In a speech last week at the Clinton Global Initiative, Mitt Romney made a compelling case for U.S. foreign assistance to “embrace the power of partnerships, access the transformative nature of free enterprise, and leverage the abundant resources that can come from the private sector.” Romney’s proposal is right on target, and the speech offered a rare moment of thoughtful discourse on America’s role in the world during a campaign season dominated by political soundbytes. Romney’s plan to make free enterprise central to foreign assistance and U.S. global engagement is so powerful that it should be a key component of the foreign-policy strategy of whichever party prevails in November.
Since the end of the Cold War, much of U.S. foreign-policy thinking has been dominated by a debate over how best to exercise America’s unrivaled global power and influence to shape the politics, societies or economies of other countries. U.S. efforts to promote democracy and open markets while preventing abuses have met with some notable successes, but they have also come at great cost to the national interest. Washington’s interventions in domestic politics from Africa to Eastern Europe have drained billions from the treasury, developed and deepened cultures of aid dependence among our foreign partners, and in some cases reinforced the perception that political leaders need not be accountable to their own people as long as they enjoy favor in Washington.
The “freedom agenda,” which was the hallmark of the George W. Bush administration, is not so much about freedom as it is about picking winners and losers. The invasion of Iraq may have been justified had Saddam’s regime posed a credible threat to U.S. national security, but it surely did not warrant elevating a new a group of corrupt, squabbling elites to power in Baghdad. Yet leaders from both parties in Washington have perpetuated precisely this type of interventionism, usually by means of direct support for political parties or NGOs, from Latin America to Eastern Europe. The Obama administration appears irresolute in the face of the Arab Spring precisely because the options—dictator or Islamist?—are so unappealing. Picking winners abroad based on their professed commitment to American values or interests is unlikely to serve either but is quite certain to exhaust U.S. power and influence.
At the Clinton Global Initiative, Romney offered a truly new path, one that begins in the very crisis that has so stymied Obama. In his speech, Romney recounted the now-famous story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the twenty-six-year-old Tunisian man whose protest by self-immolation sparked what became the Arab Spring. Bouazizi did not burn himself to death in order to supplant the dictatorships of Tunisia’s Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; he did so because he wanted freedom to exercise the simple and God-given right to work for his own prosperity and that of his family.
Yet Bouazizi’s tragic act of protest and the fall of the Arab world’s most seasoned tyrants are inextricably linked. People everywhere, regardless of race, faith or political views, share the basic need to control their own destiny, which begins with the right to earn a living through work. Those who work, in Romney’s words, “will not long tolerate corruption nor quietly endure the brazen theft by government of the product of hard-working men and women.” Simply put, participation in free enterprise is the most powerful tool yet invented for bringing freedom to whole societies.
This idea—that free enterprise breeds broader freedom—should be the basis of a new American freedom agenda. To be sure, free enterprise is not the only freedom that matters, yet it is the one principle Americans can promote through our foreign policy that does not risk draining the treasury or dragging U.S. soldiers and diplomats into endless cycles of intervention and nation building. What is more, free enterprise is one of the few strategies that offers the promise of stability; people who work have something to live for, and they are far less likely to tolerate extremism or aspire to martyrdom.
Governor Romney has proposed creating “prosperity pacts” that condition U.S. assistance on commitments by other countries to lower barriers to trade, investment and entrepreneurialism; partnering with the private sector to finance small- and medium-sized businesses abroad that slip between the cracks of microlending and traditional banking; and establishing a “Reagan Economic Zone” that promises free and fair trade to all its participants. These are all good ideas, but a new American freedom agenda must be both more basic and more ambitious.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States used all the tools of national power to shape a rules-based international system that favored freedom to innovate, trade and compete, and for decades Americans led the world in all three. Now, the “Washington consensus” of free markets, free trade and fiscal responsibility faces competition from growth engines that mix state-sponsored and government-controlled enterprise with ceaseless technological modernization and merciless competition.
We will not prevail against competitors such as these through an arms race, whether measured in missiles, contracts or grants to favored groups. We can prevail by setting an example for others of what it means to achieve prosperity through freedom; by opening our doors to all those who aspire to such prosperity; and by husbanding our national power so that when competitors seek to transform temporary advantage into permanent dominance, we retain the strength and the will to resist them. We also can win by ensuring that we do not compete with one hand tied behind our back, by leveraging the resources of the private sector in transparent and mutually beneficial partnerships with government, such as the lending program Governor Romney envisions, or an enhanced commitment to public-private partnership in research and development.
Above all, the new American freedom agenda must promote and protect the freedom to work, so that millions of others like Mohamed Bouazizi will bring about lasting change, not through dramatic and destructive acts of protest but by the simple and enduring resolve to defend what they have earned. In a world of free-flowing information and capital, tools such as investment, immigration and education can expand the reach of free enterprise to every corner of the globe, so that while dictators and oligarchs may cling to political power, they increasingly will find themselves dominating domains that have become isolated and hollow.
Governor Romney’s speech could have been a watershed moment for his candidacy, yet it was little noticed by the press or touted by his own campaign. Perhaps this is because the venue bore the name of Bill Clinton. Still, it is telling that when a Democrat and a Republican put aside their differences to deal with pressing global challenges, the result is potentially world changing—and fundamentally American.
Matthew Rojansky is the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Image: Austen Hufford