When China’s government began killing protestors in Tiananmen Square on June 3, 1989, Maine Democrat George Mitchell, the new U.S. Senate majority leader, was outraged, making a floor statement the same day.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, left, smiles after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton on March 17, 1999 at the White House in Washington. Mitchell received the award for his work in the Irish peace process. Associated Press file

It soon became clear that Republican President George H.W. Bush, who Mitchell worked with closely on other issues, notably the environment, did not share his concerns about China, and blocked Mitchell’s efforts to apply sanctions and limit trading privileges.

Mitchell, who started life in the most humble of circumstances, and whose mother immigrated from Lebanon, had a fierce patriotism and passion for human rights and democracy that pervaded his political career.

Bush, the blue-blooded heir of one of 20th century America’s most prominent political dynasties – only the second president, after John Adams, to see his son attain the same office – had headed the CIA and was considerably more restrained in his commitment to international democracy.

Mitchell kept it up, however, for nearly four years, regularly denouncing the administration’s deference to foreign leaders willing to use violence against their own people – a crackdown on dissent and any independent political thought in China that, three decades later, has reached near-total proportions.

Then Bill Clinton was elected president, became Washington’s top Democrat and, a few months after taking office, announced a “two track” China policy, with political and economic concerns kept separate. In practice, this meant a continuation of Bush’s policies.

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And so the bipartisan policy of “globalization” was confirmed, and has been in effect ever since. America, and the West, will trade with anyone, without conditions and subject only to the rules of economic advantage.

Over the years, fledgling democracies that appeared in eastern Europe and even, tentatively, China and Russia themselves, are disappearing, and autocracy is on the march. There were other paths after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they were roads not taken.

Then the economic global order was blown up on Feb. 24 when Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into Ukraine. The illusion that Europe could get its energy supplies from Russia without harm to its own security was destroyed.

No one can yet say where this will lead, but it’s safe to say that international affairs post-Ukraine will look little like the years when Putin, much like his counterpart in China, Xi Jinping, decided to seek absolute power, with impunity. The NATO alliance, derided by a former U.S. president just a few years ago, will again become a vital security link for the West.

Of course, we have a lot of homework to do. The Jan. 6 committee will presumably, after some delay, share its findings about the attempt to overturn the 2020 election and install the leader who lost that election, and still lies about it almost daily.

The news media, meanwhile, shows every sign of treating the next November election as a completely normal one, decided by fundraising and gerrymandering, historical patterns and recalculated vote percentages.

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The idea that something larger than standard political rhetoric is at stake has not yet entered the discussion. That seems incredible, given that autocracy is a far more imminent threat to our democratic system than “socialism,” however one defines it.

We’ll see. Once autocrats like Putin go to war, they can’t stop until they emerge victorious or are utterly defeated. That’s the iron logic of aggressive wars by dictators, whose only advantage is what they perceive to be overwhelming military power.

A building damaged during fighting in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 13, 2022. Associated Press file

The world has many more checks on rogue powers than it did in the years before the two world wars – catastrophes we have managed to avoid repeating for the better part of a century. So far, the democratic alliances are holding, but they will continue to be tested for months and probably years to come.

The effort cannot succeed without American leadership, and how that leadership is applied depends very much on what we do, and how we vote. Focusing entirely on inflation and the price of gasoline will not get the job done.

Sometimes, there are choices that cannot be avoided, however much we try. We still have freedoms here that are denied the millions whose voices played no part in Putin’s decision to unleash destruction in the heart of civilization.

On the first anniversary of Tiananmen, George Mitchell had this to say: “All tyrants hope to rewrite history and wipe from memory the atrocities they commit. All democratic people know that it is the force of memory which keeps alive the force of freedom in the world.”

May we not, ourselves, forget.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback.  He welcomes comment at [email protected].


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