In dark and repressive corners of the world, whole generations grew up with no voice in their government and no hope in their future. This life of oppression bred deep resentment. And for many, resentment boiled over into radicalism and extremism and violence. The world saw the result on September the 11th, 2001, when terrorists based in Afghanistan sent 19 suicidal men to murder nearly 3,000 innocent people in the United States.
For some, this attack called for a narrow response. In truth, 9/11 was evidence of a much broader danger — an international movement of violent Islamic extremists that threatens free people everywhere. The extremists' ambition is to build a totalitarian empire that spans all current and former Muslim lands, including parts of Europe. Their strategy to achieve that goal is to frighten the world into surrender through a ruthless campaign of terrorist murder.
To confront this enemy, America and our allies have taken the offensive with the full range of our military, intelligence, and law enforcement capabilities. Yet this battle is more than a military conflict. Like the Cold War, it's an ideological struggle between two fundamentally different visions of humanity. On one side are the extremists, who promise paradise, but deliver a life of public beatings and repression of women and suicide bombings. On the other side are huge numbers of moderate men and women — including millions in the Muslim world — who believe that every human life has dignity and value that no power on Earth can take away.
The most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism is not bullets or bombs — it is the universal appeal of freedom. Freedom is the design of our Maker, and the longing of every soul. Freedom is the best way to unleash the creativity and economic potential of a nation. Freedom is the only ordering of a society that leads to justice. And human freedom is the only way to achieve human rights.
Expanding freedom is more than a moral imperative — it is the only realistic way to protect our people in the long run. Years ago, Andrei Sakharov warned that a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respond to the rights of its neighbors. History proves him right. Governments accountable to their people do not attack each other. Democracies address problems through the political process, instead of blaming outside scapegoats. Young people who can disagree openly with their leaders are less likely to adopt violent ideologies. And nations that commit to freedom for their people will not support extremists — they will join in defeating them.
For all these reasons, the United States is committed to the advance of freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism. And we have a historic objective in view. In my second inaugural address, I pledged America to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. Some have said that qualifies me as a "dissident president." If standing for liberty in the world makes me a dissident, I wear that title with pride.
America pursues our freedom agenda in many ways — some vocal and visible, others quiet and hidden from view. Ending tyranny requires support for the forces of conscience that undermine repressive societies from within. The Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik compared a tyrannical state to a soldier who constantly points a gun at his enemy — until his arms finally tire and the prisoner escapes. The role of the free world is to put pressure on the arms of the world's tyrants — and strengthen the prisoners who are trying to speed their collapse....
There are many dissidents who couldn't join us because they are being unjustly imprisoned or held under house arrest. I look forward to the day when a conference like this one include Alexander Kozulin of Belarus, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Oscar Elias Biscet of Cuba, Father Nguyen Van Ly of Vietnam, Ayman Nour of Egypt....
We appreciate that free societies take shape at different speeds in different places. One virtue of democracy is that it reflects local history and traditions. Yet there are fundamental elements that all democracies share — freedom of speech, religion, press, and assembly; rule of law enforced by independent courts; private property rights; and political parties that compete in free and fair elections. These rights and institutions are the foundation of human dignity, and as countries find their own path to freedom, they must find a loyal partner in the United States of America.
Extending the reach of freedom is a mission that unites democracies around the world. Some of the greatest contributions are coming from nations with the freshest memories of tyranny. I appreciate the Czech Republic's support for human rights projects in Belarus and Burma and Cuba. I thank Germany, and Poland, and the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and Slovenia, and Georgia, Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia for contributing to the new United Nations Democracy Fund. I'm grateful for the commitment many new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe are making to Afghanistan and Iraq. I appreciate that these countries are willing to do the hard work necessary to enable people who want to be free to live in a free society.
In all these ways, the freedom agenda is making a difference. The work has been difficult, and that is not going to change. There will be triumphs and failures, progress and setbacks. Ending tyranny cannot be achieved overnight. And of course, this objective has its critics.
Some say that ending tyranny means "imposing our values" on people who do not share them, or that people live in parts of the world where freedom cannot take hold. That is refuted by the fact that every time people are given a choice, they choose freedom.... At a polling station in Baghdad, I was struck by the words of an Iraqi — he had one leg — and he told a reporter, "I would have crawled here if I had to." Was democracy — I ask the critics, was democracy imposed on that man? Was freedom a value he did not share? The truth is that the only ones who have to impose their values are the extremists and the radicals and the tyrants....
History shows that ultimately, freedom conquers fear. And given a chance, freedom will conquer fear in every nation on Earth.
Another objective — objection is that ending tyranny will unleash chaos. Critics point to the violence in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Lebanon as evidence that freedom leaves people less safe. But look who's causing the violence. It's the terrorists, it's the extremists. It is no coincidence that they are targeting young democracies in the Middle East. They know that the success of free societies there is a mortal threat to their ambitions — and to their very survival. The fact that our enemies are fighting back is not a reason to doubt democracy. It is evidence that they recognize democracy's power. It is evidence that we are at war. And it is evidence that free nations must do what it takes to prevail.
Still, some argue that a safer goal would be stability, especially in the Middle East. The problem is that pursuing stability at the expense of liberty does not lead to peace — it leads to September the 11th, 2001. The policy of tolerating tyranny is a moral and strategic failure. It is a mistake the world must not repeat in the 21st century.
Others fear that democracy will bring dangerous forces to power, such as Hamas in the Palestinian Territories. Elections will not always turn out the way we hope. Yet democracy consists of more than a single trip to the ballot box. Democracy requires meaningful opposition parties, a vibrant civil society, a government that enforces the law and responds to the needs of its people. Elections can accelerate the creation of such institutions. In a democracy, people will not vote for a life of perpetual violence. To stay in power, elected officials must listen to their people and pursue their desires for peace — or, in democracies, the voters will replace them through free elections.
Finally, there's the contention that ending tyranny is unrealistic. Well, some argue that extending democracy around the world is simply too difficult to achieve. That's nothing new. We've heard that criticism before throughout history. At every stage of the Cold War, there were those who argued that the Berlin Wall was permanent, and that people behind the Iron Curtain would never overcome their oppressors. History has sent a different message.
The lesson is that freedom will always have its skeptics. But that's not the whole story. There are also people like you, and the loved ones you represent — men and women with courage to risk everything for your ideals. In his first address as President, Vaclav Havel proclaimed, "People, your government has returned to you!" He was echoing the first speech of Tomas Masaryk — who was, in turn, quoting the 17th century Czech teacher Comenius. His message was that freedom is timeless. It does not belong to one government or one generation. Freedom is the dream and the right of every person in every nation in every age.
The United States of America believes deeply in that message. It was the inspiration for our founding, when we declared that "all men are created equal." It was the conviction that led us to help liberate this continent, and stand with the captive nations through their long struggle. It is the truth that guides our nation to oppose radicals and extremists and terror and tyranny in the world today.