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Democracies not all created equal

In a conversation about Kazakhstan’s backsliding on democratic reforms, this story over at the Cable relates that President Obama downplayed any pressure by telling Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev that the United States is still "working" on its own democracy. And in a rather clumsy effort to walk back from the obvious implication of moral equivalency between ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

In a conversation about Kazakhstan's backsliding on democratic reforms, this story over at the Cable relates that President Obama downplayed any pressure by telling Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev that the United States is still "working" on its own democracy. And in a rather clumsy effort to walk back from the obvious implication of moral equivalency between the Kazakh and American systems, NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul (who himself has a long-standing commitment to democracy promotion) pointed not to the strength of America's national principles but to, well, his own boss: "[Obama's] taken, I think, rather historic steps to improve our own democracy since coming to office here in the United States." 

In a conversation about Kazakhstan’s backsliding on democratic reforms, this story over at the Cable relates that President Obama downplayed any pressure by telling Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev that the United States is still "working" on its own democracy. And in a rather clumsy effort to walk back from the obvious implication of moral equivalency between the Kazakh and American systems, NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul (who himself has a long-standing commitment to democracy promotion) pointed not to the strength of America’s national principles but to, well, his own boss: "[Obama’s] taken, I think, rather historic steps to improve our own democracy since coming to office here in the United States." 

The problem with these Obama Administration statements is not that they are technically false. Virtually every American would concede that, measured against a Platonic ideal, the American democratic system will always have areas for improvement. And virtually every American would also see President Obama’s election as a historic achievement in light of America’s troubled racial past.

The problem with President Obama’s reported statements is rather than, in context, they are untrue and unhelpful. There are several reasons why:

  • They are inaccurate. By any objective standard, American democracy is immeasurably more free, more vibrant, more healthy, and more democratic than the Kazakh autocracy.
  • They are counterproductive. Despite its own democratic backsliding, Kazakhstan this year holds the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an organization with a robust democratic charter and a notable track record of supporting democratic institutions. The Nazarbayev regime pushed for years to get the chairmanship to burnish its own legitimacy, not to advance OSCE principles. If President Obama’s intention was to get Kazakshtan to uphold its OSCE commitments, his words will backfire by instead sending the message to Nazarbayev that the U.S. isn’t serious about pressing for significant reform. Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship had already been delayed by one year to allow time for Kazakhstan to make specific improvements in its own record. But given that Nazarbayev took few if any such steps — and if anything the situation worsened with a widely-condemned internet regulation bill — Kazakhstan seemed to be trying to call the OSCE’s bluff. This latest message from the Obama administration will only further reinforce Nazarbayev’s intransigence.
  • They are demoralizing. Besides Nazarbayev himself, Obama’s most important audience is the beleaguered Kazakh human rights and democracy activists, who need bold and unequivocal expressions of support from the most powerful and most free nation in the world — not hand-wringing and moral equivalency. The Kazakh government didn’t miss this opportunity to exploit the meeting. One can almost hear the smugness in the Kazakh Ambassador’s voice from this Wall Street Journal story:
  • Erlan Idrissov, Kazakstan’s ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview that Mr. Obama offered Mr. Nazarbayev the Winston Churchill quote on democracy being "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." "There was no pressure at all in the meeting," the ambassador said."

  • They undermine American interests in a strategic region. Events this past week in Kyrgyzstan only further show how tumultuous yet important Central Asia is, whether for energy supplies, military basing, counterterrorism cooperation, or any number of other issues. Russia and China are playing their own new version of the "Great Game" for influence. The United States will not succeed by imitating them in downplaying values, but rather by offering a distinct alternative model to the region of transparency, accountability, and rule of law. This approach does not unrealistically preclude cooperation with unsavory autocracies; it rather makes clear that engagement is not just with governing rulers but with their citizens and societies as well.
  • They undercut multilateralism. Kazakhstan’s chairmanship threatens to erode the OSCE’s historic effectiveness and credibility. If a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is strengthening multilateralism and international partnership, these statements don’t help. Downplaying Kazakhstan’s autocracy also diminishes the OSCE.
  • They reinforce the narrative of President Obama as too willing to apologize for America’s alleged misdeeds and imperfections, but not willing enough to defend American values. If this were an isolated incident, it might have drawn less attention. But it comes against the backdrop of a series of similar Presidential statements over the past year, and plays into a worrisome narrative of a President more impressed with himself than with the nation he leads.

President Obama addressed some of these last concerns admirably and forcefully in his Oslo speech last year. But with this latest missed opportunity with Kazakhstan, one worries that old habits might be returning.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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