Diplomacy is often gray, not black and white. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this year, quoted Thomas Jefferson: “The God who gave us liberty and life, gave them to us at the same time,” she said.
Jefferson only added, “the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.” For Israel, the sentiment is perfect: Terrorism cannot be allowed to disjoin a future defined by liberty and respect for life. The problem is places like… Uzbekistan. Between darkness and light, there is a gray world.
Miss Rice said America would never again “choose either freedom or stability, either democracy or security.” We would “uphold [our] principles.” Strong words. But can we do so in places like Uzbekistan? Is it always so simple?
The world is neither neat nor tidy, but persistently and unpleasantly messy. Chasing terrorists in places like London, Madrid and Afghanistan is the obvious right, but diplomacy in other locations is more complex and requires some explaining.
For starters, diplomacy is important. It remains the shaky but necessary bridge between differing priorities. While life and liberty are God-given rights, governments often do not simultaneously honor them. Of necessity, then, we work with nations that fall short. We fret out accommodations to advance liberty, while grudgingly living with ugly imperfections.
On rare occasions, we find it possible to thrust the sword and topple a demonic ruler. Happily, such revolutions do happen; freedom can emerge explosively. Sometimes our actions make the difference. But more often, we live in a world that is just plain awkward; it is not divisible into nations that dwell in darkness or radiate light. Most of the world pulses in a disquieting shade of gray.
Uzbekistan is a classic reminder of that reality. Its repressive government wrestles with drug-funded Islamic terrorism. America relies on the Uzbek air base at Karshi-Khanabad for ready access to Afghanistan — chiefly, to chase Afghan-based terrorists. The Uzbek government recently committed a horrific massacre at Andijon, killing hundreds of innocent civilians. Nevertheless, we find ourselves negotiating for permanent basing rights with that government.
So, there’s the rub. We would prefer not to be in Afghanistan, but we are. We would prefer not to need flights from Uzbekistan, but we do. We would prefer not to deal with a government forcing us to be complicit in making the forbidden choice, again, of stability over freedom. But we are.
Can we, on principle, avoid complicity with such a government? If not, can we explain ourselves? We could start by elaborating honestly on the imperfect state of governments, noting our strong preference for freedom over stability, but our recognition that protecting America in other ways has to figure into the equation, since the “pure ore” is hard to find.
There are advantages to calling a spade a spade, adding refinement to the freedom-not-stability doctrine, speaking openly about the “gray.” First, most Americans already see it. They want to beat terrorism and recognize widening our diplomatic vocabulary would help. Second, while Americans want freedom to spread, they want security at home first. They see the link, but also the separation. They want to live safe and free and then help others to do the same. Third, while most Americans prefer the simple, they grasp the complex.
In short, diplomacy matters because governments often operate in the gray, not in the black and white. Jefferson himself saw the world as imperfect. Individuals had a right to life and liberty, but governments invariably failed the ideal.
Full respect for life and liberty, of course, is the ideal. But, liberty usually pours into (and out of) societies like sand, slowly. Seldom does it drop from orbit in a glittering chunk. When it does, we celebrate. When it pours, we must patiently encourage the pouring.
In Uzbekistan, we should emphasize the expectation of democratic reform. That is difficult when negotiating for permanent basing rights, but can be done. More broadly, freedom will come at different paces in different places. While we may favor fast transitions, most Americans expect freedom’s march will take time. Jefferson saw life and liberty joined in principle but “disjoined” in fact. He chose encouragement and diplomacy, without abandoning the ideal.
In our global push for freedom and democracy, it would be nice to hurry. That is not always possible. We have relations with nations that remain unfree because we must.
Everything comes down to the hourglass. Is the sand pouring in the right direction, toward more freedom? If so, we may actually accelerate change by holding our rhetorical fire.
Sometimes, our role is less to condemn the pace than to simply support the shift. Like it or not, the world is gray. Time to say so.
Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group, Gaithersburg, Md.