“More than three years into his term, it’s possible to assess where the promotion of democracy and freedom ranks in President Obama’s foreign policy: not high,” writes the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt.
Eager to distance itself from the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda,” the Obama administration initially downplayed the “D-word” and stressed dignity more than democracy, he notes.
The administration’s stress on diplomacy, development and defense as the basis of U.S. foreign policy was a sore point with some democracy advocates, including progressive internationalists, who considered the absence of a fourth ‘d’ an overreaction to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda.
But subsequent events have validated the freedom agenda’s central tenet that Arab authoritarian regimes incubated extremism, Gary C. Gambil writes in Foreign Policy.
The Bush administration was not the first to recognize that the political survival strategies of friendly Arab regimes were fueling the growing threat of transnational Islamist terrorism, but it was the first to take bold action to address the problem. President Bill Clinton’s administration understood the malignant spillover effects of autocracy in the region, but believed that democratization in the Middle East was a pipe dream in the absence of a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. …..
Bush administration officials feared a repeat of Iran’s 1979 revolution, when the collapse of an oppressive, U.S.-backed government led to a power vacuum that violently anti-American Islamists were best positioned to exploit. Iraq aside, the Freedom Agenda was intended less to bring about full-blown transitions to democracy than to treat the pathologies of existing regimes, maximize the capacity of secular opposition groups to compete with Islamists, and dispel the widespread belief among Arabs that the United States, as Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abdelbari Atwan once put it, “wants us to have dictators and monarchical presidents.”
Contrary to suggestions that the agenda was jettisoned in the wake of Islamist electoral gains in Egypt and Gaza, “pressure for reform in Egypt began to taper off in 2006 — but it was hardly abandoned,” Gambil notes. “American aid to reformist NGOs continued apace, while the U.S. Embassy in Cairo remained active behind the scenes encouraging and defending pro-democracy activists, as revealed in State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.”
While President Obama’s supporters suggest that his inconsistent advocacy of democracy reflects a hard-headed pragmatism, Hiatt contends that it also arises from Obama’s multilateralist instincts, “his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom.”
“The biggest unpredicted event of Obama’s term has been the Arab Spring,” claims Hyatt. “He responded to it, case-by-case and overall, as if it were an unwanted distraction, not a historic opening.”
But the administration’s approach to promoting democracy reflects less of a policy shift or ideological preference than a response to a multipolar world, says a leading analyst of the field.
“This absence of a central narrative…in which democracy promotion would have a natural place, is not a failing of President Obama and his foreign policy team,” says the Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers. “Rather, it is a reflection of the state of the world.”
The global balance of power is shifting, says foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, but it’s too simplistic to suggest that a declining US is losing out to a resurgent authoritarian China and other emerging powers.
“The United States isn’t in decline, but it is in the midst of a major rebalancing,” writes Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College. “The alliances and coalitions America built in the Cold War no longer suffice for the tasks ahead”:
For American foreign policy, the key now is to enter deep strategic conversations with our new partners—without forgetting or neglecting the old. The U.S. needs to build a similar network of relationships and institutional linkages that we built in postwar Europe and Japan and deepened in the trilateral years. Think tanks, scholars, students, artists, bankers, diplomats and military officers need to engage their counterparts in each of these countries as we work out a vision for shared prosperity in the new century.
The 21st century “will be the first time in history in which multiple versions of order and modernity coexist in an interconnected world,” writes Charles A. Kupchan, the author of No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn:
Multiple power centers, and the competing models they represent, will vie on a more level playing field. Effective global governance will require forging common ground amid an equalizing distribution of power and rising ideological diversity.
“To be sure, even as it adopts a more pluralistic approach, the United States should defend not just its interests, but also its values,” Kupchan notes:
It should continue to promote democracy, stand resolute in the defense of human rights and do what it can to stop indiscriminate violence of the sort unleashed by Syria’s government.
But American leaders do their country no service when they trumpet a new American century or topple governments in the name of spreading Western values. Doing so will drive away the very nations the United States needs on its side to confront dangerous pariahs and manage a world in which power is broadly shared.