The Obama administration has given fresh ”meaning and content” to democracy promotion, says Samantha Power (above).
Promoting democracy necessarily entails a delicate balancing of security interests and moral imperatives, but realism and idealism are compatible, analysts suggest, and may even be mutually reinforcing.
A policy of “pragmatic idealism is the best way to confront the challenges and opportunities of the momentous transformation taking place in the Islamic world,” say two former U.S. secretaries of state. There is no “one-size-fits-all’ justification for interventionism, according to Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III. Military actions in particular must be country-specific, secure Congressional support, be sensitive to unintended consequences, and pursue of a “clear and specific goal,” not least to avoid mission creep into regime change.
With those provisos, a policy of pragmatic idealism “couples our determination to protect our national interests with promotion of the values that have made our country great — democracy, freedom and human rights.”
The United States and other Western democracies are often criticized for inconsistency, taking a forceful line in some states and accommodating positions in others.
But the current standoff in Yemen demonstrates that “there can’t be a single message or standard line,” says Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, in a discussion of democracy promotion and the Obama Doctrine, and typifies the genuine dilemmas and tensions that plague policy-makers.
“Just keeping Saleh there and trying to prop him up while his legitimacy has collapsed is not a strategy for really affirming American security interests,” he writes. “At the same time, just pushing him out with no plan for what follows, while the political order unravels, and the place careens towards semi-state failure, that’s not a strategy either.”
President Obama’s March 2011 speech outlined his administration’s rationale for the allied intervention in Libya, arguing that such action is legitimate and necessary even when U.S. “safety is not directly threatened, but [where] our interests and values are.”
The address represents an effort to reconcile the idealism of his 2009 Cairo speech with the real constraints of U.S. strategic interests.
External forces tread “a very fine line” between mobilizing support for democrats in struggle and clumsy or inappropriate gestures that may undermine local actors and even jeopardize their cause, says Diamond, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy:
You have to be patient, reserved, and disciplined enough to let these societies mobilize and achieve ownership of their own struggles for freedom. But you have to be assertive enough to stand behind them. Partly it is a question of timing. Partly it’s a question of what you say in private and what you say in public. Partly it’s a question of what tools you have to bring to bear on the situation.
The mistaken equation of democracy promotion with regime change has bedeviled practitioners and played into the hands of authoritarian regimes all too eager to find an excuse to curb legitimate civil society and human rights groups.
Samantha Power (above) is one of the few who have struggled as an activist, analyst and as a policy-maker to reconcile democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention with a concern to avoid a misrepresentation of democracy assistance as a form of political engineering.
“The United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the Marines,” she wrote in her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”
“America’s leadership will be indispensable in encouraging U.S. allies and regional and international institutions to step up their commitments and capacities,” she wrote in what now reads as an advance prescription for the allied intervention in Libya.
Failure to intervene would have been “extremely chilling, deadly and indeed a stain on our collective conscience,” said Power, a senior director on the National Security Council.
But she is also wary of externally-driven regime change, stressing the need to empower local actors and develop a ”thicker,” more “holistic” conception of democracy.
Democracy assistance “needs rehabilitation,” she argued before entering the administration, drawing on broader definitions of human security and Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of association, and freedom of religion.
Addressing the socio-economic dimension of democratic development would “thicken” and revitalize democratization efforts.
A fierce critic of the Clinton administration’s failure to stop the Rwandan genocide and belated intervention in the Balkans, she is now more sensitive to the practical and political constraints on government action, analysts suggest.
She recently defended the Obama administration’s stance on Bahrain, insisting that advisors “are working tirelessly at all levels to try to get a political dialogue restarted, which has become, of course, more difficult the more the violence has taken hold. But it’s an area of huge focus for the entire administration.”
The Obama administration has been criticized for downgrading democracy as a foreign policy priority in what some observers interpreted as an over-reaction to the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda.
To the contrary, Power recently argued. The administration has given fresh ”meaning and content” to democracy promotion, “rehabilitating” an agenda tarnished by association with the Iraq war.
Obama has used several speeches to “clear the brush that had gathered around the norms in previous years, rehabilitating some of the principles and cleaning up some of the associations,” she said.
The exercise has made it easier for other democracies to align themselves with the U.S.
“His success in rehabilitating those norms or providing that content has actually made it easier for other governments to stand with us,” she said.
With respect to Libya, Obama “waited for the last possible moment …. to accomplish the extremely important step of genuine international legitimation,” writes Stanford’s Larry Diamond, senior consultant at the National Endowment for Democracy‘s International Forum for Democratic Studies:
That kind of approach and the prominence of that element in his approach are different from the Bush administration’s approach–not that Bush didn’t mobilize and international coalition, but it wasn’t with the patience, the skill, the invitation to others to take more of a leading role that has been the case in this Libyan intervention. Some will criticize it as being a less potent approach, but it also may be more sustainable.