What the World Really Wants

The Bush administration describes spreading democracy as the lodestar of its foreign policy. It speaks about democracy constantly and has expanded funding for programs associated with it. The administration sees itself as giving voice to the hundreds of millions who are oppressed around the world. And yet the prevailing image of the United States in those lands is not at all as a beacon of liberty. Public sentiment almost everywhere sees the United States as self-interested and arrogant. There is a huge disconnect between what the Bush administration believes it stands for and how it is seen around the world.

Why? Well, consider Vice President Cheney's speech on May 4 in Lithuania, in which he accused Russia of backpedaling on democracy. Cheney was correct in his specific criticisms. If anything, he was coming a little late to this party. Senators like John McCain and Joe Lieberman have been making this case for more than a year. Russia watchers have been pointing to these trends for longer. But to speak as Cheney did last week misunderstands the reality in that country, and squanders America's ability to have an impact in it.

In Cheney's narrative, Russia was a blooming democracy during the 1990s, but in recent years it has turned into a sinister dictatorship where people live in fear. In castigating Vladimir Putin, Cheney believes that he is speaking for the Russian masses. He fancies himself as Reagan at the Berlin wall. Except he isn't. Had Cheney done his homework and consulted a few opinion polls, which are extensive and reliable in Russia, he would have discovered that Putin has a 75 percent approval rating, about twice that of President Bush.

Most Russians see recent history differently. They remember Russia in the 1990s as a country of instability, lawlessness and banditry. They believe that Boris Yeltsin bankrupted the country, handed its assets over to his cronies and spent most of his time drunk and dysfunctional. Yeltsin's approval ratings by 1994 were below 20 percent and in 1996 he actually went into the single digits for a while. Russians see Putin, on the other hand, as having restored order, revived growth and reasserted national pride.

Why? Well, for the average Russian per capita GDP has gone from $600 to $4,500 during Putin's reign, much, though not all of which, is related to oil prices. The poverty rolls have fallen from 42 million to 26 million. College graduates have increased by 50 percent and a middle class has emerged in Russia's cities. And yet the backsliding that Cheney described is quite true, too. I've been critical of Putin power grabs for years now. But the truth is that even so, Russia today is a strange mixture of freedom and unfreedom. (The country publishes 90,000 books a year, espousing all political views.) Polls in Russia show that people still rate democracy as something they like and value. But in the wake of the 1990s, they value more urgently conditions that will allow them to lead decent civic and economic lives. We went to Iraq with similar blinders, believing that all people thirsted for was the end of Saddam. But when that meant the end of order, stability and civilized life, they were horrified and blamed us. If we had paid attention to this fundamental (and conservative) insight, we might not be in the mess we are in today in Iraq.

Or consider Nigeria. American officials have been debating how to help that country, by ensuring that its elected president, Olusegun Obasanjo, would not run for a third term (which would have required amending election laws). Last week the Nigerian Senate ruled out a third term, and Washington applauded. But in fact this whole drama is largely irrelevant to what is really happening in Nigeria. Over the last 25 years, the country has gone into free fall. Its per capita GDP has collapsed, writes Jeffrey Tayler in the April issue of The Atlantic, from $1,000 to $390. It ranks below Haiti and Bangladesh on the Human Development Index. In 2004 the World Bank estimated that 80 percent of Nigeria's oil wealth goes to 1 percent of its people. Sectarian tensions are rising, particularly between Muslims and Christians, and 12 of the country's 36 provinces have imposed Sharia. Violent conflict permeates the country, with 10,000 people dead over the last eight years. In this context, Obasanjo's third term is really not the big issue that will determine Nigeria's future. (Obasanjo has actually presided over a series of important improvements, which will probably collapse in his absence.) But these are the only issues that we talk about, because we're spreading democracy.

The United States should stand for and help promote freedom around the world. But we can do so effectively only if we ally ourselves with the aspirations of the people we are trying to help. For many of them, the great struggle going on in so much of the world today is to end civil strife, corruption, extreme poverty and disease, which destroy not just democracy but society itself. And on those issues, I don't think I've ever heard a speech by Dick Cheney.