President Barack Obama today reiterated the US commitment to promoting democracy, insisting that democratic values are universal and inseparably linked to broader foreign policy goals of development, international cooperation and combating extremism.
“We must champion those principles which ensure that governments reflect the will of the people,” he told the UN General Assembly. “These principles cannot be afterthoughts – democracy and human rights are essential to achieving each of the goals that I have discussed today.”
His administration has come under fire from critics, including some democracy and human rights activists, for downplaying the D-word. But they will perhaps be reassured that democracy has now featured, albeit with varying degrees of prominence, in successive keynote foreign policy speeches in Prague, Cairo, Accra, and now at the UN.
“Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside. Each society must search for its own path, and no path is perfect,” he insisted. “Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people, and – in the past – America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy. But that does not weaken our commitment, it only reinforces it.”
Some may find the tone a little too defensive and implicitly apologetic (who ever argues that democracy can or should be imposed?). And the observation that each country will find its own culturally appropriate path to a common goal will no doubt be abused by autocrats to justify what Madeleine Albright calls a glacial rather than gradual approach to reform. But others will note that the rhetoric is consistent with that of previous administrations and feel vindicated that the administration is not rejecting that legacy.
Paraphrasing Mark Twain, a leading practitioner this week insisted that recent obituaries for democracy promotion were clearly premature. Promoting democracy was not unique to the Bush administration, said the National Democratic Institute’s Ken Wollack, and it had been one of the three foreign policy pillars of the Clinton administration.
“It is a question of how rather than whether democracy promotion fits into the foreign policy agenda,’ he said. A less vocal, strategic approach that integrates democracy and development was welcome, “if done properly.”
Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations was less concerned with rhetoric than “institutional follow-through”. He criticized the disbanding of the National Security Council’s democracy directorate that he headed during the Bush administration, cautioning that in the absence of a robust lobby for democracy and human rights within any administration the conservative and realist instincts of the “permanent foreign policy bureaucracy’ would hold sway.
“States will be states”, Wollack told the Foreign Policy Initiative democracy forum. “They can’t be democracy NGOs.” But the Obama administration’s 2010 budget had demonstrated its commitment where it matters – in resources – with significant funding increases for the National Endowment for Democracy, the Middle East Partnership Initiative and Millennium Challenge Account and many in-country aid budgets.