On the (virtual) front lines

Further to yesterday’s link to the excellent Radio Free Europe/radio Liberty blog, Democracy Digest readers may be interested to learn of the other blogs RFE/RL are running:

        Watchdog: Human rights, civil society, and press freedom issues.

        The Power Vertical on Russian developments.

        Transmission: Interesting thoughts and stories from RFE/RL’s broadcast region

        On The Front Lines: Profiles of men and women who have dedicated their lives to the causes of freedom, human rights, ethnic tolerance, the environment, reconciliation, and democratic values.

Wanted: a National Endowment for Public Diplomacy

A new agency, modeled on the National Endowment for Democracy, should be established to restore U.S. standing in the world, a new report on public diplomacy concludes. Like the NED, the USA-World Trust would be governed by a non-partisan board of directors, including members of Congress from both major political parties and representatives of key interests in American society. 

The report claims that the changes advocated will aid the fight against terrorism and its associated ideologies, and help build international coalitions to “encourage the wavering to choose democracy and freedom.” It goes on to suggest that “the spread of democracy has changed the global political calculus” in the contest to shape public opinion in authoritarian states as well as democracies:  

Though democracy is now faltering in some countries, the number of democracies has nonetheless doubled since 1974. In democracies, leaders suffer domestic political costs-a loss of power or authority-based on how well citizens think leaders have protected the country’s interests. For the United States to attract the support of foreign governments, therefore, foreign publics must accept or at least acquiesce. If such cooperation is politically poisonous for democratically elected leaders, attracting support will be difficult even when interests align. Of note, authoritarian regimes are also sensitive to public opinion, even as they try to limit its influence. These regimes know that publics have more latent power to mobilize opposition than ever before due to unprecedented access to information and the ability to disseminate it cheaply and widely.

Competing visions on democracy’s place in foreign policy

The incoming administration is not short of advice on how to rescue democracy promotion, how liberals should spread liberal democracy internationally and how it can reinvent U.S. leadership in a networked world.

But liberals are “less excited about the idea of democracy promotion in the aftermath of the Iraq War,” writes Ilan Goldenberg, policy director at the Obama-friendly National Security Network. He draws on a classic article addressing Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy (PDF) to outline four basic strategic choices for the new U.S. administration:

  • neo-isolationism – in effect a marginalized non-option;
  • the selective engagement associated with the 1990s realists as well as President George W. Bush’s first campaign commitment to a “humble foreign policy“;
  • co-operative security – typified by the first Clinton Administration’s contention that stability and peace are best secured through international institutions and by spreading democratic values and freedom; and
  • primacy – which is divided into a neo-conservative hard primacy and the soft primacy of Liberal Hawks.

Goldenberg detects a broad consensus emerging among liberals, liberal hawks and realists:

There is relatively universal agreement among these groups that we need to begin withdrawing from Iraq, focus more on Afghanistan, opt for direct diplomacy with Iran, reengage with the world, improve our image, strengthen our alliances, close Guantanamo and deal with global warming and energy security. 

One liberal hawk, the New Yorker’s George Packer, doesn’t think there’s “much point in having a Democratic president if his foreign policy will be all about China and Russia and have nothing to say about Burma and Zimbabwe.” He suggests that President-elect Obama is right to stress the centrality of the conflict with the Taliban:

Afghanistan is where nation-building, multilateral counterinsurgency, democracy promotion, and the other elements of liberal internationalism as it operates in global flashpoints are going to survive or go to their grave.

Whatever discontinuities in policy occur, Nathan Sharansky hopes that President Obama will continue the current president’s practice of meeting with democratic dissidents:

Meeting with democratic leaders is terribly important for dissidents because, even when they are not in prison, they are generally isolated in their own countries. Meeting the leader of the free world transforms the dissident in the eyes of his people from a lonely Don Quixote to the person who can expose the truth about their suffering to the outside world and influence the world to take action to address it.

Venezuela’s opposition makes gains, shatters myth

The opposition’s significant gains in Venezuela’s state and local elections may represent a real political watershed and have likely dealt a decisive blow to President Hugo Chávez‘s plans for indefinite rule. The results mean that opposition forces will “now have something of an institutional power base” to challenge the regime.

The adverse circumstances facing the opposition make their gains all the more impressive, as Alvaro Vargas Llosa notes:

The environment in which these victories were obtained could not have been worse for the opposition. Five of its best candidates, including Caracas politician Leopoldo Lopez, whose approval ratings were higher than Chavez’s for most of the year, were disqualified through various legal maneuvers. In recent weeks, as it became apparent that the government was in trouble in key states, Chávez led a personal campaign of intimidation, threatening to jail the outgoing governor of Zulia, who was running for mayor of that state’s capital, and warning the voters of Carabobo that he would send in tanks if the opposition prevailed.

The victory of opposition candidate Carlos Ocariz in the Caracas suburb of Sucre, home to one of the largest slums in Latin America, had a special resonance. “Ocariz broke the myth that Chávez cannot be beaten in poor barrios,” said Luis Vicente León, director of Datánalisis, a Caracas-based pollster.

“It should make Chávez realize that instead of traveling the globe promoting socialism, he needs to address basic issues back home,” says Chávez sympathizer and biographer Bart Jones.

But the electoral gains also represent a challenge to the disparate opposition forces to unite and to develop a meaningful program for change. “It’s not enough that the opposition has won isolated triumphs against Chávez in places where it was unexpected,” pollster Leon said. “They have to convert them into real plans and proposals if they are to compete. That’s their real challenge.”

The government won a majority of the provincial races – 17 of 22 governorships – but the opposition won four of the five most important states, including the capital Caracas and the populous surrounding province of Miranda, oil-producing Zulia, and the country’s industrial hub of Carabobo, areas which “represent the most important symbols in terms of cities and population.”

Chávez responded to the setback by insisting that Venezuela was still “taking the road to socialism” and he has threatened to withhold funding for opposition-controlled states and set up a parallel system of handpicked regional authorities that would rival elected governors.

Fidel Castro is a revolutionary in the guise of a caudillo, while Chávez is the reverse, writes Inter-American Dialog‘s Dan Erikson. A PBS documentary confirms that he possesses the megalomaniac qualities of a caudillo, a characteristic that “hardly instills confidence that he is capable of the tact and coalition-building needed to effect significant, positive change.”

“A clip that shows him turning on an Irish reporter and plunging into a tirade about Europe is jaw-dropping,” notes a New York Times review. The reporter in question, Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent for the left-wing Guardian newspaper, here reports on the results of Venezuela’s local and regional elections where he describes Chávista candidates openly giving gifts for votes, a form of political largesse that plummeting oil prices will make less feasible.

Crisis exposing myth of Kremlin’s authoritarian model

Over at the indispensable RFE-RL, Brian Whitmore reports that the financial crisis is “sending tremors through Russia’s fragile social contract“:

And in a sign that things could really get dicey soon, the crisis is now taking its toll on Russia’s gilded bureaucratic class. The ruling Unified Russia party announced on Friday that it was cutting 25 percent of its party functionaries.

Easy oil money has long been the glue that held Russia’s “managed democracy” in place. What will happen when the cash begins to dry up?

Garry Kasparov cautiously suggests that the financial crisis might generate “more openness among the Russian audience to hear about social, political and economic alternatives”, which could strengthen the democratic opposition. 

The crisis is exposing the myth of the authoritarian model and the “spurious correlation” of Putinism and economic success, says Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, as well as the Kremlin’s failure to address the four I’s of investment, innovation, infrastructure and institutional reform. Russia is hemorrhaging foreign reserves – it has lost 24% of the US$453bn reserves it held in August, she told a Washington meeting yesterday.

Democracy didn’t cause Russia’s problems in the ‘90s and autocracy didn’t solve them,” said Stoner-Weiss, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Unlike China, where a semblance of rule of law attracts foreign investment, Russia does not represent an alternative developmental model. Overly dependent on commodity exports at a time of falling prices, endemic corruption and weak rule of law are serious impediments to sustained economic growth. Russia is two places beneath Nigeria on the World Bank index for ease of doing business.