There is nothing more hopeful than civilian unrest against an autocratic dictatorship. Some of my earliest memories of the world as a political environment were formed in April of 1989. I was eleven years old and didn't fully understand the backdrop of what was happening in China as the Tienamen Square protests turn violent and ugly as the Beijing government unleashed the power of the military agains its own people who were demonstrating for more dramatic reforms. Five months later, I remember watching the news full of hope and fear as the Berlin Wall fell and Germany began the process of reunification. A little over a year later, I found my first contemporary political hero in the person of Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity movement had succeeded in ending Poland's satellite relationship with the Soviet Union. That same year as Nelson Mandela was released from prison it became more and more apparent that the Soviet union was crumbling and the order of the old world was done as Belarus and the Balkan and Baltic states began breaking with the Soviet Union. By the end of the year, Stalinism in Eastern Europe was more or less done and we were entering a new world.
Recent events in the Maghreb, Middle East and on the edges of Central Asia are beginning to have that same flavor. There is a specter in the news of world that has haunted autocratic regimes ever since the late 1840s as a progressively more aware and more active world citizenry have repeatedly demanded the right to not just self-determination of the state, but self-determination of their own lives. Contra Marx and Engels, who saw in the uprisings of the mid-nineteenth century the unfolding of the inevitable historical trend toward an egalitarian economic system where the industrialized workers of the world would finally seize ownership and control of the means of production, the specter is not that of communism. Capitalism and its discontents are far from the minds of a citizenry in the throws of a movement for greater political freedom. That is because in the end, greater political freedom must always come as a precursor to greater economic equality. The right of an informed and sovereign people to determine the course and tenor of their own government must always be fulfilled before a full throated demand for an egalitarian economic system can be articulated and won. For a citizen of the United States this has a clarity and an urgency that cannot be understated.
We in the United States enjoy the distinct and precipitous advantage of living the first modern state to be politically founded on the full consent of the governed. To be sure, the unwritten Constitution of England had made great strides in that direction first in the Aristocratic reforms of Magna Charta and the centuries long struggle that led to the ascendency of the Commons over the present government of the United Kingdom. Without those developments, it is unlikely that the American Revolution would have been fought and won. But in the Constitution of the United States, imperfect an instrument as it was at the time of its ratification, the world for the first time since the democratic and republican experiments of antiquity saw the emergence of a nation-state whose government was founded and ruled by the explicit sovereignty of a free people. The history of the United States since 1787 has been nothing but the slow progress of greater civil and economic liberty won at the expense of the old world systems of economic control that are still in place in our contemporary global system. Even in the United States and in the fits and starts of an increasingly federal Europe, there remains much to be done to combat the economic inequalities that lives on entrenched in generational poverty and wealth. But the experience of Western Democracy has been and remains that political freedom of a state founded on the consent of a sovereign people is a necessary precursor to greater economic liberty and the economic equality that that liberty promises.
This is why I have such hope in the face of recent events in Tunisia, Yemen, Iran, Algeria, Sudan and Egypt. These are countries with an increasingly well-educated and informed population living in modern cities that appear at least to be on the verge of demanding and possibly winning the kinds of fundamental political reforms that will allow them entry into the next struggle for equality. The form of government that will emerge in those nations as what it is tempting to describe as a series of dominoes in yet another round of democratically inspired revolutions progresses is impossible to predict. The cultural precursors that will inform what choices the people of those states will make in the coming months and years, even presuming that they will be successful in their movements which is at present an open question, are very different from the systems of values that formed the basis for American and European democracy. There is hope, however, in the deep roots of Islam in these countries.
Progressive Islam is a beautiful and profound system of ideals founded on collective support, self-sacrifice for the greater good, and the unity of the wider Islamic world. It is easy to imagine a new form of constitutional democracy founded on the shared values of the five pillars of Islam. Still the ideal of constitutional democracy itself might see some radical changes itself should it take root in these movements as they progress through the death-throws of the old autocratic regimes left over from the geopolitical manipulations of the last century. In the end, my greatest hope for my own people, the varied and motley citizenry of the United States and Canada, is that in the emergence of a new and more free order in the Islamic world will in the end provide us with a new model and new ideas that we can learn from and incorporate into our own views of freedom and equality as we continue our own experiments in self-determination.
In the end we cannot know what the future holds in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, South Sudan, Algeria and Iran. We cannot know if these latest challenges to authoritarian rule will lead to greater freedom for the people of those nations or if this will be a blip on the radar screen met with the jackboot of reactionary rule as has so often happened in the past. We cannot know if successful popular uprisings of the present will lead to further dominoes falling in states like Saudi Arabia, The UAE, Tajikhistan, Syria, Kuwait or Jordan. We cannot know what will happen in imperfect democracies of the region like Turkey, Israel, The Lebanon, or an emergent Palestine. I have hope that the noises coming from the White House are a far cry from the American Imperialism of the past, both President Obama and Secretary Clinton seem to be on the right side of history for once in their cautious but clear support for the peoples of these nations right to self-determination. Our choice as a nation in our foreign policy is to abandon the cold war dichotomy between stability and liberty in favor of a more nuanced and humane view of the world, trusting that the pendulum of history seems to swing ever more in favor of liberty and righteousness. I see in the news of the day a firm justification for a cautious optimism that the world may be on the verge of becoming a better place. I, for one, am excited and hopeful to see what the contours of that betterment will turn out to be.