This is not to lay the blame at our feet for the failings of others. But it is to say that when the actions of our partners are at odds with their people’s longings for justice and dignity, democratic countries have a special obligation to speak up for citizens who have no voice in their political systems – not out of some misplaced sense of moralism, but because our national interests demand it. For even now, especially now, the lessons of Egypt appear clear: Three decades spent silencing moderate voices in order to fight extremist ones has had exactly the opposite effect: Radical groups are empowered, and responsible citizens are unorganized. If people are not permitted to express their demands in the halls of government and the pages of free media, those demands only grow louder, and angrier, and more radical, and sooner or later, they will be taken to the streets, where they can shake the foundations of an entire country – and many others beyond it. As President John F. Kennedy said: ‘Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.’”
Not that long ago, there was an emerging international consensus that promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law was a strategic priority that could not be deferred. Unfortunately, that consensus collapsed, for reasons too many and multifaceted to discuss here. Now, however, we have an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to rebuild that consensus. The revolution of rising expectations that recently gripped Tunisia, and that has spread so decisively to Egypt, does not seem poised to stop there. Nor will it. The human demand for dignity, freedom, and equal justice is irrepressible and non-negotiable. The only question for us is: which side of history will we ultimately be on, the right side or the wrong side?
I believe the events in Egypt and elsewhere call for a new look at our approach to undemocratic governments everywhere, especially in the broader Middle East. This is not to say that we should abandon partners of long-standing because of how they treat their people. We must remain partners, for many vital reasons, but the terms of our partnership need to change. We need to be more assisting, but also more insisting. Make no mistake, what is happening in Egypt is nothing short of a revolution, and it should put other undemocratic governments on notice that their presumed stability is a false stability. The choice they face is between a managed process of gradual reform that leads to political and economic openness – and a determined self-delusion that leads to revolutionary and potentially violent change. I wish the choice was not that stark, but recent events lead me to think otherwise.
In the months ahead, the transatlantic democracies should unite around the idea of a new compact with our undemocratic partners: As they take concrete steps to advance down the hard path of political, economic, and social reforms, we will be with them every step of the way, offering whatever incentives we can – from technical assistance, to greater market access, to further security cooperation – that can support their transition over time to freer and more representative systems of government. Ultimately, change is coming, whether we like it or not, and we need to think about how to manage that change in a more orderly and successful way.
Tomorrow is the birthday of President Ronald Reagan. In addition to a world free of nuclear weapons, perhaps Reagan’s greatest dream was a world free from tyranny. That dream endures, and now it is more important than ever.
I appreciate your indulgence with my desire to speak off of the appointed topic, and I look forward to taking your questions on any subject you wish to discuss.