My fellow Americans,
I take office this month at a difficult moment in our history. For the whole second half of the twentieth century, the government of the United States proudly led the world’s democracies under both Republicans and Democrats. We enjoyed unrivaled power and enormous prestige thanks to our part in the victory over Germany, Italy and Japan in the Second World War, and our ensuing work to limit the spread of Communism during the Cold War. We were not, to be sure, universally beloved, nor invariably wise. Like every great nation, we were tempted by hubris, and like every other, we occasionally succumbed, with serious results. At certain times we would have done better to listen to our friends and to take a calmer attitude towards some of our enemies; but on the whole, for more than five decades, we played a vital and constructive role in the world.
Seven years ago, on September 11, we were shocked by the most extraordinary terrorist attack in the history of the world. Some response was obviously necessary, and the nation briefly pulled together. Unfortunately, in dealing with this new threat, we forgot many of our principles and lost our way. Today, we shall begin once again to find it and to restore the esteem of the world community that formerly was such a source of pride.
The United States, while certainly eager during the nineteenth century to expand its territory on the North American continent, sought for nearly the first century and one-half of its history to remain aloof from the quarrels of other continents. We entered the First World War in 1917 only after two years of desperate attempts both to preserve our neutrality and to convince the warring nations to make peace. When we did enter the war, President Wilson did so on behalf of impartial principles: the freedom of the seas, the lowering of economic barriers, the self-determination of all peoples, the conclusion of a peace of equals, and the gradual erosion of empires. That was why the American people supported him—and ironically, many well-meaning Americans chose to reject the peace treaty he negotiated in Paris because they viewed it as a betrayal of his own ideals. For the next twenty years the United States stood for international economic cooperation, the observance of treaties, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, in a noble attempt to help build a more civilized world. We can be proud of that attempt as well.
Our dream of peace faded, of course, in the face of Japanese aggression in Asia and German aggression in Europe. When war broke out in Europe again in 1939, we hoped that France and Britain would defeat Nazi Germany. But when France fell in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt realized that Great Britain was truly threatened, and that Britain’s fall would endanger the western hemisphere and the United States itself. When Germany, Italy and Japan joined in a worldwide alliance later that year he recognized it as a worldwide threat to democracy. Roosevelt did not yet know when, or even if, the United States would go to war, but he wisely began an extraordinary rearmament program in 1940 that paid remarkable dividends a few years later. Meanwhile, during 1941, he defined the principles for which the United States would fight if war came and issued them in the Atlantic Charter, a joint declaration with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. That document, issued in August 1941, became the basis of our war aims after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German and Italian declarations of war on the United States.
We must revisit the Atlantic Charter today because Roosevelt so wisely defined the needs and aspirations of the United States. The Charter renounced territorial aggrandizement, pledged the United States to “the destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” and called for an international effort to secure economic rights. It looked forward to the formation of some new international organization—as it turned out, the United Nations. But most importantly of all, Churchill and Roosevelt pledged to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” They did not promise democracy to all nations, much less pledge to impose it at gunpoint. They declared the right of all nations to choose their own domestic institutions, provided only that they were willing to live in peace with the rest of the world. That, in a world far more dangerous than today’s, was all Roosevelt thought the United States needed, or could achieve, then. Today we declare that that is all that the United States needs now, 68 years later.
Roosevelt also understood that he must fight the war with the tools—military, political and diplomatic—which fate provided him. If only an alliance with the Soviet Union could defeat Nazi Germany, he was more than wiling not only to make, but to nurture it. He made agreements with Stalin for a larger purpose—to win the war. And while some inevitably consequences of the Allied victory disappointed us deeply—such as the imposition of Communism in Eastern Europe—Roosevelt bequeathed to his children’s and grandchildren’s generation a far, far more peaceful second half of the twentieth century than they had known in the first. For 45 years the United States competed with the Soviet Union on many fronts. Both sides suffered political gains and losses in various parts of the word, both became involved—sometimes unwisely—in distant military conflicts, and both built huge nuclear arsenals. But neither, we now know, ever wanted war with the other, and despite our ideological differences, and despite some frightening moments in 1950, in 1961-2, and in 1982, war never came.
This Administration shall take a leaf from Franklin Roosevelt’s book and return to the practice of maintaining relations and doing business with any government that is willing to live in peace with us. We shall attempt to end our many decades of diplomatic isolation from nations like North Korea, Cuba, and Iran—not because Americans approve of their regimes, but because we accept those regimes as the products of the history of those nations, and because we believe we can more easily spread our values through contact rather than confrontation. The case of Cuba is particularly painful. During the whole of the twentieth century our destinies, our cultures, and our peoples were intimately linked, but we also suffered a tragic estrangement that has done a great deal of harm to both sides. It has gone on too long, and we now hope to end it—to enable our peoples once again to vacation in each other’s lands, to reunite families, and to join more freely, and perhaps in new ways, in the great national game which we have in common.
In 1963, another great President, John F. Kennedy, decided that the time had come to give our relations with our enemies a new tone in the hope of establishing a lasting peace. The United States at that time faced a heavily armed Soviet Union that had just attempted to place new nuclear weapons less than 100 miles from our shores, and a far more hostile and aggressive Communist regime in China that was on the point of developing nuclear weapons. Yet President Kennedy had enough confidence in the United States to assess these threats realistically and to call for a less confrontational atmosphere. He said:
No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements--in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.In the same speech, he anticipated the kind of delusion that has, sadly, crippled our foreign policy in recent years.
Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace--based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions--on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace--no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process--a way of solving problems.The impact of 9/11 has also skewed our view of the map of the world. We are losing sight of the great achievements of the last seventy years—the creation of a broad alliance of industrial and democratic powers, followed by the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the extraordinary evolution of China, India, and other Asian nations into increasingly modern states. For the time being these changes have removed the dangers that nearly destroyed civilization in the first half of the twentieth century, the threat of wars among advanced industrial nations. Meanwhile, the role of military power in the world has shrunk drastically. Today our military as a proportion of our population is less than 5% of its size at the end of the Second World War, about 20% of its size during the Vietnam War, and less than half its size in the latter stages of the Cold War. The militaries of other nations have shrunk proportionally. Nor is this all. Most of that alliance remains committed to the international rule of law, the universal observance of human rights, and the renunciation of military force except in self-defense. Sadly, the outgoing Administration here in the United States, for the first time in American history, turned its back upon those principles to pursue, unilaterally, its own extreme vision of the world. We shall now return to the more inspiring and more useful role that history calls upon us to play—the leader of the movement to make the world more civilized.
Much of the Muslim world remains in turmoil and stands at a crossroads. Many of its people are divided by ethnic and sectarian strife and by different visions of their future. The problem of the relationship between traditional and fundamentalist Islam on the one hand and modern industrial civilization on the other has not been solved. Today let me say one thing clearly: the United States cannot solve that problem and shall not attempt to. Only the peoples of the nations involved can decide how they will live and what they will believe, and we shall respect their choices provided only that they are willing to live in peace with us. We are through imposing our vision of democracy or our vision of Islam upon them, and they must be full partners in regulating our economic relations. If political changes in that region ever force us to seek new solutions to our energy problems, we shall do so. The United States has never been a country that needed to rule foreign lands to ensure its prosperity or survival, and we have no desire to become such a country in the twentieth century.
Nuclear weapons, which we Americans first created more than sixty years ago in order to win the war that shaped the direction of modern civilization from that day to this, remain a threat. In the wake of the Second World War, when those weapons had been used in combat for the first and, let us hope, the last time, the Americans who had built them immediately realized the humanity had only one truly sane option: to bring them under international control and to eliminate them. Sadly, we could not make that proposal come true then, but we remained officially committed to general nuclear disarmament. In 1963 most of the nations of the world took a great step forward by banning atmospheric tests. In 1969 they took a far bigger step forward by signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That treaty, we must remember, had many provisions. Non-nuclear signatories pledged never to acquire nuclear weapons—and nuclear signatories pledged to make a good faith effort to get rid of theirs. At the end of the Cold War the United States and the nations of the former Soviet Union took major steps in that direction, but progress has now halted. We want to resume it.
The government of the United States stands ready, together with other nuclear and non-nuclear powers, to work for both the reduction and the elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. In sixty years these weapons of proven themselves as useless in organized warfare if only because of the risk of retaliation, but they would serve the purpose of enraged extremists only too well. We can, and we will, do much more to secure existing stockpiles of weapons and fissionable material to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands, but that is only a first step. We must actively pursue the dream of another American President, Ronald Reagan—to rid the earth of these weapons. To design an effective regime to do so will challenge us all, and some will declare it to be impossible—but can it really be more difficult than reaching the moon, building new worldwide systems of transportation and communication, wiping out entire diseases, or building those weapons in the first place? I do not believe so. The goal may be distant; it may never entirely be reached. But the alternative of taking upon ourselves the responsibility to keep nuclear weapons out of dangerous hands has proven unworkable and destructive to world order. It is alien to all our best traditions, and the new Administration will try to solve this problem on a new basis.
The new direction I am announcing today will, I know, not find favor among all our fellow citizens. They will argue that it is naïve, even dangerous. They will say once again that in a dangerous world, only the unrestrained exercise of American power can defend us. They will argue that international law and international agreements provide no real safeguards for ourselves or anyone else. They will say that we have abandoned the goal of spreading democracy. None of this is true.
It is true that we are not on the verge of a peaceful utopia such as that which has fired so many imaginations over the millennia. We can never wipe out conflict or anarchy in the world. But that does not mean that we must surrender the goal of a world ruled by law, peopled by nations with different traditions and values but living together in peace. Only by keeping our eyes on that goal can we come closer to it. To abandon it and rely only on force—as, sadly, our own government has been threatening to do for eight years—is the ultimate counsel of despair. We return to day to a more hopeful policy—but also to a far more effective one.
What lies ahead for the Islamic world and for our relations with it, we cannot tell. We must note that for several hundred years, from the fifteenth century through the eighteenth, Christian Europe lived in intermittent, deadly conflict with an armed, hostile Muslim empire on its doorstep—but these were years of great progress for western civilization nonetheless. Our future does not, in short, depend on what happens within the Muslim world. Yet we certainly do not believe that we must live in an endless state of hostility with the region, nor do we despair that it may evolve in ways that will bring us closer together. We shall however allow the peoples of that region to decide for themselves, so long as they allow us and our allies to live in peace and help build a world ruled by law. To make progress towards that dream, we must do our part as well. Within six months the United States will close its detention centers at Guantanamo or elsewhere. At that time, all prisoners held there will either be charged with crimes under the civil or military laws of the United States as they existed on January 20, 2001, or returned to their country of origin. And the great writ of habeas corpus, which has never been legally suspended, shall be restored in full vigor within the territory of the United States and its overseas possessions.
In 1826, on the eve of his death, Thomas Jefferson meditated on the future significance of the great document he had drafted fifty years before, the Declaration of Independence. Here is what he said as he regretted his inability, for reasons of health, to attend the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the signing of that great document in Washington, D.C.
I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.This remains our hope—but while continuing to anticipate the gradual spread of our principles, we must renounce the foolish attempt to impose them by force, while turning to the equally great task of re-invigorating them at home. As Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt all understood, democracy requires periodic renewal to thrive—and we have never needed such a renewal more than we do now. Ultimately the key to our influence in the world lies in the restoration of our traditions at home. We shall undertake that great work as well, while assuring the world around us that we are returning to our best traditions abroad.
Labels: I want my country back