Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Where’s Obama’s Own Freedom Agenda?

Now that Barack Obama’s presidency is well into its fifth year, one of the biggest puzzles continues to be this administration’s persistent neglect of human rights and democracy policy. The White House’s dismissal of a "freedom agenda" during its first year in office was foolish as a policy matter yet unsurprising as a political matter, ...

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.
EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

Now that Barack Obama's presidency is well into its fifth year, one of the biggest puzzles continues to be this administration's persistent neglect of human rights and democracy policy. The White House's dismissal of a "freedom agenda" during its first year in office was foolish as a policy matter yet unsurprising as a political matter, given the reflexive temptation of almost every new presidency to distance itself from its predecessor. But over four years later, that excuse no longer holds water -- especially in light of the combination of resurgent authoritarianism and revolutionary ferment across the globe. Behind almost every one of the front-page national security challenges confronting the Obama administration today -- such as Iran's nuclear weapons program, North Korea's nuclear weapons, the Syrian civil war, the Egyptian coup, Russia's safe harbor for Edward Snowden (applauded by Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela), China's cyberattacks, and so on -- stands the problem of either autocratic or fragile, illiberal regimes.

Of course these are profoundly difficult issues. Not since the 1989-1991 global convulsions at the end of the Cold War has there been such a staggering and simultaneous array of revolutionary changes taking place around the world. Yet as hard as statecraft is in this environment, there remains a chasm between international events and American policy priorities, between the call of history and the administration's lack of response. 

No, I am not suggesting that a robust human rights and democracy policy would be the silver-bullet answer to all these challenges -- that is a simplistic straw man. If anything, the last decade has shown just how agonizingly hard the promotion of democratic institutions and human rights can be. But a coherent freedom policy needs to be at least part of the tool kit and more of a priority than it has been. At one level, Obama seems to have an intuitive sense for this; witness his recent nostalgic reflections in South Africa on how advocating for human rights and Nelson Mandela's liberty in South Africa as a college student marked his first political activism. Now that Obama has graduated from student activism to the Oval Office, there are contemporary moral equivalents to Mandela among freedom dissidents in countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea who would appreciate the support of the U.S. presidency.

Now that Barack Obama’s presidency is well into its fifth year, one of the biggest puzzles continues to be this administration’s persistent neglect of human rights and democracy policy. The White House’s dismissal of a "freedom agenda" during its first year in office was foolish as a policy matter yet unsurprising as a political matter, given the reflexive temptation of almost every new presidency to distance itself from its predecessor. But over four years later, that excuse no longer holds water — especially in light of the combination of resurgent authoritarianism and revolutionary ferment across the globe. Behind almost every one of the front-page national security challenges confronting the Obama administration today — such as Iran’s nuclear weapons program, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the Syrian civil war, the Egyptian coup, Russia’s safe harbor for Edward Snowden (applauded by Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela), China’s cyberattacks, and so on — stands the problem of either autocratic or fragile, illiberal regimes.

Of course these are profoundly difficult issues. Not since the 1989-1991 global convulsions at the end of the Cold War has there been such a staggering and simultaneous array of revolutionary changes taking place around the world. Yet as hard as statecraft is in this environment, there remains a chasm between international events and American policy priorities, between the call of history and the administration’s lack of response. 

No, I am not suggesting that a robust human rights and democracy policy would be the silver-bullet answer to all these challenges — that is a simplistic straw man. If anything, the last decade has shown just how agonizingly hard the promotion of democratic institutions and human rights can be. But a coherent freedom policy needs to be at least part of the tool kit and more of a priority than it has been. At one level, Obama seems to have an intuitive sense for this; witness his recent nostalgic reflections in South Africa on how advocating for human rights and Nelson Mandela’s liberty in South Africa as a college student marked his first political activism. Now that Obama has graduated from student activism to the Oval Office, there are contemporary moral equivalents to Mandela among freedom dissidents in countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea who would appreciate the support of the U.S. presidency.

Meanwhile, there have been two developments this month that offer signs of encouragement. First, Obama’s nomination of Tom Malinowski to be the assistant secretary of state for democracy, rights, and labor (DRL) is much to be welcomed. Malinowski brings energy, intellect, moral principle, and over two decades of experience in both human rights and foreign policy. The latter is especially crucial as it will equip him to work effectively within the interagency system and help prevent DRL from sliding back to the bureaucratic margins at Foggy Bottom. I hope he will be swiftly confirmed and can assume his duties soon.

Second, the launch just this past week of the new Freedom Square blog by the George W. Bush Institute heralds a fresh and innovative new platform for news and insight on freedom issues around the globe. Shadow Government readers are encouraged to check it out, as you’ll find distinguished voices such as Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice, as well as sharp upcoming writers such as Jordan Hirsch. Freedom Square looks to be a valuable new resource and comes at a needful time.

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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