Spirit of ’76, alive and well in Georgia
By Clayton McCleskey
It is but one of many signs of how greatly the Spirit of ’76 influences this young democracy sandwiched between Turkey and Russia and just a stone’s throw from Iraq and Iran.
When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, they launched an experiment they hoped would champion the universal values of freedom and democracy across the globe. Their example not only continues to stir patriotic pride in the hearts of Americans, but it also inspires freedom-lovers the world over, like the Georgians.
With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scheduled to visit Tbilisi tomorrow, this Fourth of July offers a chance to look at what Georgia can tell us about the power – and limits – of our own American democracy.
This little light of mine
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Georgia isn’t your run-of-the-mill European country. On the road between the airport and downtown Tbilisi, I was greeted by a billboard with a smiling George W. Bush welcoming drivers onto the highway the Georgians named in his honor. You won’t see that in Paris.
This is a country that loves the U.S. and is hungry for American-style freedom and democracy.
Over dinner alongside the Kura River, a group of young Georgian friends lifted their glasses in a toast to “America, our big and greatest friend.” They also praised Thomas Jefferson and peppered me with questions about the Bill of Rights and American federalism.
“I really hope to visit America. I just have this feeling that if you can get to America, then you really can have the chance to be happy, to fulfill your dreams,” said 22-year-old Giorgi Meskhi.
In the Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgians rose up to protest a stolen election, bringing President Mikheil Saakashvili to power. The spunky, fledgling democracy quickly became the poster-child for Bush’s “freedom agenda.” During a speech delivered on Tbilisi’s Freedom Square in 2005, Bush called Georgia a “beacon of liberty,” which it is, one of the reasons Georgia is so annoying to its authoritarian, non-democratic neighbor, Russia.
“America is our hope and is viewed as having the solutions to our problems,” Nino Lomjaria, coordinator for election projects at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, told me. The association is Georgia’s largest non-governmental organization.
She said her group reflects the many “young, enthusiastic people who fight for democracy and who want to change things in our country.”
But while Georgia’s love of America and freedom can tempt you to wax about the red, white and blue, this country also carries a sobering message about the limits of American power.
Limits of liberty
Georgia reminds us that we can neither snap our fingers and create a democracy, nor can we hope to carry the banner for liberty without the help of democratic allies.
Bush’s freedom agenda failed to get much support in Europe, where the president’s credibility had taken a huge hit as a result of the Iraq war. With Bush’s backing, Georgia was once on the fast track to joining NATO. But some European nations – Germany, I’m looking at you – slammed on the breaks, brushing off Washington’s support of Georgia to avoid upsetting the Russians. The U.S. was too weak diplomatically to take the lead, and Moscow saw an opening.
In August 2008 Russia invaded Georgia, and the U.S. could do little to help. Even though the U.S is Georgia’s greatest ally, it was actually the French who negotiated a ceasefire, which the Russians have never honored. Russian soldiers are still camped out 30 miles north of Tbilisi.
“It boils down to this,” said Giorgi Kandelaki, deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament’s foreign relations committee. “Georgia is trying to become a functioning democracy and integrate itself into the West, and Russia is trying to stop it.”
Kandelaki isn’t shy about his feelings on Russia; visitors to his office step on a Russian flag doormat with Vladimir Putin’s face on it.
Russia’s war with Georgia was a direct rebuke of the spread of American-supported democracy, and the U.S. found itself unable to do much about it. What began as a huge triumph for Bush’s admirable goal of spreading democracy looked like a failure by the end of his presidency.
Bush’s gut was right – we do have a moral obligation to help freedom-loving countries like Georgia – but he stumbled when it came to style. By diminishing U.S. diplomatic power through blunders like the handling of Iraq, the president left Washington weakened, unable to stand by Georgia or follow through on the freedom agenda.
And with Bush sidelined and Europe in turn showing little interest in what was happening in Georgia, Saakashvili showed a disturbing willingness to ride roughshod over the very democratic ideals Georgians hold so dear, such as when he brutally cracked down on free speech in 2007.
While Georgia has made great progress in its democratic journey, no amount of American money or moral support could turn this place into a model democracy overnight.
Freedom Agenda 2.0
Bush-era setbacks such as Georgia and the Iraq war caused talk of “spreading democracy” to go out of style as President Barack Obama entered office. The Obama administration’s decision to distance itself from Bush-esque democracy promotion has resulted in a foreign policy that practically ignores the issue all together.
That’s a mistake.
“One can criticize how the Bush administration pursued the freedom agenda, but it’s a totally different matter to almost divorce yourself from issues like democracy and human rights,” warned David Kramer of the German Marshall Fund.
“There has been insufficient attention to promoting democracy and human rights around the world, said Kramer, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under Bush.
Sure, Bush may have fumbled in his attempts to spread freedom, but that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore the cause – or allies like Georgia.
“We should make democracy assistance even more of a cornerstone. There is a need for a freedom agenda, and Georgia is a good example of things that can be accomplished,” explained Mark Lenzi, who led the International Republican Institute’s operations in Georgia from 2003 until 2007, a time of rapid change in Georgia.
Lenzi expressed his concern that Georgian democracy is still in its infancy. He spoke of the need for a new freedom agenda to encourage aspiring democracies, lamenting that it’s “a big issue that not that many people are talking about.”
Well, seems to me the Fourth of July is the perfect time to start. This weekend, world leaders are meeting in Krakow, Poland, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Community of Democracies and to discuss the state of democracy in the world. Afterward, Clinton heads to Tbilisi. She should use the visit to show Georgia – and anti-democratic states like Russia, Iran and China – that America still takes human rights and democracy seriously.
“Democracy worldwide is in decline,” warned Deputy Prime Minister Temuri Yakobashvili. He told me that the Georgians may be “the last of the Mohicans who still fights for democracy, even under the gun point.”
“[Georgia] is the country that is fighting to be a democratic state – and look around us, who else is doing that?”
Georgia has remained a steadfast ally. Ironically, when the war with Russia broke out, Georgia struggled to defend itself because its best troops were in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Georgia is currently the largest per capita contributor of troops.
Yakobashvili stressed that Georgia’s soldiers “are not on holidays in Afghanistan,” alluding to some European nations that have kept their troops far from the action.
Bush was right that Georgia can become a beacon of freedom in a troubled – and decidedly undemocratic – region. But it needs continued prodding and support from America.
On this Fourth of July, America should re-infuse its foreign policy with the Spirit of ’76 so evident in Georgia’s enthusiasm for freedom.
Instead of shying away from human rights and democracy because of mistakes Bush made, the Obama administration should introduce a Freedom Agenda 2.0. The U.S. can use its moral might in a benevolent way, working with allies to encourage and support young democratic movements without the swashbuckling bomb-them-into-democracy approach the neo-cons took.
In designing a new freedom agenda, we might want to take advice from Ben Franklin – American should strive to guarantee the pursuit of democracy for countries like Georgia. But they have to catch it themselves.
Clayton M. McCleskey is a Points staff writer based in Germany, where he is a Fulbright journalism scholar. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Top