Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has delivered a significant speech on the importance of civil society in American foreign policy. ( See Anne Applebaum's positive appraisal.) Commentators on American success (see in particular Tocqueville) have always noted the significance of the informal, non-governmental institutions of civil society.
Now, markets and politics usually receive more attention. But civil society is every bit as important. And it undergirds both democratic governance and broad-based prosperity. Poland actually is a case study in how a vibrant civil society can produce progress....
Now, not every nation has a civil society movement on the scale of Solidarity. But most countries do have a collection of activists, organizations, congregations, writers, and reporters that work through peaceful means to encourage governments to do better, to do better by their own people.
There is mischief in the address, for example, the idea that Progressivism was implicit in the founding: "In fact, our founders were smart enough to enshrine in our founding documents the idea that we had to keep moving toward a more perfect union."
But the worst problem is that Clinton downplays the role of religion in civil society (one reference to "congregations"). A valid reason for such reticence would be that many of the nations present at this conference held in Poland have not resolved the issue of religious toleration. In such societies a dominant religion might be destructive of civil society, along with a market economy and democratic institutions. (That in turn forces us to acknowledge the centrality of natural rights for any serious political discussion.) But speaking in Poland, of all countries, she really needed to underscore the role of John Paul II and the Catholic Church in the fall of Communism and the rebuilding of civilization in post-tyrannical regimes.
To be fair, Clinton does conclude the speech with a rousing reference to the Declaration of Independence. Yet her comments on American civil society are a kind of Tocquevillean understanding of America without a mention of religion, and thus a virtual caricature of American history.
The speech is also a good means of assessing the difference between Clinton and Obama--between a neo-Progressive/liberal and a post-modern post-nationalist. Clinton still believes America is exceptional, though she wouldn't be able to explain why.