“As he develops his second-term foreign policy agenda, President Obama should include a prudently implemented strategy to expand freedom’s reach to those parts of the globe where fear and repression prevail,” say two prominent observers.
“To date, the president has been uneven on the exercise of U.S. power to promote democratic change,” write David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington, respectively president and vice president for research at Freedom House:
Obama spoke eloquently at the State Department and at the United Nations last year about the vital role democracy plays in a peaceful world. After the Arab movements began, he recognized that the embrace of democracy by Arab societies is essential to the development of peace and prosperity in the region. During the 2012 campaign, Obama repeatedly declared his commitment to the cause of global freedom.
On the other hand, Obama’s conviction that he could find ways to forge productive, “win-win” relations with enemies of freedom led to the “reset” initiative with Russia that included playing down the rampant violation of democratic standards and human rights under Vladimir Putin and ignoring the pleas of Iran’s beleaguered Green Movement in 2009.
Obama administration officials seemed to believe, at least initially, that the burden of pressuring authoritarian regimes to change should not be shouldered entirely by the United States, and they looked to regional powers such as Brazil or South Africa to take on human rights and democracy challenges. Shifting the burden has not worked. We have learned, rather, that if the United States does not take the lead in pressuring repressive powers, the job won’t get done.
It took the “electric shock” of the Arab Spring for the Obama administration’s democracy policy to be revitalized after a phase of retreat and recalibration, a leading analyst has observed.
Initially concerned to distance itself from the legacy of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, force of events compelled the administration to take a more engaged and energetic approach to democracy support, said Tom Carothers, author of Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat?
In the early days of Obama’s first administration, observers noted the conspicuous absence of a fourth “D” when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited defense, diplomacy, and development as the core priorities of US foreign policy , raising speculation that democracy was being ”quietly shelved.” It fell to Vice President Joe Biden to call for a renewed emphasis on development and democracy, “two of the most powerful weapons in our collective arsenals.”
While Obama has characterized himself as a foreign policy realist, “the support of freedom and the national interest are often mutually reinforcing,” Kramer and Puddington contend, offering suggestions for where the administration should offer more forceful support of democratic principles:
? China. With a new leadership taking control in Beijing at a time of growing labor, ethnic and social unrest, now is the time to remind those in authority that a government’s global reputation is earned through respect for freedom of thought and free institutions; to press China publicly to release political prisoners; to speak out when Beijing extends its methods of control beyond its borders; and to insist that international human rights bodies stop ignoring China’s repressive domestic practices.
? Russia. Confronted with domestic opposition — against whom he launched a brutal crackdown — Putin accused Washington of bankrolling regime change and expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development. ….The Obama administration should demonstrate its revulsion by supporting sanctions on Russian officials responsible for gross human rights abuses, which the House passed Nov. 16. The president should also have regular contact with forward-looking members of the opposition and beef up U.S. foreign broadcasting.
? Syria. If the president is serious about avoiding a repeat of the kinds of atrocities that Rwanda and Bosnia endured, he should rethink his hands-off approach toward Syria by instituting a no-fly zone and more active support for liberal-minded figures among the anti-Assad opposition.
“Incorporating a serious democracy initiative as a major element in U.S. foreign policy is critical when anti-democratic forces are acting with growing brazenness and disdain for world opinion,” Kramer and Puddington conclude.