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For the past four years, Fukuyama-style neoconservatives such as myself have grimly born witness as, around the world, the lights of liberty and freedom grew dim or were snuffed out. Bush, chastened by his failed Social Security reform, Hurricane Katrina, and a midterm defeat, gave up his freedom agenda. Obama, more eager to extend an open hand to dictators than wrest them from power, similarly demurred. And so we stood by, outraged but helpless, as Hugo Chavez solidified his dictatorship in Venezuela; as Cuba’s despotism positioned itself to outlive its founder; as Russia backslid into authoritarianism; as much of Eastern Europe began its descent into autocracy; as Bush’s mismanagement of Iraq and Obama’s incomprehensible tolerance for election rigging in Afghanistan dashed our hopes for democratic reform; as the toeholds of Arab liberty in Lebanon and Palestine grew more tenuous; as Iran brutally suppressed the democratic urges of its people; and as Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Niger, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Burundi, and Sri Lanka, amid recession and instability, became significantly less free.

We can debate the extent to which Bush helped or harmed the cause of democracy, but it was soothing to have a leader of the free world who denounced the enemies of freedom as evil — not just as convenient rhetoric, but as a matter of personal belief. Such moral conviction has been shamefully scarce since Ronald Reagan — who despite recent liberal attempts to co-opt his legacy, was a true conservative — and though I was two years old when Reagan held office, I feel nostalgic for his era. Today’s political spectrum offers a “once burned, twice shy” sort of isolationism on the right, and a policy of non-interference born of moral relativism (or worse, reflexive anti-Americanism) on the left. As a result, the U.S. has greeted the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt with dilatory confusion, instead of the eager support it deserves.

The realist case for a freedom agenda

I’m no democratic peace theorist. I believe war is the product of miscalculation, of a strong state demanding more than its due or a weak state refusing concessions that it lacks the force of arms to secure. War is a negative sum game, but diplomacy is zero sum — the economist inside me adamantly believes that if statesmen had perfect information on each country’s capabilities, we would find our way to the Pareto-optimal, war-free world. Democratization may remove the ideological differences between us and the wider world, but from a realist perspective, it only offers an indirect improvement in the prospects of peace, built solely on the faith that free societies tend to make better decisions than controlled ones.

And yet, I believe that there is a feel of urgency to the freedom movement. If one posits two not-unrealistic trends, that autocracies are destined for the dustbin of history, and that technology — including that of weapons of mass destruction — is destined to proliferate, then our present drift toward autocracy is alarming. It suggests a future filled with North Koreas and Pakistans: sclerotic, corrupt, nuclear states, with the security of their nuclear arsenals in question as they verge toward failure — in short, a mortal danger to the world. There is, in a sense, a race to democratize and stabilize countries before they acquire nuclear weapons and make themselves a permanent feature (and permanent risk) in the global society.

Just as importantly, freedom and human rights are necessary for us to win in the longer race — preparing the world for a day when nuclear weapons have proliferated to sub-state entities. We are challenged to create governments that are legitimate. We need governments that resolve the grievances of their citizens before they turn to violence as an avenue for change, that allow for orderly transitions of power, and that channel effort into reforming and improving the system, rather than toppling it.

Today we are secure. We are bordered by two non-hostile states, we control the oceans, and we have a military that can project more force than most of the world combined. Our grandchildren may enjoy the same advantages, but they will not sum to protection. Technology is changing the calculus of security, introducing risks that we are ill-prepared to handle — if the technology cannot be abolished, then it is the human reaction to that technology that must change, and we do not have long to prepare the field.

The moral case for a freedom agenda

There is a school of thought that places the morality of states in a separate sphere than that of individuals. States after all, are agents, not principals — they should not, as an individual might, immolate themselves in protest, or strike at a rival merely because he is evil. States, if they have any semblance of legitimacy, must safeguard the interests of their citizens and protect them from the predations of other states. This often means seeking a modus vivendi with countries whose policies we abhor, or submitting to an injustice because to do otherwise would be counterproductive.

Nonetheless, a moral interest is still an interest. We may accept it as grossly subordinate to national security and well-being, but it remains a legitimate goal. It should not be ignored merely because realpolitik is disdainful of it, and certainly not when it marches hand-in-hand with our own long-term security interests. It may make sense, as a temporary measure, to seek accommodation with undemocratic rivals in order to enhance our own power … but on what sacred stone is it written that, after conceding what is necessary to maintain our security and welfare, U.S. foreign policy should not focus on spreading liberty to every corner of the earth? Do we lack confidence in the correctness of liberal democracy, and if so, how many mangled Chinese human rights activists, assassinated Russian journalists, or raped and stoned Iranian girls will it take before our pangs of conscience give us the sureness that is required?

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I worked in the Middle East, and I came back aghast at the abject waste of physical resources that I had seen, the massive squandering of human potential that is so often symptomatic of autocratic rule. I was shocked at how few checks and balances existed against bad decision making and how often those missing checks were needed — the governments and their semi-privatized creatures were exhausting an inheritance that should have lasted generations. Had I been assigned to countries in which the state’s resources were obtained through violence and oppression, rather than random providence, I imagine I would have seen worse; as it was, I left with a profound sense of moral unease for having taken part.

Perhaps I am biased by personal experience. But I do not think it far-fetched to say that as moral callings go, furthering the spread of democracy and human rights has no parallel, and that, while taking a back seat to immediate national security, it deserves a role within our statecraft.

The Egyptian Moment

What weighs on the conscience most of all is the thought that the United States has misspent its unipolar moment. No nation has had such an unchallenged dominance of the world as the United States, and likely no other state ever will. As such, the burden of responsibility is on us alone. Slowly, technology and demography are chipping away at our relative advantage. How many years are left in the American hegemony? The nuclear genie, long since uncorked, is advancing upon the world, and perhaps we lack the strength to either keep it at bay or prepare the world for its coming.

Entering 2011, it seemed that everything we had done since the fall of the Soviet Union was for naught. But Egypt offers new promise. Don’t let the pundits fool you — we have significant influence on events in Egypt. At this point in time, the military is the last institution of Egypt left standing, and it will guide, in one direction or another, the course of Egypt’s future. American officers trained a good fraction of their officers and built relationships. Our country provides a good chunk of the Egyptian military’s funding. And despite what you may have heard about China, we are still the world’s superpower, with the political capital to make things very hard or very easy on a state.

It is time for us to cast off our trepidations toward Egypt’s revolution. For the first time in a long while, a major Middle Eastern state has moved into the win column. We should be using every tool at our disposal to keep it there, by both increasing aid to the country and twisting the arm of the military, thereby pressuring it to make a smooth transition to democratic rule. We could also begin offering America’s considerable legal expertise to building the country’s constitution and supporting its rule of law.

As difficult as our times now are, we will never be in a greater position to use American might and influence to advance the cause of human liberty. Our domestic turmoils, though important, must not distract us from seizing this moment — at stake is not just our security, but the highest ideals of our civilization.