Obama’s freedom agenda?

Obama’s freedom agenda?

Barack Obama’s new Administration should adopt a more modest approach to promoting democracy, one that realizes that nurturing democratic institutions is an “extremely long-term process that, ultimately, is the responsibility of the peoples and leaders of the countries that it’s attempting to assist.”

“A realistic policy of democracy promotion would recognize that there are inherent limits to what outsiders can accomplish by themselves in transforming the governance structures and political systems of foreign countries,” argues Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its program on Institutions and Global Governance. “The next administration should continue to promote democracy in other countries, but it should do so in a slightly less hectoring and more low profile way.”

“A fragile state is one that cannot meet the functions that one associates with state sovereignty,” he says, drawing on his research at the Center for Global Development. Patrick recommends greater collaboration with other democratic actors and a sharper focus on governance, rule of law and other non-electoral aspects of democratization.

Democracy assistance “needs to be more of a multilateral undertaking, rather than a ‘Made in the USA’ enterprise,” Patrick suggests. “In some cases the United States has been too quick to try to promote very rapid elections. And in highly divided societies – particularly ones vulnerable to conflict or just emerging from conflict – a monomaniacal focus on elections in and of themselves can be highly destabilizing,” he maintains.

Such recommendations are likely to be well-received in the new Administration. The Obama-Biden policy platform expresses a commitment to build the capacity of weak states and to “join with our democratic partners around the world to meet common security challenges and uphold our shared values whenever they are threatened by autocratic practices, coups, human rights abuses or genocide.”

There is unlikely to be any significant shift away from a strategic commitment to promoting democracy although policy documents suggest a lighter government footprint. The Obama-Biden platform insists that the U.S. “should help build strong legislatures, responsible political parties, free presses, and vibrant civil societies, stand with struggling democrats as they denounce elections that are not free or fair, so that flawed elections can no longer be used to legitimize authoritarian rule in places like Russia, Zimbabwe, and Azerbaijan.”

The new Administration is committed to increasing funding for struggling democrats abroad, expressing a policy preference channeling “most support for democratic activists living under the most repressive regimes through independent institutions, committed to supporting democrats but free from perceptions of questionable or ulterior motives.” In this respect, Obama has stated that his Administration will “significantly increase funding” for democracy assistance organizations that “support civic activists in repressive societies.”

Patrick’s CFR colleague Steven A. Cook predicts a retrenchment of US power in the Middle East, suggesting that resource constraints will lead to a further scaling back of the Middle East freedom agenda.  The Bush Administration helped open up political space in the Arab world, Cook concedes. But he insists that the US is unable to resolve the dilemma of protecting its short- and medium-term interests from the turbulence that would precede the emergence of consolidated democracy in the region.

But some previously skeptical actors in the region are hopeful that the new Administration will still support Arab liberals. “I am asking Mr Obama that … at least the American policy should abstain from supporting dictatorships that obstruct the way of change,” said an activist with Egypt’s Kifaya protest movement.

Barack Obama’s electoral victory may even prompt others to question the conspiracy theories and jaundiced perceptions of democracy prevalent throughout the region.  ”Let me tell you that now I believe in American democracy,” said an Iranian citizen. “Honestly, I did not think that Obama would be president. I thought that the invisible hands of the big trusts and cartels would not allow a black man to be president of the United States.”