Shadow Government

Will Obama and the Democrats give up on democracy?

By Will Inboden Notwithstanding the furious pace of recent world events, it bears remembering that the Obama administration is still just a few weeks into office and understandably has not yet articulated a grand strategy or national security doctrine. Campaign statements on foreign policy are coming up against the realities of governing. In the midst ...

By Will Inboden

Notwithstanding the furious pace of recent world events, it bears remembering that the Obama administration is still just a few weeks into office and understandably has not yet articulated a grand strategy or national security doctrine. Campaign statements on foreign policy are coming up against the realities of governing. In the midst of many outstanding questions is this: what will be the Obama administration’s policy on democracy promotion?

This recent New York Times article is intriguing but ultimately not encouraging.  It notes, correctly, that the very fact of Obama’s election sends an incomparable soft power signal to the rest of the world — and particularly to marginalized minority populations — about the power of open political systems and free elections. Also laudable is the likely inclusion of Michael McFaul in the NSC staff, given his exemplary record as both a scholar and practitioner of democracy promotion. 

So it is all the more worrisome that the article suggests, in McFaul’s words, that the Obama administration will "talk less and do more" on democracy than their Bush administration predecessors. Here are classic examples of both a false dichotomy (talking versus doing) and ABB ("Anything But Bush") syndrome. Public statements, particularly at the presidential level, are instrumental in helping advance important policies. One of the presidency’s greatest powers comes from the use of the bully pulpit, both at home and abroad.  Just consider the potency of Reagan’s call to "tear down this wall," especially in conjunction with the Reagan administration’s support for democracy promotion policies and programs such as the National Endowment for Democracy. 

If the Bush administration is to be faulted on democracy promotion, it is not in talking too much but in comparison not doing enough. Note that this is in contrast to my co-blogger Philip Zelikow, who includes in his critique of the Bush legacy too much talk of democracy. Here I think Philip focuses excessively on Afghanistan and Iraq — both cases in which the Bush administration went to war out of security concerns, not to promote democracy. Yet after decapitating the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes, what type of replacement government should the United States have supported if not one representative of and accountable to its citizens? 

Equally short-sighted is the implication that just because Bush talked a lot about "freedom," President Obama shouldn’t. As the Obama team already knows and used to great effect in the campaign, public language is one of the most potent tools a president has at his disposal, and it would be unwise for President Obama to unilaterally disarm by not speaking to the world about universal human rights and human dignity. Public support from the United States government has countless times and in countless places helped to prevent the arrest of dissidents, keep NGOs functioning, protect independent media, and ease harassment of opposition groups. A few principled words can signal to the various dissidents, activists, and even average citizens living under oppressive regimes that the United States supports their aspirations for a better life. Likewise, in signaling to foreign governments what U.S. policies and priorities are, public statements can be as important as — and sometimes even more important than — what is said in private. 

The Obama team will also need to think carefully about the role of democracy promotion in whatever overall strategic framework they do develop. Conceptually, President Bush was correct in seeing accountable government and human rights as intrinsic goods. But representative government, rule of law, free media, and appropriate checks and balances on state power are also instrumental in advancing several other national interests, including:

Counter-radicalization. A more open, tolerant, pluralist, and democratic Muslim world will also help to mitigate against many of the factors that contribute to radicalizing potential jihadists. For all of the criticism the Bush administration received in this regard, there is a remarkably broad consensus (also here) on the need for political and religious reform in the broader Middle East, as well as plenty of indigenous groups advocating for these changes within each country.

Economic growth and effective development. There is a significant correlation between sustainable economic growth, diminished corruption, and open political systems. Though the causal sequencing between political liberty and economic reform will continue to be debated, both are indispensable (see, for example, the correlation between democratic governance and both economic growth and quality of life in the Prosperity Index). Neglecting democracy promotion means abandoning an effective tool for promoting economic development through improved governance. This is also one of the animating principles behind the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which the Obama team wisely seems inclined to maintain.

International peace. The reasons behind the "democratic peace" theory — that democracies do not go to war against each other — continue to inspire endless debate and countless political science dissertations. But the facts are hard to dispute: mature democracies do not fight each other.

Great power relations. It is no accident that the great (or greater, anyway) powers with which the United States enjoys the closest relations (think the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany, etc.) are democracies. So also with emerging powers with growing ties to the United States (like, say, India and Brazil). And the two great powers that pose the most consistent challenges are non-democracies (Russia and China).

The Obama team is even now in the process of formulating its policies on the above four issues, and many more. It should not neglect to integrate democracy promotion into all of them. 

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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