Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat?

Thomas Carothers Report January 11, 2012
The overall record of Obama's democracy policy is mixed, combining valuable revitalization with continued troubling shortcomings.

Upon taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama inherited a democracy promotion policy badly damaged from its prior association with the war in Iraq and with forcible regime change more generally. The Bush years had also seen a decline in America’s reputation as a global symbol of democracy and human rights as well as rising fears of a broader democratic recession in the world.

The new president and his foreign policy team responded at first by stepping back from the issue, softening U.S. rhetoric on promoting freedom abroad, and taking steps to rebuild America’s democratic standing. Contributing to this de-emphasis, President Obama undertook a broader effort to improve U.S. diplomatic engagement with a variety of nondemocratic governments, in Iran, Russia, and elsewhere. These initial moves triggered alarm and criticism from parts of the U.S. foreign policy community.

Starting in the second half of 2009, the pendulum swung toward greater U.S. engagement on democracy. Senior U.S. officials began to speak more regularly and forcefully on democracy and human rights. Like its predecessors, the administration was pulled into prodemocracy diplomacy as a result of democratic breakdowns or breakthroughs around the world, from Honduras and South Sudan to Belarus and Côte d’Ivoire. The Obama team also began to stake out its own approach to democracy policy, emphasizing multilateral engagement and various initiatives to bolster the broader normative and institutional framework for democracy support.

As popular uprisings spread across the Arab world in 2011, the administration faced its most important and high-profile democracy challenge. While the advance of political change in the Arab world could be a watershed moment for the region, it also threatens to jeopardize various American economic and security interests. The U.S. policy response has been correspondingly mixed, combining support for democratization where it appears to be occurring with a willingness to continue close ties with seemingly stable authoritarian governments.

The Obama team’s overall engagement on democracy support is multifaceted and significant, and is rooted in a set of guiding principles that have helped revitalize the U.S. profile on the topic. At the same time, the administration downplays democracy and human rights in a number of nondemocratic countries for the sake of other interests. This inconsistency represents a familiar pattern rather than a change in U.S. policy.

The difference is that today, in response to growing multipolarity, the United States has moved away from any single, overarching foreign policy narrative rooted in the idea of remaking the world in the image of the United States. Debates about whether this new narrative is appropriate will figure in the partisan debates over foreign policy in the unfolding U.S. presidential campaign. Yet it is important to remember that most U.S. democracy engagement around the world is a matter of bipartisan agreement and to stay focused on the less visible but crucial issues that will bolster the credibility and power of U.S. democracy promotion in the future.

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The Carnegie Democracy and Rule of Law Program rigorously examines the global state of democracy and the rule of law and international efforts to support their advance.


In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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