Obama ‘embraces democracy promotion again’?

obama un sept 25

FOR MORE than a decade, democracy has been in retreat around the world. But this week President Obama sounded something like the beginning of a counterattack, the Washington Post reports.

If he acts on the vows he articulated in two speeches in New York and in a presidential memorandum, the United States could begin to shift the momentum, the paper adds:

In talks to the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday and the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, Mr. Obama mentioned democracy sparingly, preferring to talk about civil society. But he left no doubt about his meaning when he pledged “to stand with the courageous citizens and brave civil society groups who are working for equality and opportunity and justice and human dignity all over the world.” He saluted democracy activists, including in nations whose governments in the past he has been loath to offend — Ahmed Maher in Egypt, for example, and Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti in China.

“Oppressive governments are sharing ‘worst practices’ to weaken civil society,” Mr. Obama said in remarks addressed to democratic activists around the world. “We’re going to help you share the ‘best practices’ to stay strong and vibrant.” It is significant that the president recognized that dictators are banding together to promote autocracy and checkmate democracy. It could be even more significant if, having recognized the altered landscape, Mr. Obama really invigorates democracy promotion as a key plank of U.S. foreign policy.

“Now, as he is forced to confront an aggressive Russia and a rampaging Islamic State, he may be remembering that the United States and its allies cannot defeat Islamist fundamentalism or Russian neo-fascism without a more hopeful ideology of their own,” the Post continues. “That would be a sound foundation for a reinvigorated, and more successful, foreign policy over the coming 28 months.”


Putin ‘scared witless by the idea of people power’

russia ukraineThe NATO summit meeting last week in Wales was dominated by Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The rift with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was an extraordinary contrast to the last NATO summit in Britain, in 1990, Steven Erlanger writes for the New York Times:

A year after the Berlin Wall fell, NATO issued the London Declaration, asserting that “Europe has entered a new, promising era.” Eastern Europe is liberating itself, the declaration said. “The Soviet Union has embarked on the long journey toward a free society. The walls that once confined people and ideas are collapsing,” and those people “are choosing a Europe whole and free.”

 “I could weep for the hopes that we had in the early 1990s,” said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Russia, now at the Center for European Reform. “The walls that divided us were collapsing, and Putin is building them up again.”

Rather than moving toward democracy and individual liberties, Mr. Bond said, the Russian government obsesses about public uprisings like those in Ukraine in 2004 and this year.

“Putin wants to show that you can’t have a real democracy in a former Soviet state,” Mr. Bond said. “He’s scared witless by the idea of people power.”

Today, many in Moscow remain convinced that regime change is Washington’s ultimate objective. They view Western support for the revolution in Ukraine—allegedly engineered by Western spies and NGOs—as but an intermediate step toward similar actions against Putin’s government in Russia, according to Eugene Rumer, a senior associate and the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program:

If none other than former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski—who is widely respected in Russia as a leading American foreign policy thinker but has also been known as a major hawk since the Cold War—has declared that supporting Ukraine is key to promoting change in Putin’s Russia, then clearly Russia is the next target for Western-engineered subversion. Western sanctions are interpreted in Moscow not simply as an instrument designed to change Russian policy in Ukraine, but as something far more sinister—to weaken Russia, to undermine its government, to instigate a popular uprising, to overthrow the Putin government, to install a puppet regime in Russia.

“In July, Putin told his security council that Russia’s foreign enemies are trying constantly to undermine Russia under the guise of democracy promotion,” Rumer writes for POLITICO. “Such ‘color revolutions,’ he said, will not work in Russia—though he probably has his doubts.”

But James Sherr, author of “Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad,” believes that Mr. Putin was heading toward rupture regardless, Erlanger adds for the Times:

“Putin has had clear strategic objectives, even fixations, from the start, but he has pursued them by tactical improvisation,” Mr. Sherr said.

Mr. Putin is not just aiming to restore Russian primacy in the former Soviet Union, he said. “One of his fixations is Ukraine,” whose independence Mr. Putin regards as a crime.

At the same time, Mr. Sherr said, “we in the West had a very specific, hopeful, illusory idea about the end of the Soviet Union and the kind of Russia we’d be dealing with.” But even by 1994, Russian democrats were being called “romantics,” if not yet traitors. “I think Putin or something like Putin was almost preordained from this whole period of romanticism and illusions,” Mr. Sherr said. “That was fueled by the equally naïve projection of a Western liberal model of economic and political change on Russia.”

The new Thirty Years’ War?

middle_east-450x320Today’s Middle East risks incurring something akin to Europe’s seventeenth century Thirty Years’ War, the most violent and destructive episode in European history until the two world wars of the twentieth century, says a leading foreign policy expert.

Three and a half years after the dawn of the “Arab Spring,” there is a real possibility that we are witnessing the early phase of a prolonged, costly, and deadly struggle; as bad as things are, they could well become worse, says Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The region is ripe for unrest. Most of its people are politically impotent and poor in terms of both wealth and prospects. Islam never experienced something akin to the Reformation in Europe; the lines between the sacred and the secular are unclear and contested,” he writes for Project Syndicate:

Moreover, national identities often compete with – and are increasingly overwhelmed by – those stemming from religion, sect, and tribe. Civil society is weak. In some countries, the presence of oil and gas discourages the emergence of a diversified economy and, with it, a middle class. Education emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking. In many cases, authoritarian rulers lack legitimacy.

Democracy promotion in Turkey and Egypt should focus on strengthening civil society and creating robust constitutions that diffuse power,” Haass suggests. But….

There is no room for illusions. Regime change is no panacea; it can be difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to consolidate. Negotiations cannot resolve all or even most conflicts….

Policymakers must recognize their limits. For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.



How Can We Do Better at Promoting Democracy?

The National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman, Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers, and Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House spoke on a panel entitled “How Can We Do Better at Promoting Democracy?” as part of a recent conference on “Re-thinking Democracy Promotion Amid Rising Authoritarianism.” The conference was jointly sponsored by The American Interest, Freedom House, and Johns Hopkins-SAIS.

TAI‘s editor, Adam Garfinkle, served as moderator.

Obama pledges support for Eastern Europe: faces tough choices on promoting democracy

obama poroshenko

U.S. President Barack Obama voiced support for Ukraine’s newly elected president and called for the international community to “stand solidly behind” him Wednesday, CNN reports:

Obama’s meeting in Warsaw, Poland, with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko can be seen as a sign of U.S. support for the government in Kiev as it battles to quell a pro-Russian separatist uprising in Ukraine’s East….In remarks at a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of Poland’s return to democracy, Obama also voiced his backing for Ukraine, and said the United States would stand up for freedom across the region.

“In that age-old contest of ideas — between freedom and authoritarianism, between liberty and oppression, between solidarity and intolerance — Poland’s progress shows the enduring strength of the ideals that we cherish as a free people,” he said:

Here we see the strength of democracy:  Citizens raising their voices, free from fear.  Here we see political parties competing in open and honest elections.  Here we see an independent judiciary working to uphold the rule of law.  Here in Poland we see a vibrant press and a growing civil society that holds leaders accountable — because governments exist to lift up their people, not to hold them down.

Surrounded by throngs celebrating Poland’s quarter century of democracy, Obama pledged not only to defend Eastern Europe against new threats — but to support democratic movements throughout the world, The Washington Post’s Zachary A. Golfarb reports:

But the truth is far more complicated. Obama, like presidents before him, has made uncomfortable choices in deciding when to promote democracy or when to compromise those principles for other interests. ……Obama has used diplomacy and, on one occasion, military action to support democratic movements in places as varied as Libya, Burma and Ukraine. But more often, he has decided to work with regimes that are either authoritarian (Saudi Arabia and China) or turning that way (Egypt and Russia) because of other U.S. priorities.

“Obama seems to have under-reached,” Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, said in an e-mail. “He clearly cares about democracy, civil society and human rights, and often speaks eloquently about these values. But at a time when these are clearly in retreat around the world, one sees little sense of an overall Obama strategy to renew global democratic progress and counter the efforts of Russia, China and Iran to suppress and subvert democratic movements worldwide.”

Other analysts are more critical.

“His democracy promotion is a study in schizophrenia — like foreign policy before him,” said Timothy J. Lynch, a University of Melbourne professor who has co-edited a book on U.S. democracy promotion.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, insists that democracy remains a vital component of foreign policy.

“We’ve made a democracy a central part of our approach in every region that we operate,” he said, although he acknowledged a lack of progress in Russia, China and Egypt. “We’re going to be very clear when we have differences with those countries, even as we are  going to work with them on some issues of mutual interest, whether it’s Iran negotiations or removing Syria’s chemical weapons.”

White House advisers insist there is a logic to the strategy even if “there is not a unified-field theory of democracy promotion,” in the words of Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state in charge of the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the Post’s Golfarb adds:

Looking back at the democratic movements of a quarter century ago, Malinowski said there is a bit of revisionism in evaluating the successes and failures of U.S. foreign policy.

“When we look at American foreign policy in hindsight, it looks much more well-planned and triumphantly successful than it appears in the moment,” he said. “At the time, people were confused and it wasn’t clear what would turn out well. And that’s how we feel now. It really isn’t very different.”

“The effort to befriend and engage Russia in this administration was heartfelt and very serious, but it separated the democratic deficit in Russia in a different lane,” a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter.

But it is clear in retrospect, this official said, that Putin sees civic dissent — whether within Russia’s own borders or in neighboring countries — as a threat to its power.

“People now agree that domestic despotism is related to international aggression,” the official said. “What other reason would Russia offer so much support for Syria?”