Athenians also knew that, however noble, ideas alone were not enough. To have meaning, principles must be enshrined in laws and protected by institutions, and advanced through civic participation. And so they gathered in a great assembly to debate and decide affairs of state, each citizen with the right to speak, casting their vote with a show of hands, or choosing a pebble — white for yes, black for no. Laws were etched in stone for all to see and abide by. Courts, with citizen jurors, upheld that rule of law.
Politicians weren’t always happy because sometimes the stones could be used to ostracize, banish those who did not behave themselves.
But across the millennia that followed, different views of power and governance have often prevailed. Throughout human history, there have been those who argue that people cannot handle democracy, that they cannot handle self-determination, they need to be told what to do. A ruler has to maintain order through violence or coercion or an iron fist. There’s been a different concept of government that says might makes right, or that unchecked power can be passed through bloodlines. There’s been the belief that some are superior by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, and those beliefs so often have been used to justify conquest and exploitation and war.
But through all this history, the flame first lit here in Athens never died. It was ultimately nurtured by a great Enlightenment. It was fanned by America’s founders, who declared that “We, the People” shall rule; that all men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.
Now, at times, even today, those ideals are challenged. We’ve been told that these are Western ideals. We’ve been told that some cultures are not equipped for democratic governance and actually prefer authoritarian rule. And I will say that after eight years of being President of the United States, having traveled around the globe, it is absolutely true that every country travels its own path, every country has its own traditions. But what I also believe, after eight years, is that the basic longing to live with dignity, the fundamental desire to have control of our lives and our future, and to want to be a part of determining the course of our communities and our nations — these yearnings are universal. They burn in every human heart.
It’s why a Greek bishop atop a mountain raised the flag of independence. It’s why peoples from the Americas to Africa to Asia threw off the yoke of colonialism. It’s why people behind an Iron Curtain marched in Solidarity, and tore down that wall, and joined you in a great union of democracies. It’s why, today, we support the right of Ukrainians to choose their own destiny; why we partner with Tunisians and the people of Myanmar as they make historic transitions to democracy.
This has been my foreign policy during my presidency. By necessity, we work with all countries, and many of them are not democracies. Some of them are democracies in the sense they have elections, but not democracies in the sense of actually permitting participation and dissent. But our trajectory as a country has been to support the efforts of those who believe in self-governance, who believe in those ideas that began here so many years ago.