Washington
George Bush has been ringing the freedom bell lately. Wherever the
American President travels, he evokes the theme of his Second
Inaugural Address: the universal right to freedom's blessings,
whatever passport the individual may hold.  In his speeches on foreign
soil there is hardly a paragraph without freedom, liberty or some
other synonym. Bush even declares the abolition of tyranny to be the
ultimate goal of American foreign policy. It can't get much more
idealistic.

In some quarters there has been puzzlement, even amusement about this
sudden inflation of freedom rhetoric. But presidential speeches have
consequences. They spawn policy. Since Bush first introduced his
freedom agenda in January, he has called for an end to the Syrian
occupation of eastern Lebanon, he demanded free elections in Moldova
and Belorussia, he suggested democratic reforms to Saudi-Arabia and
Egypt, he applauded democratic movements in Kyrgystan and Ukraine, and
he criticized the authoritarian style of government in Vladimir
Putin's Russia. His Secretary of State denounced the Iranian theocracy
and called off a trip to Egypt upon hearing that a prominent leader of
the democratic opposition had been imprisoned. Bush introduced his new
policy of exporting democracy with a stinging critique of past
American policy: "Decades of excusing and accommodating tyranny, in
the pursuit of stability, have only led to injustice and tragedy."

By now Gerhard Schröder's government has had three months to study the
latest tack of George Bush's foreign policy. It should not be hard to
react to this one, since the pursuit of freedom is part of the
self-image of each and every democratic nation. That freedom creates
stability has been the underlying assumption of every round of NATO
and EU enlargement. Liberals and Greens especially should be
celebrating. For years and years they saw hypocrisy in American
foreign policy. Across the Atlantic they shouted: Pinochet! Somoza!
Mubarak! Shah Pahlevi! King Faisal! Now it seems as though an American
president has finally heard their complaints. After all these years,
the only issue with this White House is the means of promoting
democracy, not the end. 

But what is coming out of Germany? What do we hear? Nothing! Nothing
but deafening silence! It seems as though the political class is
speechless before an American president who has adopted the liberal
triad of political freedom, human rights and economic development as
preventive medicine against all kinds of crises. Maybe the silence in
Germany is personal. There were times when the word "freedom" sounded
like a promise when uttered by an American president. But that was
when a wall divided Berlin and the president's name was Kennedy. The
current president has a credibility problem in Germany. There are
those who choose not to believe a word, on grounds that Bush talked
his country and the world into the Iraq war based on an exaggerated
argument. And with a little ill will, the preparation for the next war
can be read into the constant invocation of freedom. Given this
backdrop, the German weariness with Bush and his F-word might even
seem understandable. But only a bit. In the end, an attitude based on
skepticism of a president, instead of his policy, is a sign of
stubbornness rather than principle.

Then there are those who argue that George Bush is just voicing
something that goes without saying. After all, everybody is for
freedom. Europeans just lack Bush's theatrics and Messianic streak.
But whatever this argument is worth, saying nothing has a price. A few
weeks ago the Lithuanian Ambassador invited six leaders of the
Belorussian opposition to Washington. Over dinner they told stories of
life under Alexander Lukashenko, the last remaining dictator in
Europe. And they showed slides. The first one was nothing but a quote
from George Bush. The President had called for freedom in Belorussia.
For the dissidents -- each of them had been imprisoned for their
belief in democracy -- Bush's words sounded like redemption. They
seemed to be proof that opposition pays off and resistance to
authoritarianism will not be overlooked by the West. However, the
slideshow contained no quote from the German Chancellor. The
dissidents could not find one. They fear they are becoming victims of
what they see as Germany's convergence with an increasingly
authoritarian Russia.  

That seemed to make sense to the Lithuanian hosts. They vividly
remember the days when the Baltic states liberated themselves from
Russia and applied for membership in NATO and the EU. Initially, their
mentors were the Americans, not the Europeans, and least of all the
Germans. Germans, at least in the beginning, were more concerned about
instability in the Baltic. Postwar Germans in general have been quite
reserved about other people's desire for liberty. The Poles can tell
that story. When martial law greeted the Solidarity movement, German
elites reassured themselves that there was no other way to avoid a
Soviet occupation. They kept quiet in the face of authoritarianism. An
echo of this history can be heard in Lebanon today. To the democratic
opposition, the hero of liberation will not be the German chancellor,
but the American president.

At the same time, Gerhard Schröder is pursuing his own foreign policy.
He talks up a "strategic partnership" with Russia's Vladimir Putin.
whom he calls a "flawless democrat". He travels to seven more or less
autocratic Gulf nations to advertise German products, including
weapons. He vehemently promotes the end of Europe's weapons embargo
against China. He normalizes relations with a man that has been called
housebroken only recently: Lybian strongman Moamar Ghadaffi. And he
responds to America's freedom offensive in the Middle East by saying
democracy cannot be "forced upon these societies from the outside".

While Schröder surrenders to skepticism towards freedom, Bush seems
giddy with freedom euphoria. To find the roots of this difference, one
need only listen to their speeches. Here is Gerhard Schröder in Riyadh
in front of the German Saudi Business Council: "Without peace there
will be no prosperity. That is the important correlation." Here is
George Bush at the National Defense University: "This status quo of
despotism and anger cannot be ignored or appeased, kept in a box or
bought off, because we have witnessed how the violence in that region
can reach easily across borders and oceans." For Schröder, peace is
the central value. For Bush, it is freedom. The core of the ongoing
transatlantic dispute seems to change: from the question of war to the
question of freedom.

Whether values have a role to play in foreign policy has been a matter
of debate for almost a century. The realists argue the relationship
between nations is only governed by power and interest. Idealism has
no role to play. It was President Woodrow Wilson who first challenged
this notion on the world stage. During his presidency the United
States became the first big power to make its values the core of its
foreign policy. Wilson's sunny vision of a world united by democracy
and the League of Nations failed, and fueled a powerful backlash. On
the other hand, hyper-realists like President Richard Nixon and his
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger set off counter-movements of their
own. They were accused of pursuing immoral policies and neglecting
American values. Their successors, especially Jimmy Carter and Ronald
Reagan, stressed the moral underpinnings of their policies. As Leslie
Gelb and Justine Rosenthal have written in <italic>Foreign
Affairs</italic>, these presidents created a consensus in Washington
that values should be part of any policy that pursues the national
interest.

Bush's freedom agenda ties into this debate. It attempts nothing less
than to reconcile realism with idealism. Thus it opens itself up to
criticism. Hypocrisy is the most obvious charge. The reality of
American foreign policy will never live up to its promises if those
promises are so far-reaching. It is hard to prod the Egyptians to live
by the rule of law if Egypt is a prime destination for so-called
"extraordinary renditions." George Bush may criticize Vladimir Putin
for his authoritarianism, but he will have to cooperate with him if he
wants the Russians to stop their nuclear exports to Iran. He may
reprove the Chinese for their Gulag, but he will need them to pressure
the nuclear adventurers in North Korea. For George Bush, these
contradictions are a small price to pay, because the alternative would
be worse.

As Joe Klein writes in Time, Bush "fled" into his
freedom agenda. When no weapons of mass destruction and no major
Al-Quaida connections were found in Saddam's Iraq, the reasons to go
to war got lost in the process. Save one, of course: liberation from
tyranny. From this starting point, George Bush has developed his
strategy. Traditional conservatism is hard to detect in this foreign
policy, but traditional Americanism is easier to see. The appeal to
freedom enables him to leave the radicalism of his first term behind.
Instead he invokes basic values of the American Republic. That a
President should commit himself to the spread of democracy and freedom
doesn't have to be explained to the American public. It is the raison
d'etre of the country.

The American Revolution not only gave birth to the new state. It also
gave rise to Americaís self-image as an island of freedom in a sea of
suppression. Thomas Jefferson coined the term "empire of freedom". The
Civil War, the most formative period in American history, was fought
over the question of the reach of liberty - as were the two world wars
and the Cold War in which the "free world" was to be defended. In this
succession of events, the Vietnam War is Americaís mark of Cain.
Americans, writes Frenchman Pascal Bruckner, understand freedom as a
"dream." They chose liberal democracy as the best of all systems,
while many Europeans embraced liberalism because more exciting
alternatives had disappointed them.

Especially in the German self-conception, freedom never reached the
same importance. As Berlin historian Jürgen Kocka reminds us, other
ideas were always more important: "'people, nation and state, for a
long time 'class', then 'race' for a fairly short period, lately
'peace'." In the beginning of the German nation state, there was no
Declaration of Independence, no Bill of Rights and no revolution. The
enemy of individual liberty has always been the "German Freedoms," a
conglomeration of group, class and regional rights which the
authorities granted to preserve the core of the authoritarian
Emperor's rule. Most importantly, Germany never knew what Jürgen Kocka
calls an "alliance of war and freedom". When German soldiers crossed
borders they did not do it in the name of freedom. That changed only
in 1999, when German soldiers entered Kosovo together with NATO
forces. The same holds true in Afghanistan today. During the last
century German soldiers had a history of defeat. In the end, historian
Dan Diner notes, "humiliation came in the shape of freedom, and it
spoke English". Earlier, from 1803 on, it spoke French, but the
Germans did not like that either. That they should view themselves as
"liberated" after World War II was a hard sell. And even in 1985, on
the occasion of the commemorations of German capitulation, German
President Richard von Weizsäcker had a hard time promoting the idea of
"liberation". To this day, the image of an American soldier risking
his life in a foreign land to guarantee someone else's right to vote
is irritating to Germans, as could be seen during the Iraqi elections.
For Americans, this picture symbolizes the core of their self-image.

In the older history of German parties, only fragments of a tradition
of freedom can be found. Conservatives mostly supported the powers
that be, whatever the nature of those powers. Following the failed
revolution of 1848 classical European-style liberals betrayed freedom
to gain national unity. And even in postwar Germany liberals and
conservatives could hardly be seen as reliable allies of oppressed
peoples.  

Which leaves the Social Democrats as the party of freedom. Its
theoreticians mostly ignored the problem of individual liberty. For
them freedom meant the emancipation of a class. But in practical
politics Social Democrats inherited the democratic tradition of 1848.
Nobody needed to teach persecuted children of the labor movement about
the value of individual freedom. That's why the most worthy bearers of
a freedom tradition within Social Democracy are former emigrants. In
that respect Chancellor Willy Brandt is second to none. When he
stepped down from the Party Chairmanship in 1987 he said: "If I were
to say what is dearest to me next to peace, my unambiguous answer is:
freedom. Freedom for the many, not only for the few. Freedom of
conscience and opinion. Also freedom from misery and freedom from
fear." Brandt's policy of detente initially aimed at the liberation of
Eastern Europe, even if recognition and partial stabilization of these
regimes was the price. It was only his successors in office who made a
fetish of stability and forgot all about subversion. This breach with
social democratic tradition continues to this day. It was Party
Chairman Oskar Lafontaine who saw nothing but a looming financial
crisis for West Germany when a movement gained strength in East
Germany that demanded freedom and national unity. And today it is
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who runs away from the American freedom
agenda.

After World War II realism was the dominant school of German foreign
policy. There were good reasons for this preference. With integration
into the family of western nations and with detente towards Eastern
Europe, the young republic caught up with reality. Now a third, more
cynical phase of Realpolitik seems to be in the making: since the
administration is unable to make a dent in unemployment, the sample
case has become the preferred tool of foreign policy. Dictators are
customers, too. Some are very good customers. At the same time, the
administration denies a fundamental fact: that the tender spring of
democracy in the Middle East might have anything to do with American
pressure. By denying the obvious, Schröder is missing an opening. He
could concede that Bush's freedom strategy is based on sound analysis
 whatever he thinks of the man or his other policies. It would make
Schröder's critique of the war in Iraq look principled.

When Jürgen Kocka compares the role of liberty in German and American
history he sees "dramatic differences, mostly before 1945, less so
during the Cold War, a little bit more visible again lately." This
quote dates from November 2003. At that point the de-westernization of
German foreign policy had only started.