Saturday, May 22, 2004

Why I’m not an isolationist 

George W Bush has been described as Wilsonian (I think it’s meant to be an insult for a Republican) for his desire to spread democracy and liberal order around the world; neo-conservatives are routinely accused of radicalism. Critics variously advise us to leave others alone, mind our own business, and concentrate on our own patch. Internationalism is deemed respectable only if it’s of a multilateral variety. People who normally can’t be accused of championing isolationists wish that President Bush was.

I don’t know how our latest adventure in the Middle East will end. It might be unrealistic, or culturally insensitive, or even imperialistic to try to impose on other cultures and other peoples democracy, freedoms, human rights, open society and open markets, but I, for one, am glad that we’re trying.

There is an old Polish motto that says “For your freedom and ours.” Many who live in advanced Western societies take their security and prosperity for granted. Poles, who’ve experienced so little of either over the past two centuries, are much more aware of how precious and precarious freedom is. They also understand that freedom is indivisible; that increasing it even in the remotest corner of the world enriches the whole of humanity. And so, for the past 250 years, Polish émigrés and exiles have been involved in many a struggle for independence and liberty around the world – fighting for “your freedom” if they weren’t always able to fight for theirs.

Hence, my American readers might be familiar with the Pulaski Day, named after a Polish general who had died in the American War of Independence. The history buffs among you might even be aware that the Texan artillery at Alamo was in the hands of Polish gunners, exiles from the failed Polish uprising of 1831. The Australian readers might be aware of the fact that Australia’s highest peak, Mt Kosciusko, is named after a general and a freedom-fighter both in his native Poland and in the United States. And the American, British and Australian veterans of World War Two will remember fighting alongside Poles at Narvik, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, Arnhem, on the North Atlantic and in the Battle of Britain.

The point I’m making is this – we in the West all too often take freedom for granted, because we’ve never lived without it. That complacency also creates a temptation to discount the value of freedom for others; to try to spread it around is too hard, too costly, and ultimately not our business.

In the end, however, the costs of lack of freedom are much higher than the costs of promoting it. Yes, it’s hard, it’s expensive – in terms of both blood and resources, it’s very often a thankless task (as the Coalition is discovering in Iraq), and in short term the results are often disappointing. Mistakes are made, good intentions are led astray, human nature intervenes and stuffs things up. But – there’s more freedom in the world today than there’s been at any stage in the past – and it’s very difficult to argue that the world is worse off for it. Nor indeed that the American War of Independence or the Civil War, or World War Two, or the Cold War were not worth fighting for. Retreating into own private shell is not the answer – however easy, or comforting it may be to wash one’s hands of the world’s troubles and say f*** it. That’s why I’m thankful for all those who today continue to fight for “your freedom and ours.”


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