Across the aisle and across the Atlantic, a consensus on democracy
AUSTIN, Texas -- By most objective measures, the Obama administration has experienced a rough few weeks. The substantial Democratic losses in the midterm elections were followed by an Asia trip of mixed reviews, with its final days dominated by a visible setback on the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement and G-20 discord on global economic imbalances. While the various differences between the Republicans in Congress, the Obama administration, and the other G-20 countries are real, they should not distort the fact that genuine cooperation is possible – and, in fact, needed – on strategic issues.
Democracy promotion presents one such opportunity. In fact, a confluence of several factors may be heralding a propitious time for a renewed transatlantic partnership on global democracy promotion. At first glance this might not be apparent. In Washington, the first two years of the Obama administration saw democracy promotion relegated to the periphery of policy priorities, and the Republican gains in Congress have significantly eroded the White House’s political capital while also bringing a more acute focus on domestic economic issues. In Europe, tightened fiscal straits have curtailed budget resources available for international endeavors, and public fatigue with overseas engagements – exemplified by reduced public support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan – has diminished the political will for democracy promotion. So what is the basis for this purported opportunity?
First, President Obama himself of late has been rhetorically signaling a new commitment to democracy promotion. Witness his September address to the United Nations General Assembly, where he devoted a substantial portion of his speech to defending democracy and human rights as universal values. He continued this theme in his speeches this month in India and Indonesia, proclaiming in New Delhi that “we must never forget that the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.” Presidential speeches alone do not amount to policy implementation, but they do serve as a guide and mandate for his foreign policy team on follow-up policy priorities. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the fact that emboldened Congressional Republicans will doubtless oppose the Obama administration on many domestic policies, foreign policy represents an area for cooperation. On democracy and human rights promotion, the new Republican leaders and committee chairs in Congress might make surprisingly agreeable partners. For example, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has been a longstanding and indispensable supporter of funding for democracy promotion organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), International Republican Institute (IRI), and National Democratic Institute (NDI). Moreover, Sen. McConnell has a particularly impassioned and enduring commitment to human rights in Burma.
In the House, Representative Kay Granger, an IRI board member, is poised to chair the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, which controls almost the entire democracy and human rights promotion budget across the State Department and USAID. Also in the House, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will chair the Foreign Relations Committee, and she brings a longstanding commitment to human rights and democracy. The time is ripe in Europe as well. Recent headlines on U.S.-Europe ties have focused on neuralgic points in the transatlantic relationship, such as European frustration with U.S. deficit spending, or the reluctance of NATO partners to commit further forces to Afghanistan. Numerous European leaders also privately lament what they perceive as the White House’s general inattention to the United States’ transatlantic allies. Yet on both sides of the Atlantic, there are genuine hopes for renewed cooperation and closer ties.
And the European interest in democracy and human rights remains broad and deep. Witness British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech in China last week with its clear calls for human rights and more accountable government, or French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s vocal support for the Green Movement reformers in Iran, or the widespread acclaim in Europe for the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s award of the Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. A White House-Congress-Europe coalition for democracy promotion would need a few specific initiatives to become a reality. Fortunately, there is no shortage of opportunities. Possible ideas could include: the launch of a joint high-level U.S.-EU-Australia multilateral human rights dialogue with China that replaces the moribund, ineffective slew of bilateral dialogues; the formation of a transatlantic taskforce on global democracy and human rights promotion; reinvigorated support for the Broader Middle East North Africa/Forum for the Future initiative, launched by the G-8 in 2004; renewed commitment to the United Nations Democracy Fund, with U.S.-EU-Indian leadership; deepened U.S./EU commitment to the Community of Democracies, especially with Lithuania chairing the 2011 Ministerial in Vilnius; or a targeted focus on countries in the crucible of political ferment, such as Burma, Lebanon, Iran, and Egypt.
In short, the political opportunity is ripe, and the global needs are acute. A White House-Congress-Europe partnership on democracy promotion could bear substantial dividends over the next two years, and beyond.
William Inboden is a Distinguished Scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin and a Non-Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.