All roads lead to democracy, or so it seems recently. By routes direct and indirect, intended and unintended, democracy appears to be the goal of political change all over the world.

From Afghanistan to the Ukraine, these epic developments reveal the truth in President George W. Bush's defense of democracy as an outgrowth not merely of culture but of human nature. The "global appeal of liberty," as he called it in his Second Inaugural, springs from the fact that "freedom is the permanent hope of mankind…the longing of the soul." He said that "Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals."

In June 1826, Thomas Jefferson, weeks away from death, recorded similar sentiments in his last letter. In words that echo down the ages, he reflected on the significance of the Declaration of Independence, whose 50th anniversary was approaching. "May it be to the world," he wrote, "what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."

As a "signal," the Declaration and its principles have been acknowledged from Poland to Tiananmen Square. In his own day, Jefferson thought the French Revolution a sequel to the American, and anticipated in France the speedy emergence of self-government, more or less along American lines. He was disappointed. For the rest of his long life, he was oddly, stubbornly incurious regarding the causes of the French debacle. It was not simply that "monkish ignorance and superstition" had proved too strong, after all. That did not explain Robespierre, or Napoleon. Somehow, as Burke predicted, the revolutionaries had forged new fetters for themselves out of their own passions.

In Iraq, to be sure, it is not the Iraqis themselves who burst their chains; the shackles have been struck off by the U.S. and its allies. This situation is awkward, for both us and them. The elections relieved the unease, at least for a while, because the voters' courage was a kind of self-liberation, a reason, at long last, for pride. Pride, in turn, allowed them to be more generous to the coalition forces, to thank them for making the election possible in the first place. For the extraordinary level of security provided by our military helped to elicit the Iraqi voters' courage; and the very idea of peaceful, multiparty elections is, after all, a Western one.

Giving Saddam the purple finger was a memorable gesture of defiance. It was also a way of saying to their neighbors—and more importantly, to themselves—that the Iraqis were embarked together in the democratic ship; that they were one nation under Allah, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, maybe even the Sunnis. As a gesture of solidarity, it was more hopeful than real, but at least it set a precedent. Several voters, proud of doing their duty, were caught on television, holding up two fingers, flashing rather uncertainly a V-for-Victory. Their hesitancy reflected, perhaps, that the symbol was too Western for comfort, but also the truth that the election, though a democratic victory, was a battle and not the war.

* * *

The global spread of democracy suggests that the "promise of liberty," in Bush's phrase, is capable of being felt by men and women in almost every culture. But it does not prove that culture is irrelevant. Many of the new democracies have some experience of personal freedom, a rising middle class, or the rule of law. Former Soviet-bloc countries teem with anti-Communists, the one article that Communism could produce reliably. And religion, particularly Catholicism, often both inspires and stabilizes democratic reform in the new regimes, in a manner that might have surprised Jefferson, who never imagined a pope like John Paul II.

The example of America itself is powerful beyond precedent—its economy, military might, political ideals, and popular culture. Though not an unmixed blessing, our example is the most obvious, yet unspoken, explanation of the accelerating democratic trend. Precisely for that reason, democracy's success in the new century depends still, as it has since the 18th century, on its perpetuation in our own republic more than on its expansion abroad.

President Bush is right to credit the great power of our ideals, but we must not forget their great demands, either. Thus even as we cheer the lengthening roster of democracies, we should wish for them, and for ourselves, the self-control that keeps liberty a blessing and not a curse.