Bringing Freedom House to the White House

Bringing Freedom House to the White House

Freedom House has just issued the 2014 edition of its indispensable "Freedom in the World" report. Regrettably, the distinguished, nonpartisan organization offers a bleak assessment of democratic deterioration around the world. This continues a negative global trend. For the eighth consecutive year, political rights and civil liberties have eroded overall, with Freedom House’s scrupulously compiled ratings finding that 14 more countries have backslid than have progressed.

The causes of these declines are sundry, including economic stagnation, resurgent Islamist movements, tactical missteps by democracy activists, and crafty innovations by authoritarians determined to preserve their hold on power. Unfortunately, American policy is not blameless. As erstwhile Shadow Government contributor David J. Kramer (now the head of Freedom House) and his colleague Arch Puddington wrote, "no less worrisome than these trends is the democratic world’s passivity in response…. [T]he Obama administration has signaled, in words and policies, that the encouragement of democracy is no longer a priority."

Will the White House even read the Freedom House report? I hope so, but I fear not. Many others and I have commented on this before, but it bears revisiting because it continues to be such a costly missed opportunity: Barack Obama’s administration has abandoned the promotion of freedom precisely when it is most needed. The irony is poignant: The Obama presidency held abundant potential to be a potent force for global human rights and democracy because of this president’s historic role as the first African-American president of the United States and because of the tremendous political capital his inauguration brought around the world. The turn of history compounded this opportunity, as global shifts including the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, the Arab Awakening, and the fragilities of other authoritarians in the wake of the global economic crisis.

Presidents cannot anticipate momentous events that might happen on their watch, but they are responsible for how they respond. To take two recent examples, when George H.W. Bush took the oath of office in January 1989, he did not know that within 12 months the Iron Curtain would fall, but he did preside over artful statecraft that brought the Cold War to a peaceful end and brought liberation to millions of people in Eastern Europe. Or when George W. Bush took office 12 years later, he had no inkling that within eight months the United States would endure perhaps the most catastrophic and costly surprise attack in its history, but his response did help ensure that America would not suffer another such attack during his presidency.

In contrast, the Obama administration’s uncertain responses to the Arab Awakening and the ascendant authoritarianism of China and Russia have been wanting. It appears that a big part of the problem stems from an inflexible, dogmatic invocation of an otherwise sound observation. The Obama administration starts with some basic premises that are true: There are significant limits to how much American policy can change internal conditions in another country, and ham-handed American involvement can make things worse. But, most ironically for a president who revels in his own appreciation of "complexity," the White House turns these premises into simplistic shibboleths that seem to indicate belief that the United States can do absolutely nothing to influence internal conditions in other countries and that any efforts to try will only make things worse. An oddly fundamentalist adherence to these dogmas appears to be at the root of the administration’s almost nonexistent democracy policy.

Of course the promotion of democracy and human rights is hard and slow. But some skeptics too often seem to focus only on the internal challenges to democratic institutions within any given country, such as limited economic development, weak institutions, corruption, and cultural traditions inimical to democracy. What is less acknowledged is the role that mischievous outside powers — such as Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, and Arab funders of intolerant Islamist movements — play in squelching democratization efforts in other nations. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has been so successful in exporting Russian-style authoritarianism that the new Freedom House report finds Central Asia to have outpaced the Middle East as the region with the most pronounced democratic backsliding. Democratization skeptics in the United States often focus only on the daunting internal factors while downplaying the autocratic interventions of authoritarian powers.

In contrast, many authoritarians see themselves playing a geopolitical contest to expand their influence and put the free world in retreat. This may not have been a contest that the Obama administration sought, but it is the one America has been handed.

In modern American history, when the executive branch equivocates on an important foreign-policy issue, Congress often steps in. There is a robust bipartisan tradition in Congress of support for democracy and human rights, especially when the White House fails to do its part. While Obama’s White House appears at this juncture to have the worst presidential record on global democracy and human rights promotion since Richard Nixon’s administration, Congress can play its historical role of correcting this imbalance.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of one of the most consequential human rights laws ever, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Designed to support the particular issue of the rights of Russian Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union, Jackson-Vanik soon came to exemplify the broader American commitment to supporting the rights of oppressed peoples around the world. It also represented Congress’s effort to correct the Nixon administration’s embrace of détente and its apparent acquiescence in Soviet repression. Now Congress is once again intervening. In the wake of the successful passage of the Magnitsky Act targeting Russian oppression of dissidents (and appropriately revoking the now-obsolete Jackson-Vanik Amendment), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have introduced the Global Human Rights Accountability Act.

The White House will likely oppose it, just as it opposed the original Magnitsky Act. Yet with just under three years left in his presidency, as Obama and his team begin to consider not just short-term political expediency but long-term legacy, now is an opportune time to recalibrate some policies. The authoritarians of the world have made their moves; now it is time for America to make its moves and develop a more sophisticated effort to support liberty efforts worldwide. Reading the new Freedom House report would be a good place to start.