Quieter Approach to Spreading Democracy Abroad
Fresh from orchestrating a historic victory, President Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, headed to the remote seaside town of Baku for a lucrative speech. For Mr. Plouffe, it was a chance to pocket an easy $50,000. But for the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan, it was a chance to burnish the reputation of a harsh system headed by the son of a K.G.B. general.
An outcry forced Mr. Plouffe to donate the cash to pro-democracy groups in the former Soviet Union, but to some policy experts it spotlighted a shift in American attitudes toward advancing the cause of democracy abroad. Mr. Plouffe did not intend to give succor to a despot, friends said, but evidently did not think to determine whether the supposed civic group forking over the money had ties to an anti-democratic regime.
Four years after President George W. Bush declared it the mission of America to spread democracy with the goal of “ending tyranny in our world,” his successor’s team has not picked up the mantle. Since taking office, neither Mr. Obama nor his advisers have made much mention of democracy-building as a goal. While not directly repudiating Mr. Bush’s grand, even grandiose vision, Mr. Obama appears poised to return to a more traditional American policy of dealing with the world as it is rather than as it might be.
The shift has been met with relief in Washington and much of the world, which never grew comfortable with Mr. Bush’s missionary rhetoric, seeing it as alternately cynical or naïve. But it also underlines a sharp debate in Democratic circles about the future of Mr. Bush’s vision.
Idealists, for lack of a better word, agree that democracy-building should be a core American value but pursued with more modesty, less volume and better understanding of the societies in question. The realists, on the other hand, are skeptical of assumptions that what works in America should necessarily be exported elsewhere, or that it should eclipse other American interests.
The essential tension for the Obama team is whether to let Mr. Bush’s strong association discredit the very idea of spreading democracy. “It’s sadly ironic that an administration that put democracy promotion at the forefront of its foreign policy has created such controversy about what has been a bipartisan ambition,” said Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, a government-financed group, affiliated with the Democratic Party, that promotes democracy abroad.
Mr. Wollack noted that presidents of both parties embraced the idea of nurturing democracy overseas for decades before Mr. Bush came along, even if he made it more central to his mission statement. “Now the debate is where it ought to be on that agenda,” Mr. Wollack said.
To many Democrats, it ought to be lower on the agenda. America should not lecture others, if only because quiet diplomacy may work better, they argue. In this view, the whole focus on elections, particularly, is misplaced when so much of the world is suffering from poverty, hunger and disease. Mr. Obama seems to side with that point. During an interview with The Washington Post before his inauguration, he said he wanted to consider the promotion of democracy “through a lens that is actually delivering a better life for people on the ground and less obsessed with form, more concerned with substance.”
His Inaugural Address a few days later was a sharp contrast from Mr. Bush’s four years ago. Where Mr. Bush called the spread of freedom the central goal of American policy, Mr. Obama made just passing reference to those who silence dissent being on “the wrong side of history.” Indeed, his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, outlined a policy of the “Three D’s” — defense, diplomacy and development. The fourth D, democracy, did not make the list.
And if that were not clear, during her trip to Asia last week, she said that human rights violations by China “can’t interfere” with cooperation between Washington and Beijing on other issues. That may simply be a more honest statement of longstanding reality in the Chinese-American relationship, but it still seemed jarring.
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s National Security Council has not duplicated the high-profile democracy post Mr. Bush had. Instead, Mr. Obama’s top democracy adviser during the campaign, Michael McFaul, was given the Russia portfolio. Coincidentally, this comes as the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor is being relocated across the street from headquarters, although the assistant secretary in charge will remain on the executive floor. The move, instigated in the last days of the Bush administration, stems from renovation schedules, but proximity is power in government and advocates are worried.
No one has been nominated for that assistant secretary position yet. Many Democrats thought Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, would be a powerful choice, but he cannot take the job under Mr. Obama’s rules against lobbyists. Mr. Malinowski was registered as a lobbyist to advocate for victims of genocide, torture and oppression, rather than moneyed interests, but that has not earned him a waiver.
“As a Democrat, I am particularly troubled,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, a group that promotes democracy and liberty abroad. “To see democracy promotion as particularly Republican or Bush policy is to misunderstand our country’s foreign policy history.”
After all, Democrats in Congress created the democracy and human rights bureau at the State Department in the 1970s, and Jimmy Carter embraced it as he made human rights a central tenet of his foreign policy. Ronald Reagan created the National Endowment for Democracy to encourage reform around the world. Bill Clinton made democracy promotion one of four pillars of the nation’s international development strategy.
Mr. Obama, Ms. Windsor said, should find his own way to advance the cause.
“The challenge for the Obama team is to find words and concepts that enable the administration to distinguish itself from the Bush administration, but not to downgrade support for democracy and civil and political rights,” she said. “So far, I haven’t seen them even try.”
Thomas Carothers, who oversees the democracy and rule of law program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made the same point in a paper to be published next week. “Caution and moderation on democracy promotion are very much in order, including a careful post-Bush process of repair and recovery,” he wrote. “At the same time, however, President Obama and his foreign policy team should not, either explicitly or implicitly, embrace a broad realist corrective.”
Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, said Mr. Obama should retool the agenda to make it more of a long-term goal instead of an immediate policy instrument. He argued “for lowering the profile of the issue without abandoning the commitment, especially in the Middle East, which is the toughest region, but where more progress was achieved in the last period than is generally recognized.”
The Middle East, of course, is what led Mr. Bush down this road in the first place. After the invasion of Iraq failed to turn up any weapons of mass destruction, he embraced the goal of building democracy there as an outpost for freedom in a repressive region. By the time his second inauguration came around, he decided to broaden the mandate around the world, seeing it as a more positive philosophical underpinning for the war on terror than simply hunting down evildoers.
It was a heady idea. Mr. Bush and his advisers took inspiration from popular revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon that toppled entrenched governments. They were encouraged by the first purple-finger elections in Iraq. They were emboldened when Egypt released the imprisoned opposition leader, Ayman Nour, after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, canceled a trip to protest his arrest.
Yet the vision Mr. Bush articulated with passion and clarity was never translated consistently into policy. He launched the Millennium Challenge program to steer foreign aid to countries promoting freedom and developing rule of law. He met with the Dalai Lama, hosted Chinese and North Korean dissidents in the Oval Office and slapped sanctions on Burma. But he tempered criticism of allies and countries he needed for other priorities, like Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kazakhstan.
His “freedom agenda” was undermined after his administration encouraged Palestinian authorities to proceed with elections that were ultimately won by Hamas, which the West considers a terrorist group. And much of the world saw democracy promotion through the lens of Iraq, viewing it not as a principled stance but as code for changing regimes that America did not like, even by force.
“For all the criticism of Bush, I certainly do think he believed his rhetoric and his agenda on freedom,” said David Kramer, who was Mr. Bush’s last assistant secretary of state for democracy. “He can be faulted on the implementation of it, but I don’t think he can be called hypocritical.”
William Inboden, a former strategic adviser at the National Security Council now at the Legatum Institute in London, said the brand suffered. “The word democracy itself is a little radioactive and unfortunately has gotten a bad name,” he said. “But when you talk about its meaning and the concepts behind it, just about everyone would say they want those things.”
Mr. Inboden said Mr. Obama has the chance to rebrand democracy. His own election generated enormous good will around the world, an “incredibly profound and incredibly potent” statement about American democracy, Mr. Inboden said. And so, he said, “There’s real opportunity there.”
Maybe others see it that way, too. Last week, in what some saw as a goodwill gesture toward Mr. Obama, Egypt released Mr. Nour again.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.