The most significant thing about President Bush's inaugural address was the word he did not utter: terror. Until now the war on terrorism has been the administration's foreign policy paradigm, giving unity and coherence to disparate and morally contradictory policies: promoting democracy in the Middle East, for instance, while ignoring undemocratic practices in Russia and China. One would have expected Bush to make the war on terrorism the theme of his address.
That he did not shows a remarkable evolution in Bush's thinking over the past half-decade. That evolution has gone through three phases. The first was realist retrenchment. Bush came to office intending to pull America back from what he, his advisers, most Republicans in Congress and most conservatives regarded as the moralistic, "humanitarian" excesses of the Clinton years. He would pursue the "national interest" narrowly defined, with a far more selective approach to involvement overseas.
Then came the attacks of Sept. 11 and Bush's second foreign policy phase: the war on terrorism. He led the United States back to global involvement on a Cold War scale and with the Cold War's moral fervor (if not with the Cold War's attention to alliances.) He also came to believe that the struggle against radical Islamic terrorism required democratic reform and even nation-building in the Muslim world. This conviction, bolstered by the successful elections in Afghanistan, blended Bush's earlier realism and his burgeoning idealism. The moralistic policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East derived from hard-headed calculations of American security interests, as did the alliance with authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing.
Bush still asserts that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." But in his inaugural address he has taken a step beyond that. In this third phase he has grounded American foreign policy in universal principles, in the Declaration of Independence and what Lincoln called its "abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times." The goal of American foreign policy is now to spread democracy, for its own sake, for reasons that transcend specific threats. In short, Bush has unmoored his foreign policy from the war on terrorism.
This is where Bush may lose the support of most old-fashioned conservatives. His goals are now the antithesis of conservatism. They are revolutionary. But of course -- and this is what American conservatives have generally been loath to admit -- Bush's goals are also deeply American, for the United States is a revolutionary power. Bush has found his way back to the core, universalist principles that have usually shaped American foreign policy, regardless of the nature of the threat. "The great struggle of the epoch [is] between liberty and despotism," James Madison asserted in 1823, and Americans from the founders onward have viewed the world in terms of that struggle.
Many will take a cynical view of Bush's latest pronouncements, and cynicism is an understandable response. Truman's 1947 declaration that "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples" was soon followed by close ties with Spain's fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. Kennedy's inaugural pledge to "pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty" did not keep him from supporting friendly dictators in Latin America. And when Reagan announced a "global campaign for freedom" in 1982, he had the Soviet bloc in mind, not Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet or the military junta in South Korea.
But presidential rhetoric has consequences. Contrary to his initial instincts, Reagan wound up pulling the rug out from under those friendly dictators, propelled by his own publicly stated democratic principles. Bush may be thinking about Iran and some Arab dictatorships, not China. But the next time China locks up a dissident, or Vladimir Putin further curtails Russian freedoms, people will remind Bush about his promise that "America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains."
I believe Bush understands the implications of his universalist rhetoric. In Ukraine, Bush chose democracy over his relationship with Putin -- a first example of a paradigm beyond the war on terrorism. In Asia, too, we may be on the threshold of a strategic reevaluation that places democratic allies, not China, at the core of American strategy.
The fight against terrorists must still remain the overriding focus of American national security efforts, because the price of failing to stop future terrorist attacks is unacceptably high. But the war on terrorism was never a sufficient paradigm for American foreign policy. It was too narrow, too limited and less than ideal for mustering the support of others around the world. Conservatives and realists in America and nervous Europeans will recoil at Bush's new boldness. But the pragmatic virtue of basing American foreign policy on the timeless principles of the Declaration of Independence is that they do reflect universal aspirations. Such a policy may attract wider support abroad than the war on terrorism has and a more durable support at home for an internationalist foreign policy. That is the higher realism that Bush now proclaims.
Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.