Democracy-promotion: doctrine vs dialogue

16 Julio 2009
George W Bush made democracy-support a central theme of his presidency. Barack Obama, by contrast, has downplayed it. Yet the latter's approach may achieve more effective results.

Did the former United States president, George W Bush, promote democracy better than his successor, Barack Obama, is doing? The question is given added point by recent criticism of Obama in both the United States and Europe on two grounds: his failure to condemn the Egyptian government in his address to the Arab and Muslim worlds in Cairo on 4 June 2009, and his reticence in relation to the protest-wave in Iran following the controversial election of 12 June. The argument in support of the proposition goes like this. Bush made mistakes, notably the Iraq war, and used mistaken means; but his goals were right, and he was a genuine advocate of democracy. The speech in Cairo in June 2005 by his second-term secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, in which she criticised authoritarian regimes in the region, is often cited as evidence of the Bush administration's commitment to democracy. The Obama administration's position was formally presented by his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, at her Senate confirmation hearing on 13 January 2009. There, she indicated that the new government's priorities were to protect and advance America's security; keep its allies secure; promote shared prosperity for the US and other countries; and protect human rights. The use of diplomacy and development to pursue these objectives was emphasised. The fact that democracy-promotion was not mentioned disappointed some European and American observers - and especially irritated neo-conservatives who believe that the west has a mission to redeem peoples, especially the Arabs, from their repressive governments. A landmark stance For George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice, democracy-promotion was linked to the "war on terror". In their understanding it mirrored the situation during the cold war when democracy and anti-communism were considered one and the same thing. The logical implication is that to break with (or at least create a distance from) the war on terror involves a disengagement from the rhetorical promotion of democracy. In this light, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's position could become a landmark in US foreign policy. Until recently, Washington supported any sort of regime as long as it served US interests. Now Washington has combined a statement that it does not want to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries with the adoption of a critical attitude towards repressive governments. The argument that the George W Bush administration was more coherent in its defence of democracy than its successor is misleading. Condoleezza Rice criticised dictatorships in 2005, including her Egyptian hosts, and then forgot about democracy. The Arab world remembers that the Washington encouraged people in the region to rebel and subsequently abandoned them, just as it urged the Palestinians to vote but boycotted Hamas after the movement won the elections in January 2006. True, there have been indications of policy shifts since the mid-years of the current decade. For example, Washington has adopted a cautious stance towards moderate social democracies in Latin America that are rhetorically critical of the US. This can be attributed to at least three factors: the regional dimension of the US's global loss of power (including the rise of regional powers and organisations); the fact that that some countries have succeeded in establishing a social-democratic and independent path while avoiding Hugo Chávez-style demagogy; and the broader trend that the spread of democratic electoral processes has undermined the legitimacy of external interference in domestic affairs. A changing dynamic But two more immediate and significant political judgments underlie Barack Obama's restrained reaction to events in Iran: support for civil society and respect for sovereignty. First, the president criticised the Iranian government for its repression, and supported society by recalling the fight for civil rights in the United States; this political nuance was more effective than the rhetoric of democracy-promotion. Second, he insisted on not interfering in Iran's domestic politics; Iranians strongly resent such interference from abroad (in respect of Russia and Britain, as former occupying powers; and of the United States since its role in the coup of 1953 and later support for the Shah). Any explicit support by Obama for Mir-Hossein Moussavi would have provided the Iranian government with the pretext for imprisoning him as a traitor. The thousands of Iranians who took to the streets have displayed enormous common sense in not calling on the United States to offer its backing. Yet if the US has been cautions on Iran, the White House has crossed a critical line by stating that Israel is "occupying" Palestine and demanding that Israel halt the settlements. This has provided a twofold endorsement for the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state. For too long the US and Europe have indulged in the hypocrisy of flying the standard of democracy and human rights while supporting the likes of Augusto Pinochet and Mobutu Sese Seko. It is important that Washington and Europe begin to recognise that democracy is built by local actors and is not promoted from outside. The president should proclaim non-interference while placing the spotlight on dialogue and human rights. Dialogue and negotiation with dictators over public liberties or nuclear proliferation is far more difficult than comfortably promoting democracy as an abstract principle. Obama might fail; there are many forces ranged in opposition to him. But since he offered dialogue with the Arab world instead of preventive wars, there have been unexpected consequences: the election results in Lebanon, renewed willingness by Hamas to negotiate, and unprecedented pressure by Washington on Israel. In Iran, thousands of people have demonstrated peacefully in the streets, despite the repression. All this reveals that political change has begun in the region. Even on the principle that the Bush administration sought to make its own, Obama's leadership is showing itself more effective. This article is translated from Spanish by Fionnuala Ni Eigeartaigh This article is published by Mariano Aguirre, and under a Creative Commons licence.

Mariano Aguirre is a Fellow of the Transnational Institute and managing director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre.