Shadow Government

Obama’s Executive Order on Immigration Makes It Harder to Promote Democracy Abroad

President Barack Obama might not have spent the last six years promoting democracy around the world the way George W. Bush did, but he certainly has made that support part of his foreign policy. His State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have continued to emphasize democracy promotion in their policies and expenditures, just ...

im Bourg-Pool/Getty Images
im Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama might not have spent the last six years promoting democracy around the world the way George W. Bush did, but he certainly has made that support part of his foreign policy. His State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have continued to emphasize democracy promotion in their policies and expenditures, just as Bill Clinton and Bush 43 did. True, he likes the democracy programs a lot less than either of them did, and has cut funding to them, but he has always stressed the United States vital role in modeling democracy. Now with his executive order covering illegal immigrants, Obama has arguably presented dictators with an excuse to ignore his rebukes and cajolings for their illiberal actions. He’s modeling the opposite of what an exceptional nation like the United States should be modeling, and he’s opened himself to the charges of hypocrisy that he and his party leveled at George W. Bush.

By protecting millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, Obama is refusing to execute the laws duly passed by the people’s representatives. He is ignoring his constitutional requirement to enforce the law. It matters not that he claims to be motivated by compassion when his first duty is to our constitutional democracy (as he argued repeatedly to his own base for years who wanted him to act alone). Importantly, he asserted another reason for issuing the order and this matters very much for the watching international community — especially the collection of dictators the United States is trying to influence. The president says he is issuing the order because the Congress will not do what he wants. He wanted the Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill to pass but the House, as is their right as an independent branch of government, refused to comply.

For most of the eight years of the Bush presidency, Democrats argued that Bush had no credibility internationally due the way terrorists were interrogated, his withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s opponents said that he had made it very hard if not impossible preach democracy to tyrants when he was behaving as one himself.

Now the Democrats, according to their own logic during the Bush years, have a hypocrisy problem of their own that will impact foreign policy. After years of appointing "czars" and rewriting laws with his regulatory power, now he has simply ordered into being what the Congress expressly refused to do. It will be construed in the developing countries ruled by Chavistas, Mugabes, and the like as encouragement to continue ruling by fiat whenever a troublesome legislature refuses to rubber stamp their will. They do this all the time and we condemn it all the time; now they will have ready to hand a response to U.S. censure.

Political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell developed theories of democratic consolidation, authoritarianism, and illiberal democracy during a lifetime of studying democratization. He examined much about emerging democracies in Latin America and has helped generations of scholars and practitioners understand what is happening and why it is happening in the politics of these countries. Of the many lessons to be learned from studying O’Donnell’s work, one is that democracies around the world might have many faces and different expressions, but they can be divided into liberal and illiberal forms. In sum, elections matter greatly, but so does the way in which leaders govern. When elected leaders, especially executives, concentrate power, they pervert democracy and any founding documents that exist to limit and curb the uses of powers. When they mistake being elected as an excuse to rule alone, they begin to cross a line from liberal democracy to illiberal democracy. And then academics in the mold of O’Donnell start measuring how secure the democracy is, whether it is sliding backwards or stagnating, and what the electorate thinks of all of this. We will probably have a very rough two years now that the president has taken this step. And his party will have a momentous test on its hands if it seeks to defend his action.

Meanwhile, a lot of bad actors running fake republics around the world are smiling, and that is not good for U.S. policy or interests.

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