If John Howard were running for president this year, he might be dubbed the anti-change candidate.

Not that he thinks the world is standing still. The former Australian prime minister recognizes the challenges and turbulence of the times, but he's not suggesting some vacuous call to "change" as the answer. Instead, last week while accepting the Irving Kristol award from the American Enterprise Institute, he emphasized how important it is for nations - especially Western democracies - to hold fast to their values and ideas in an ever-changing world.

Among those values: personal liberty and individual freedom; defining citizens by their decency and hard work, not by class, race or social standing; and the belief that, given the chance, all people will embrace democracy.

They are ideals not only crucial to individual nations, Howard said, but they also create "an enduring bond" among like-minded countries such as the United States and Australia.

Such tenets are not held for tradition's sake, but to help guide nations and people through modern-day challenges.

Consider globalization. Amid the uncertainty of a changing international economy, Howard's government responded in two ways. One way meant change - modernizing Australia's economy, through tax reform, debt reduction and labor-law changes.

But because such changes result in dislocation and anxiety, Howard says, "consistency and reassurance" are needed on other fronts. Howard's government thus emphasized traditional values, promoted pride in the nation's history, and insisted on the "intrinsic worth of our national identity."

Then there is the threat of Islamic fascism.

The nature of a ruthless terrorist enemy, and its willingness to endure a long war, could tempt a well-meaning West to seek "resolution or accommodation." Witness the archbishop of Canterbury's recent suggestion that some acceptance of sharia law was inevitable in Britain.

That's the wrong approach, Howard warns. Instead, he says, remember the lessons of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: "Remain culturally assertive . . . understand always the importance of self-belief in the psyche of a nation [and] . . . be willing to stand against the fashion of the time."

Some would counter that the West, particularly Bush's America, is already too arrogant, too willing to ignore the needs or values of other cultures and nations. Why not give a little?

"We should not think that by trading away some of the values which have made us who we are will buy us either immunity from terrorists or respect from noisy minorities," Howard says.

"If the butter of common national values is spread too thinly, it will disappear altogether."

Islamists, Howard says, are well-aware of the West's "soft underbelly of cultural self-doubt." Therefore, he says, "in the protracted struggle against Islamic extremism, there will be no stronger weapon than the maintenance by Western liberal democracies of a steadfast belief in the continuing worth of our own national value systems - and where necessary a soaring optimism about the future of freedom and democracy."

That's partly why success in both Iraq and Afghanistan is important. Making one a "good" war and the other bad or unnecessary is "profoundly naive and dangerous," Howard says.

Al-Qaeda has made Iraq its central front in the war, and so it should be treated accordingly, to both defeat the terrorist enemy and to provide a chance for democracy to flourish.

"Now is not the time to abandon them," Howard says of the Iraqis. "I am more convinced than ever that Australia and the United States, as countries that have enjoyed the blessings of democracy for longer than most others, have a special responsibility to help others along that difficult pathway."

That aid doesn't always mean war. It includes ongoing ties to longtime allies such as Japan, encouraging economic freedom in China, and assisting Indonesia as it strengthens its own democracy.

"President Yudhoyono [of Indonesia] . . . is crucial to perceptions within the Islamic world," Howard says. "If this pro-Western, democratic leader succeeds, that is a huge setback for extremists. If he doesn't, then the extremist cause will have been mightily advanced."

Australians rejected Howard in November's election, and it's unlikely that a message seen as anti-change would work in 2008. But he's wise to suggest that a nation must do more than call for change. In fact, change is a daily reality. The question is, how does a nation respond? What is expendable? And what stays? What are the anchors, the guiding values and ideas, that help a nation and its people endure?

Contact Kevin Ferris at kf@phillynews.com

or 215-854-5305.