. Does political freedom depend on people’s moral and religious convictions? More particularly, does Britain today benefit from such moral and religious leaders—indeed has Britain even in the past ever benefited from such leaders—as much as America has and does?

It would have been impolite to the President’s hosts if he had raised that question explicitly (and he highly praised Prime Minister Blair, as a leader “of good judgment and blunt counsel and backbone when times are tough”). Moreover, it served the central purpose of his speech to emphasize the “common beliefs” of America and Britain, rather than to concede any important differences. This emphasis accords with his view that “the deepest beliefs of our nations set the direction of our foreign policy.” For beyond “the balance of power, or the simple pursuit of interest,” he asserted, America and Britain “seek the advance of freedom and the peace that freedom brings.”

Bush was not here embracing a simple “idealist” view of American (and British) foreign policy. He immediately distanced himself from the kind of idealism that made the League of Nations collapse “at the first challenge of the dictators.” The League collapsed because it lacked “credibility and will.” The lesson of the Second World War and the Cold War is “that idealism, if it is to do any good in the world, requires common purpose and national strength, moral courage and patience in difficult tasks.” Today, dangers posed by terrorists “and the dictators who aid them” mean that “great responsibilities fall once again to the great democracies.”

Which countries now number among “the great democracies”? This was another of Bush’s unspoken questions. Is it just the United States and Britain? However that question is answered, Bush made it quite clear that it remains American (and British) policy to work with other governments and international organizations. At the same time, he insisted that it was right that “America and Great Britain have done, and will do, all in their power to prevent the United Nations from solemnly choosing its own irrelevance and inviting the fate of the League of Nations.” After all, “the success of multilateralism is not measured by adherence to forms alone, the tidiness of the process, but by the results we achieve to keep our nations secure.”

This understanding of international cooperation makes the first pillar of peace and security (the commitment “to work with other responsible governments”) more compatible with the second, the willingness to use force. Bush reminded his European audience that European countries are today generally able to practice politics without force among themselves because of the past actions of “allied armies of liberation and NATO armies of defense.”

Bush’s “third pillar”—the “commitment to the global expansion of democracy”—may seem to be at odds with the first two. How do muscular multilateralism and the willingness to use force square with this more idealistic-sounding third commitment? Many American conservatives will question the need for such a commitment, because they will question the possibility if not the desirability of democracy being established in many countries. There are clearly many questions to pursue here, especially perhaps with regard to the Middle East: Is Bush too optimistic when he imagines a more democratic future for the countries of the Middle East? Is his apparently even-handed call for Israeli and Palestinian restraint in fact playing into the hands of Islamic extremists?

In spite of leaving us with such questions, Bush’s discussion of the “third pillar” again made it clear that he was not a dreamy idealist. His argument is rather that any country’s prudent regard for its own civil freedoms should make it favor free regimes everywhere, because “democratic governments do not… attack their peaceful neighbors.” Thus, it is because we value our own civil rights that “we stand for the human rights of others.”

But what does this mean, to “stand for” others’ rights? What does it mean to say “our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found”? In fact, Bush’s remarks on the global expansion of democracy, while lifting up hopes, are hardly utopian. He recalls that “our own democratic development… was gradual and, at times, turbulent.” He also suggests that there are strict limits to what even a militarily strong democracy can and will do to support democratic freedoms in other countries. “Freedom, by definition, must be chosen and defended by those who choose it.” We can and should “ally ourselves” with democratic reform, but “perhaps the most helpful” thing we can do is simply “to change our own thinking,” to be less dogmatically skeptical about the democratic capacity and desires of people in non-democratic countries.

Whether Bush is right or wrong about the capacity and desire of all humanity for political freedom, he is surely right about their need for it. This need is a part of human nature. At the outset of his speech, Bush had attributed the “common beliefs” of America and Britain to their “fellowship of generations.” Likewise, at the end of his speech, he cites the shared experience of these two countries, notably during the Second World War, out of which grew the further tie of many intermarriages. But by this point, the central arguments of his speech have led us to reflect that the natural political needs of human beings are deeper than any historically shared experiences or kinships. If “the United States and Great Britain share a mission in the world”—”the advance of freedom”—it is nature rather than history that justifies this mission.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.