Conventional wisdom deems conservatism and doctrinaire politics to be wildly incompatible. What the much-misunderstood Enoch Powell termed the 'community of nation and church', coupled with old-fashioned common sense, have been at the heart of conservative approaches to politics. Intellectualism and ideological hair-splitting have traditionally been the prerogatives of the left.
No longer. Ever since Margaret Thatcher put the economist Friedrich von Hayek on a pedestal and embraced monetarism, there has been an unspoken rupture between a Toryism that celebrates Edmund Burke and Lord Salisbury, and the New Right that possesses an insatiable appetite for radical change. President Ronald Reagan, the unquestioned father-figure of the New Right, may have tried to balance the two traditions. However, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent re-election of President George W. Bush, the baton of the new right has been passed on to the neo-conservatives. Once a Republican ginger-group of intellectuals who made the transition from Trotskyism to right activism during the heyday of radicalism in the late Sixties, it is the neocons, as they are popularly called, who now call the shots in the Bush administration.
The triumph of the neocons has, among other things, involved a decisive expansion in the concerns of the new right. Supplementing the traditional right focus on the freedom of choice in economics and social policy, the neocons have now honed in to foreign policy, an arena that was hitherto the preserve of apparatchiks in the state department and hard-nosed pragmatists of the Henry Kissinger variety.
The beltway buzz in Washington DC since Bush pulled off his incredible victory last November, centres on the influence of Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, now a minister in Ariel Sharon's government in Israel, and co-author of The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.
Sharansky's influence on Bush and the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is said to be profound. The president's bold assertion at his inauguration earlier this month that 'America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one' has been traced to Sharansky's writings, as has been his appeal to the European Union in Brussels this week to 'tip the scales of history in favour of freedom'.
At senate confirmation hearings in January, the new secretary of state was even more categorical. 'The world should apply,' she said, 'what Natan Sharansky calls 'the town square test': if a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a fear society has finally won their freedom.'
Sharansky's espousal of freedom is robust, uncluttered and born of his experiences in the Soviet Union ' he spent nine years in the Gulag ' and his stints as a minister in Israel. According to him, freedom is not merely an ethical necessity; it is a national security imperative. As he sees it, democratic societies tend to be non-belligerent because they are accountable to their people, whereas fear societies 'always need to mobilise their people against external enemies in order to maintain internal stability'. Yasser Arafat needed to perpetuate tensions with Israel to maintain his control over the Palestinians; the authoritarian Egyptian government needs to spew anti-Semitism, despite being formally at peace with Israel, because it needs a glue to hold society together; and the 'tribal dictatorship' in Saudi Arabia maintains domestic stability by exporting extremist Wahabbi Islam and terrorism.
Regimes, said Sharansky in a recent interview, 'that do not respect the rights of their own people will not respect the rights of their neighbours'. Consequently, 'we must link our foreign policies to the expansion of freedom within non-democratic societies'. This is precisely the theme of Bush's latest pronouncements. Earlier, Reagan too had spoken of bolstering the 'infrastructure of democracy' in his famous 1982 speech to the British House of Commons.
Sharansky is impatient with the suggestion that democracy is a Western luxury. To him, the 'drug of freedom is universally potent'. He cites the example of Japan which many American experts in the aftermath of World War II believed could never become a democracy because of its hierarchical society and culture of deference. Yet today Japan is a vibrant, free society with little trace of its pre-1945 militarism. 'I have no doubt that given a real choice, the vast majority of Muslims and Arabs, like everyone else will choose a free society over a fear society.' The successful elections in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest that there may be some merit in Sharansky's sweeping rejection of cultural particularism.
Having debunked the notion that there is something called 'our' dictator with whom democracies can do business, Sharansky addresses the key question of how democratic evangelism can be successfully promoted. What is of paramount importance, he writes, is for democratic governments to introduce 'moral clarity' in the conduct of international affairs. To him, a prime example of this was Reagan's unequivocal categorization of the Soviet Union as the 'evil empire', a formulation that departed sharply from the then prevailing perceptions of d'tente and peaceful co-existence. It triggered the breakdown of the moral edifice on which the Soviet system rested.
Second, Sharansky advocates a proactive foreign policy to promote democracy. 'In dealing with fear societies, the free world must have a very big carrot and a very big stick. We should embrace leaders who embrace democratic reform and reject leaders who don't.' In particular, he advocates using trade sanctions as a leverage against totalitarianism'an ominous suggestion in view of the deep economic links between the US and a non-democratic China.
Since he acquired the status of a Bush guru, Sharansky has been attacked for over-simplifying a complex world, for being 'blind to the humanity of people from another culture' and turning freedom into a natural absolute, quite forgetting that it is a contingent, changing and contested term. Equally, he has been charged with selective indignation ' decrying Palestinian terrorism and condoning 'free' Israel's brutal counter-terrorism. However, the test of Sharansky lies not in the intellectual rigour of his arguments but in its appeal to a president who began his journey trying to uphold national security after 9/11 and then found himself in the midst of a democratic crusade. By linking national security to freedom, Sharansky provided the Bush administration a post facto doctrine that has a potential appeal in the European Union and, at the same time, also corresponds to America's own celebration of truth, freedom and the American way.
The extent to which the Sharansky doctrine shapes the policies of the Bush administration will be keenly monitored in the coming years. Given the influence of traditional conservatives wedded to the Kissinger-type realpolitik, the oil power of the non-democratic Arab sheikhdoms and the importance of China in the US economy, good intentions may not easily find a policy reflection.
When he was invited to the White House for a private, hour-long t'te-'-t'te last November, Sharansky told Bush, 'There is a great difference between politicians and dissidents. Politicians...are constantly making compromises. But dissidents focus on ideas. They have a message burning inside of them...You Mr President, are a dissident among the leaders of the free world.'
It is an unlikely honour bestowed on a leader who has been mocked for his inability to enter into the realms of abstraction. However, as Reagan so successfully demonstrated, great ideas can change the world without falling back on cerebral conduits.