Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Support for the democratic aspirations of all people: why more talk, less action is the right way to go

In last night's State of the Union, President Obama made brief reference to the anti-totalitarian struggle of democracy activists and protestors in Tunisia, and also to recent elections in South Sudan. He failed to mention the burgeoning unrest in Egypt, something for which he was criticized as a sort of front-runner ("notice he mentioned Tunisia after the whole thing was settled, but didn't say anything about Egypt!", blah blah blah). Here's the bit from the transcript:
Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power -– it must also be the purpose behind it.  In south Sudan -– with our assistance -– the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war.  (Applause.)  Thousands lined up before dawn.  People danced in the streets.  One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him:  “This was a battlefield for most of my life,” he said.  “Now we want to be free.”  (Applause.)
And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.  And tonight, let us be clear:  The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.  (Applause.)
After eight years of the Bush Doctrine ("The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world"; " is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world"; "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you"; etc.), there's been a lot of justifiable anxiousness to see how the Obama administration would shake out on the question of democracy promotion. The signs have been encouraging, at least from my perspective: repeated assurances that America favors liberty and democracy, but a steadfast refusal to let the perfect be the enemy of the good -- to let our inability to shape the world to our will frustrate us into bleating disengagement, or worse, aggressive war.

So how about the president's comments last night? They're the sort of thing that will surely disappoint (and perhaps outrage) folks on both sides of the democracy-promotion argument: realists and isolationists will contend that we ought not concern ourselves with the political struggles of others, while neoconservatives and liberal hawks will complain that the president wasn't concrete enough about the ways that our "support" will manifest itself (as they did during the Green protests in Iran). Unromantic as this parsing may be, the whole thing really comes down to what you think "support" means, and what it ought to mean. I happen to think that selective engagement -- that is to say deeper involvement in instances where we've determined that American influence can be meaningful and have predictable results, with a continuation of nice, flowery words about freedom and liberty and democracy, plus a helping of public-diplomacy and Radio Free _____, in all other instances -- is the right approach. I don't think a blanket expression of guaranteed material support for all pro-democracy movements in authoritarian countries is a great idea, and I'm happy that neither this president nor any other (even George W. Bush) has made any such pledge.

As Elliott Abrams has said, there is genuine continuity in U.S. foreign policy on this question.
Let me just say a few things first about the first question: Should we be promoting democracy? My answer is yes, we have been for decades under presidents of both parties.
But again, there have been some significant differences on what exactly "promoting democracy" ought to constitute. (I feel confident that Abrams and I disagree.) The real continuity is in rhetorical support, in the way American leaders formulate our counry's self-image. I've always loved this speech given to the House of Representatives by John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1821, when he was Secretary of State (a section of it was the epigram to my graduate thesis). This is the kind of "support [for] democratic aspirations" I can get behind:
America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. [...] Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
To repeat a theme I've touched on in past weeks: if our foreign policy serves to destroy or disfigure beyond recognition our own constitutional republic -- even in the service of liberty for others -- then it has failed.

And so I pose a question to Elliot Abrams and Jennifer Rubin and those who criticized the White House and Congress over a "failure to act" during the Iranian elections and the Tunisian revolt and the current Egyptian troubles: what would you have us do? What is it that's expected of us? Hell, let's even forget about the comparatively simple case of Iran, where the government generally opposes U.S. policy aims and the populace seems predisposed to democracy and liberalism; what about in places where our foreign policy and security interests are generally served by an oppressive or even totalitarian government, as in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and in many cases even China? Shadi Hamid gets at the root of the problem in The Atlantic:
The Middle East just got more complicated for the Obama administration. The January 14 popular revolt in Tunisia, the first ever to topple an Arab dictator, has called into question a basic premise of U.S. policy in the Middle East - that repressive regimes, however distasteful, are at least stable. They can also be counted on to support key American interests, which is part of why the U.S. provides them with substantial assistance. Tunisia was considered one of the least likely to fall, but it fell. Across the region, opposition groups, hoping to repeat Tunisia's successes, are emboldened and increasingly active. For the first time, they know what change looks like. More importantly, they now believe it can happen in their own countries. But in the growing battle between Arab autocrats and popular oppositions, the U.S. is finding itself torn between the reliable allies it needs and the democratic reformers it wants.
I've added the emphasis at the end. Hamid continues:
But the problem the U.S. faces currently is the same it faced during the short-lived "Arab spring" of 2005: For now, it is difficult, if not impossible to have both a democratic Middle East and a pro-American one. Because anti-Americanism is so widespread (in part because the U.S. supports reviled autocrats), and because Islamist groups represent the largest oppositions, any freely elected government will want to distance itself from U.S policies.
And here's where we get to the crux of the whole democracy-promotion dilemma: free people do not define their own interests in the same ways, and those interests will not always stand in peaceful harmony with those of other free people around the world. Freedom may be a universal good, but universal freedom certainly will not result in universal peace. One more from Hamid:
The U.S., then, finds itself in the unenviable position of being a status quo power in a region where so many detest the status quo, wish to fight it, and may - or perhaps inevitably will - one day bring it crashing down.
I think this is a vitally important observation, because it helps tie democracy promotion into the broader context of U.S. efforts to shape and manage the international system -- that is, the broader context of U.S. foreign policy. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. is a status quo power on the global stage, and in almost every way: we benefit unequally from the international system as it is presently constituted, and in many respects it's in our interest to maintain it. This isn't universally true, of course: one could say, for example, that widespread global dependence on oil to meet energy needs is a fact of the international system (or a fact which bears on the international system) that is not an optimal condition for the U.S., and so we should work to shape the future in ways that mitigate in our favor.

That's what foreign and security policy is all about, and that's what our "democracy promotion agenda" and approach to human rights should also be focused on: managing change so that the world of the future is as favorable to U.S. interests as possible. When viewed in this light, Hamid's suggestion that we increase criticism of the Mubarak regime and deepen ties with opposition elements is a useful one. "It is better to have leverage with opposition groups before they come to power than afterward," he tells us; this isn't all that different from my desired approach to interstate relations, which (like Kissinger's) concedes those inevitabilities of China's rise that we're powerless to control while appreciating that American interests will be best served by creating and solidifying leverage where possible.


  1. I don’t know what the answer is to how our support should manifest itself. But I've been in meetings with dissidents, and I've been in meetings with oppressive foreign leaders, and I want to stand with the former - not just in word, but in deed.

    Beyond, as Gulliver says, Radio Free__ and public diplomacy, how do we actually nurture the seedlings of freedom? I have some ideas for how we don’t do it (invite the oppressor to a state dinner a la China, overthrow the democratically elected governments a la various examples in Central America, or back friendly dictators a la Haiti, the Philippines, Indonesia, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.)

    I don’t have any great new ideas about how we can help those longing (and willing to sacrifice their lives in order) to be free. I just feel that we must – as much as we can (which is certainly less than we hope.)

  2. By most people's standards I'm probably a reactionary realist but this seems the way to go. JQA's address pretty much exemplifies the idea of, for lack of a more charitable term, "liberty in one country."

    Supporting the opposition is not the same thing as promoting democracy - which means we really ought to be more careful about throwing our weight around when it comes to other countries' internal politics.

    The "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan demonstrated how a successful opposition group is not at all the same as a successful democracy. The US is better served by stabilizing situations than stirring the pot. At times, this will mean basically ignoring or not acting to support opposition movements which we can't be sure will succeed, but if they do, it will mean helping to stabilize and normalize the political situation so it's not just a revolving door of governments taking power by extralegal means, where aligning ourselves with any particular group will not do much to enhance US leverage.