Mr. President, don’t send guns to the Libyans. Send them a piece of paper. In this week’s Newsweek, Niall Ferguson has a message for Obama—take advice from President Gerald Ford. Yes, President Ford.President Obama is reluctant to intervene in the bloody civil war now under way in Libya. As a senior aide told The New York Times last week, “He keeps reminding us that the best revolutions are completely organic.” I like that notion of organic revolutions—guaranteed no foreign additives, exclusive to Whole Foods. I like it because, like so much about this administration, it is both trendy and ignorant.
Was the American Revolution “completely organic”? Funny, I could have sworn those were French ships off Yorktown. What about Britain’s Glorious Revolution, the one that established parliamentary rule? Strange, I had this crazy idea that William III was a Dutchman.
The reality is that very few revolutions, good or bad, succeed without some foreign assistance. Lenin had German money; Mao had Soviet arms. Revolutions that don’t get some help from outside aren’t so much inorganic as unsuccessful. Indeed, they generally don’t go down in history as revolutions at all. More than one revolt has been brutally crushed by an Arab dictator—think of the Marsh Arabs’ fate at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Such events tend to be remembered as massacres. We must hope that someone gives President Obama a history lesson before thousands of Libyans share their fate. It will be tragic indeed if America concludes from the experience of overthrowing murderous tyrannies in Afghanistan and Iraq that the correct policy is to turn a blind eye to murder in Libya. That, remember, was the policy pursued by the last Democrat to occupy the White House, in Rwanda as well as, for much too long, in Bosnia.
Yet it would also be an erroneous conclusion that the only form of assistance America can give to good revolutions is military. A no-fly zone was not, after all, what helped the Central and Eastern European revolutionaries of 1989 topple their tyrants. The assistance we gave them was not military. It was moral.
One of the many unsung achievements of President Gerald Ford, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, was history’s biggest-ever poison pill. The document was the result of two years of haggling at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, originally a Soviet initiative to deal with security issues, but one that veered unexpectedly to address issues of human rights.
Eight of the 35 countries that signed the Final Act were communist. Yet it contained the following startling words:
The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion… The participating States will respect the equal rights of peoples and their right to self-determination.
So accustomed were the Soviet authorities to lying that they saw no harm in subscribing to these pledges. Indeed, the Final Act was reprinted in full in Pravda. But for dissidents inside the Soviet Bloc like the physicist Andrei Sakharov or the Czech playwright Václav Havel, Helsinki represented a huge stick with which to beat their persecutors.
The Cold War ended not because the United States achieved a military edge over the Soviet Union, but because the legitimacy of the Soviet system collapsed from within. Our role was to insist on the importance of those “human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Even if not all our allies in the Cold War always upheld them, the other side respected them less.
Why have we failed to learn from that success? Why have we allowed a mockery to be made of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which numbered Libya among its members until just the other day and still includes Saudi Arabia, not to mention China and Cuba?
Memo to the president: Organic revolutions, just like your Whole Foods arugula, need sunlight and watering. It’s time for a new Helsinki, aimed at discrediting all of today’s unfree states, starting with the four I’ve just named.
Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University and a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, was published in November.
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