EXULTING IN another's defeat has its dangers. Military triumphs have a way of turning out hollow. Exultation leaves a bitter taste.
But the disintegration of Soviet communism is something else. Tyranny fell not to arms but to an idea. And it is our idea: America's, the West's. Whatever difficulties follow now -- and they will be profound -- we are entitled to this moment of celebration.
James Madison put the idea in a sentence in 1798: "In this country the people, not the government, possess the absolute sovereignty."
Europeans, going back to the barons at Runnymede, had challenged the limitless authority of the state. But it was Americans, in the Constitution and then the Bill of Rights, who first built a working system based on the idea of self-government. Self-government, it must be added, buttressed by guarantees of individual rights: guarantees added to the American Constitution in 1791 in the Bill of Rights. Their enforcement by judges has made all the difference in American freedom.
There are ironies for Americans in the victory of democracy over Soviet communism. During the years of the Cold War the United States often seemed to lack faith in the power of its idea.
Washington consistently undervalued the attraction to people elsewhere of the American system of constitutional government and individual rights.
We relied on weapons to win what was essentially an ideological struggle. And in the Third World we repeatedly embraced tyrants in the name of anti-communism.
Moreover, we compromised our libertarian ideals at home in order, we were told, to fight communism. We traduced the First Amendment's promise of free speech and association in order to stamp out anything that certain politicians said was tainted with communism.
McCarthyism has never looked more shameful, or more self-defeating, than it does now. The America of fear and blacklists did not inspire Soviet democrats. The America of Jefferson and Madison and the Bill of Rights did.
Most American presidents have seemed to feel constrained in talking about democracy and human rights abroad. Up to a point that is understandable; we have to deal with some nasty governments in the world as it is.
But still it is possible to express our ideals. President Carter did so, against the usual advice, when he wrote to Andrei Sakharov in 1977. It was a moment of American honor -- and effectiveness.
When the plotters struck last week, President Bush at first avoided criticism of the coup. "We'll follow the events very carefully as they unfold," he said, "in order to determine the appropriate response."
His national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, called it "an internal development . . . not something that we are directly engaged in."
But by the end of the first day Bush was calling for restoration of the constitutional order in the Soviet Union. His forceful refusal to deal with the leaders of the coup made a great difference in stiffening the defiance of Boris Yeltsin and others.
What puzzles many is why Bush does not do the same with China. His own explanations have been defensive and unconvincing. It is true, as he says, that U.S. trade and diplomatic relations may help reformist elements in China.
But that does not exclude speaking honestly about the cruelties of the Chinese regime.
What is happening in the Soviet Union now gives reason for some concern along with celebration at the end of tyranny. The closing of Pravda and the suspension of the Communist Party are not consistent with the idea of an open society.
Of course we understand the hate and fear felt by Soviet citizens for the party that oppressed them. We understand that in an unstable time repression looks like the safe course. But it is in difficult times that a society must show its commitment to freedom.
When Madison spoke for democracy, the new United States was gripped by fear of revolutionary France, of plots. But when Jefferson became president in 1801, he said in his inaugural address: "If there be any among us who wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."