Q&A with Michael Novak

Editor’s Note: Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of several bestselling books. Novak participated in a recent conference hosted by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College titled, “Mr. Jefferson Goes to the Middle East: Democracy’s Prospects in the Arab World.” During the conference, Mr. Novak sat for a question-and-answer session.

Q: Mr. Novak, before discussing your recent work, The Universal Hunger for Liberty, we would like to acknowledge one of your earlier books, the Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

Michael Novak: Of all my books, I think that’s the one that had the most worldwide effect; it’s in all kinds of languages. It was translated, for instance, into Polish in 1984, a copy of which is one of my proudest possessions. In those days, you could be arrested for carrying a copy of that book in Poland. It was published by Solidarity, the labor union and democratic movement that was banned by the communists.

Q: Speaking of which, you did some important work in Eastern Europe as an ambassador in the 1980s. Behind the Iron Curtain, what was the reaction when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire?”

Novak: I’ll share an anecdote that sheds light on that question. One of my friends, Richard Perle, who was deeply involved with the arms negotiations in the 1980s, visited Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, where they had a kind of alumni meeting of the Soviet generals and others who had been involved in tense Cold War era talks.

At one point in the dinner, one of the Soviet generals smashed his fist down on the table, and said, “He was right! He was right!” Everyone looked at him, and he said it again, “He was right!” pounding the table as the mashed potatoes jumped in the air. He said, “Ronald Reagan … he said it was an ‘Evil Empire,’ and it was an ‘Evil Empire.’” That phrase really got to them.

Q: So, is that why Reagan used that phrase? Was the point to get under the skin of the Soviet leadership and military? I’ll tell you why Reagan said it, and I know this as a fact: He told the speechwriter to write that phrase into the speech. They send speeches for presidents all around—they go to the State Department, to national security, and all around for clearances. Everybody said to Reagan, “You can’t say that!” They kept striking out that sentence, and Reagan kept putting it back in.


He had a reason for it, which was this: the communist morality was that “if it’s good for the Communist Party, it’s good; if it’s bad for the Communist Party, it’s bad.” There was no such thing as good and evil, which was [considered] a bourgeois notion, an obfuscation. So, Reagan wanted to plant the word “evil,” because he knew that sooner or later journalists would go to the Soviet leadership and ask, “Do you agree that the Soviet Union is an evil empire?”

Then other important questions would come, “Do you agree with Stalin’s purges? Do you agree with this, with that, and so on.” They would have to start making distinctions regarding what they agreed was good and wasn’t. This would introduce the calculus of good and evil into the political discourse of the Soviet Union. That was Reagan’s idea, and it was very smart…. He forced the Soviets to talk the language of good and evil and to apply it against their own behavior, which is something they had refused to do for 70 years, and this, as a result, began the process of self-criticism on a very deep level.

Q: Moving ahead to the current dearth of freedom and democracy in the modern Middle East…. In The Universal Hunger for Liberty, you make the argument that it is part of the nature of being human to desire political liberty. You have to realize that most of the human race has not lived in political liberty for most of its history. Take my grandparents, who came from Slovakia, in the center of Europe, in about 1900. My grandfather’s passport would have said “Austria-Hungary”…. He was not a citizen, he was a subject—a subject of the emperor and of the empire. I think of it this way, though it is admittedly an exaggeration: my grandfather and his generation had three fundamental duties in Europe: “Pray, pay, and obey.” … They were not citizens…. To be a citizen means that the politicians work for you. There isn’t a lot of power that people have, but one basic political power is the right as citizens to remove their political leaders on a regular basis….


People don’t want to live as adolescents and be told what to do. People want to be adults and want to take responsibility for their own lives, and that very old concept is spreading faster and faster today. Therefore, I was not surprised at the jubilation that you saw in Afghanistan, not only at the liberation—they suddenly had the ability to play music again, the ability to have music at weddings and so forth—but also when they finally had the opportunity to vote. And nor was I surprised at the widespread voting that took place in Iraq, once they had a similar opportunity, even at the risk of their lives.

Q: Dr. Samuel Huntington foresaw an eventual clash between the Western and Islamic worlds, which you believe is not inevitable. Why not? Because, among other reasons, there are so many people in Islamic countries who share our hunger and desire for liberty…. There are very few people on this planet who have suffered more than the people of the Middle East, particularly in the Arab-Islamic world, over the last 50 or 70 years. Despite the oil wealth, a great many of them are very, very poor, but poor especially in opportunity…. It’s amazing how—with the right economic institutions in place—how quickly things like freedom and democracy can develop, whether in Poland, in Chile, or elsewhere.

Q: Can it be argued that elections and voting, which we have had in Iraq, are not decisive or determinative, and that a political culture supportive of democracy is light years away in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East?
 Those things are important, but we are still far from a democratic Middle East. I would not give odds greater than 40 to 50% that democracy will succeed there; we just don’t know.


The main thing I want to emphasize is that building democracy is really, really hard work. It’s not easy. It doesn’t end in one generation. The trouble with democracy is that you must rebuild it in every generation; that’s why it’s the most fragile system available. When it is said that “the price of liberty is everlasting vigilance,” that’s quite true.

It only takes one generation to give it all away, to say “it’s too much trouble.”… It only takes one generation to fail to heed the lessons and take responsibility.