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Some thoughts on democracy/authoritarianism day

Some thoughts on democracy/authoritarianism day

Sometimes the news-cycle fates align nicely to highlight a question deserving of more discussion. Today, that question was what role democracy promotion should play in the Obama administration’s foreign policy and how the U.S. should interact with odious but strategically useful authoritarian regimes.

The big story of the day was obviously The Speech, which I thought contained some genuinely moving language on the importance of democracy, but was undercut somewhat by the administration cutting funding for democracy promotion in the very country where he was speaking.

The day’s other big story is the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and China’s paranoid clampdown in response. (Sadly, I can’t find any mention of the anniversary on the White House Web site.) Then there’s also Wednesday’s readmittance of Cuba to the Organization of American States over U.S. objections, not to mention the imminent elections in Iran.

With all this going on, it seemed appropriate to spend this morning listening to a great discussion on authoritarianism at the launch of Freedom House and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s new report, "Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians" at the Capitol. The report examines five states, China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Pakistan as examples of a new class of authoritarian government, far savvier and more subtle in their methods than traditional dictatorships. (You can find a summary of the findings as well as an adapted version of Daniel Kimmage’s section on Russia on this site.)

The report makes great reading, but the implications of it for U.S. policy are less clear. At this morning event, Robert Kagan, Peter Beinart and, James Traub — three scholars who approach democracy-promotion from very political perspectives — wrestled with this question in a panel discussion that got pretty heated at times. The central question was when it is appropriate for the U.S. to cooperate with the new authoritarian powerhouses, with Kagan taken a purist pro-democracy stance and Beinart and and Traub emphasizing the need for trade-offs and cooperation on issues like climate change (in the case of China) and nonproliferation (in the case of Russia.)

It strikes me that this is a bit of a false distinction. All three speakers agreed with the report’s premise that the new and more sophisticated class of totalitarian regimes exist as a real and troubling phenomenon and pose a grave challenge to the goal of spreading democracy. They also agreed that these regimes are savvy enough that "engagement" whether economic or political, probably won’t lead to meaningful political change. (As Kagan noted, autocrats tend not to give up power except by accident.)

I would also argue that it’s neither new, nor particularly worth arguing, that sometimes the U.S. government will have to compromise its democratic values for strategic regions. My colleague Chris Brose recently noted with annoyance that President Obama talks about reaching out to non-democracies as if it’s a new idea. Every modern administration has had to cooperate with non-democracies at times. (I would wager that had Robert Kagan’s preferred candidate, John McCain, been elected and established a "Concert of Democracies" he’d still be meeting with autocratic leaders, if for no other reason than that we’d still be buying Saudi oil and Chinese manufactured goods.)

At the same time, American voters and leaders probably don’t have the stomach for a purely realist foreign policy that discounts democracy and human rights entirely, nor should they. 

So is a degree of hypocrisy simply hard-wired into U.S. foreign policy? Unfortunately, it seems so. Hillary Clinton was pilloried at today’s conference for saying that human rights should not get in the way of other strategic priorities, but I have a hard time imagining any U.S. administration that wouldn’t take this line.

Every U.S. administration for the forseeable future will talk about human rights and democracy while at times cooperating with regimes that undermine those principles in the name of economic of security goals. George W. Bush’s support of leaders like Vladimir Putin and Pervez Musharraf contradicted his pro-democracy rhetoric yes, but he also didn’t really get much out of these relationships.

I believe that Obama is sincere in his "commitment to governments that reflect the will of the people." I also believe that he sincerely believes that putting this commitment aside in the case of Egypt, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, etc. is a strategic necessity that will pay dividends on issues ranging from clean energy to Arab-Israeli peace.

Does it make me uncomfortable that the president who spoke so movingly today about women’s rights today spent the day before meeting the king of a country where women are treated as second-class citizens? Of course. But statecraft is a messy business and it’s not the inconsistency that bothers me. It’s the gnawing (I hope misplaced) worry that he may be setting himself up to fail on both counts.