Despite their initial inclination to lower the profile of U.S. democracy promotion, President Obama and his foreign policy team have had to confront a series of urgent, visible democracy issues around the world, from political upheaval in multiple Arab countries and unexpected events in Russia and Burma to thwarted elections or other political crises in Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Honduras and beyond. 

The Carnegie Endowment hosted a discussion to assess the Obama record on democracy and mark the launch of a new report by Thomas Carothers, Democracy Policy under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat?  Speakers included Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers, David Kramer, President of Freedom House, and Jeremy Weinstein, formerly Director for Democracy on the staff of the National Security Council and now of Stanford University. James Traub of the New York Times moderated.

Familiar Features

Carothers explained that U.S. democracy policy has been defined more by continuity than change over the past twenty-five years. Key aspects include:

  • Rhetorical Support: Presidents from Reagan to Obama have adopted pro-democratic rhetoric. These speeches are described as policymaking but they often don’t reflect reality, said Carothers. Kramer partly disagreed, stating that rhetoric does make a significant difference because it assures democracy and human rights advocates around the world that the United States is on their side.
  • Unanticipated Engagement: Most presidents do not come into office with a clear democracy agenda but are drawn into pro-democracy diplomacy as a result of international events, said Carothers. This was true of George H.W. Bush with the fall of the Berlin Wall, President Clinton with events in Haiti and the Balkans, and George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Democracy Assistance: The United States has engaged in democracy assistance for over 25 years, and these programs have endured across administrations. Weinstein noted the importance of these activities but emphasized that they cannot replace high-level diplomatic support for democracy.
  • Competing Interests: Washington downplays democracy concerns in many autocratic countries, in East Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and the Persian Gulf for the sake of countervailing  U.S. economic and security interests. Successive U.S. administrations have had to relearn the lesson that it is possible to criticize an autocratic ally without destroying the bilateral relationship, said Carothers. Kramer noted that the Bush administration missed opportunities to engage on democracy and human rights in China and Russia.

Distinctive Qualities

Despite this overall continuity, several aspects of President Obama’s democracy policy are new:

  • Legacy Issues: The George W. Bush administration turned democracy promotion into a polarizing topic. As a result, the Obama administration initially stepped back from the issue, asserting that it would not seek to impose democracy on other societies and emphasizing universal values, said Carothers and Weinstein. This change has led to a partial revitalization of U.S. democracy policy, continued Carothers, improving its global image. However, Kramer argued that Obama went too far in repudiating the Bush approach and its policy of engagement made autocrats feel that the United States did not care about their domestic repression. 
  • Unclear Leadership: Kramer noted that George W. Bush, for all his faults, deeply believed in democracy and human rights, adding that Obama’s commitment is less clear.  President Obama’s attitude toward democracy issues is complex Carothers said.  He is an inspiring democratic figue for many in the world yet is clearly wary about the United States doing anything that might look like it is pushing its politics on others.
  • Changing U.S. Role in the World: The current domestic economic and political challenges in the United States undermine the attractiveness of its democratic model to others, said Carothers. Furthermore, the rise of new powers and the heterogeneous nature of U.S. interests in the world mean that democracy policy is no longer part of a transformative foreign policy narrative of reshaping the world in the U.S. image, he continued.
  • Multilateral Focus: The Obama administration has emphasized the value of multilateralism in democracy support. It has reached out to rising democratic powers like Brazil and India and introduced new initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership and dialogues with civil society, said Carothers. Weinstein contended that this approach forms the basis of a new strategic narrative based on modernizing the international system to confront collective challenges. 
  • Democracy and Development: The Obama administration has helped position democracy within a larger development policy, as evidenced by the release of the first Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development and institutional reforms within USAID, said Carothers.

Responding to the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring presented the Obama administration with its most high profile and challenging democracy test, and its response has been mixed:

  • Overall Response: The administration has pursued a divided policy in the Arab world, supporting democracy where political change has occurred while maintaining friendships with Arab monarchs, said Carothers. Kramer agreed, arguing that the administration has not fully taken advantage of the historic moment. Weinstein accepted that Washington could have done more but underlined that it has not resisted change in the Arab world and has accepted victories by Islamists in elections.
  • Egypt: The U.S. government needs to put more pressure on the Egyptian military to halt antidemocratic practices, particularly attacks on civil society, agreed the panelists. Kramer noted that some U.S. officials, such as Ambassador Anne Patterson and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, have been very helpful on democracy while Weinstein emphasized the importance of U.S. engagement with the military in the early phases of the transition. 
  • Libya: The Obama administration’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya was an important pro-democratic step, the speakers agreed. Weinstein added that the decision to intervene was not simply humanitarian and reflected recognition that allowing Muammar Qaddafi to suppress the rebellion in Libya would have negative consequences for democracy throughout the region.
  • Monarchies: The administration has pursued a business-as-usual approach toward the Arab monarchies, Carothers argued, failing to use the leverage it has in Jordan and Morocco to push for further reform and doing little to stop repression in Bahrain. It is dangerous for the administration to presume that it has figured out which autocrats are stable and which are not, Weinstein added.

U.S. Democracy Policy Moving Forward

Regardless of who occupies the White House in 2013, U.S. democracy policy will need to tackle several key issues:

  • In Search of a Narrative: The absence of a transformational narrative changes the place of democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, said Carothers, but that is not a bad thing. Democracy policy is in fact more about various small efforts and initiatives than grand foreign policy visions, he stated. Kramer took a different view, contending that the Arab Spring could be the basis for a new transformational narrative.
  • New Actors: Democracy support is no longer a project just of Western democracies. Weinstein stressed the increasingly important role of rising democracies like Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa as well as of regional organizations such as the Organization of American States, the Arab League, and the Economic Community of West African States in addressing human rights and democracy issues.
  • Balancing Democracy Support with Other Interests: While the U.S. will always have to weigh support for democracy alongside other interests, Kramer argued that Washington can nevertheless find ways to incorporate democracy and human rights within all its relationships. Weinstein suggested taking steps to tie the hands of future administrations in positive, pro-democratic ways by further institutionalizing democracy support mechanisms. He suggested a role for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which has a democracy mandate, in the Arab world and added that Congress can help force administrations to live up to democratic principles.