Obama Hasn't Been Developing Democracies' Best Friend

A protester rallies against Russian aggression in the Ukraine in front of the White House on March 6 Photograph by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

As protests roiling developing countries have spiraled into government collapse, general instability, and—in the case of Ukraine, at least—possible war, numerous observers have blamed the Obama administration for its seeming passivity. The White House, on this view, has been both over-tolerant of aggressive autocrats like Vladimir Putin and uninterested in standing up for democracy and human rights. President Obama pursues a “feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,”  Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said last week.

The charge that the Obama White House has been soft on autocracy is hard to make stick. Obama did call for a “reset” in relations with Russia, echoing attempts by George W. Bush and prior presidents to make fresh starts with the Kremlin early in their terms. But the White House has now imposed tough sanctions on Russian leaders. Obama has taken basically the same approach as the Bush administration did to such other autocracies as China and Venezuela, even though his predecessor sometimes hid private conciliation behind tough public condemnations of Chinese or Venezuelan leaders. What’s more, in countries like Venezuela or China, where top leaders can play on anti-U.S. sentiment, harsh public rhetoric from American presidents often backfires, boosting leaders’ popularity.

The claim that this White House has ignored fundamental aspects of promoting democracy holds up better than the notion that the administration is soft on autocrats.

The U.S. is not the reason these developing nations are struggling with democracy. The countries facing serious unrest—Cambodia, Egypt, Venezuela, Thailand—face serious  challenges in having weak institutions, elected leaders who behave like autocrats, and populaces that have become addicted to street protest. The people most important to making these democracies work are their leaders, voters, and activists. But disinterest inside the White House in promoting democracy has exacerbated democracy’s global crisis. With three years left in its term, the Obama administration still has time to try.

Right now, in war zones like Ukraine, the U.S. and other wealthy democracies have no time to think long-term. But in many other developing nations that are struggling to make democracy work, outside assistance could play an important—though not the most important—role. Even in Ukraine, if war is averted and peace restored, the right assistance could help democratically end a decade of chaos that got Kiev where it is today.

For one thing, rich countries can help democrats in the developing world prevent their economies’ growth rates from stagnating or declining. Slowing growth has sparked protests and collapses of democracies around the world, including in Ukraine. Indeed, the Community of Democracies, a global talk shop of democratic governments, has repeatedly warned that economic stagnation is the biggest threat to democracy. Many “elected autocrats,” such as Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, couldn’t have won office had it not been for severe economic downturns that darkened the reputations of more politically and economically liberal politicians in their countries.

It’s easy to write about avoiding stagnation. Every nation in the world, developed or developing, wants to avoid severe economic downturns. But the grave danger of stagnation to emerging democracies’ political survival means that the developed world and its aid organizations must think more carefully about whether economic policies they prescribe are likely to depress developing economies, at least for a time, and thus harm the prospects for democratization.

The White House and other leaders can also help developing nations strengthen their democracies, not just hold elections. As we have seen in Cambodia, Venezuela, and elsewhere, simply holding elections does not make a democracy. But Western leaders usually focus almost exclusively on elections. Donors like the U.S. should recalibrate their funding so that larger percentages of aid for democracy go toward building institutions and less toward organizing and holding votes. To shift funding toward foundations of democracy, donors could shift budgeting for democracy promotion from being renewed annually—at the whims of the faltering U.S. Congress—to being renewed every two or three years, a change some that Scandinavian nations already have made.

American administrations, whether Democratic or Republican, also too often tend to associate reform with one supposedly groundbreaking leader in a developing nation, a democratic “big man.” In rare cases, such a leader exists: Nelson Mandela was not only dedicated to reform but possessed moral authority and enough control of his political party and allies to almost singlehandedly push South Africa through transition. There has been only one Nelson Mandela. When Washington focuses on an all-important figure such as Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, it detracts from broader support for the country’s transition. And when that leader turns out to be less than perfect, as Suu Kyi has—or much more flawed, as Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai has—American officials act like jilted lovers rather than realizing that there are many other people important to building democracy in these countries.

The White House also could work more closely with the emerging democratic giants of the developing world. Brazil, Indonesia, and India will play an outsized role in helping other developing nations to democratize. In Venezuela, Brazil has more influence than the U.S.; in Myanmar, Indonesia could have more influence than America.

Finally—and seemingly paradoxically—rich countries’ leaders should help those in weak and young democracies manage popular expectations of what democracy can actually bring. Part of the problem in young democracies is not merely that citizens have expectations of greater social and political freedoms, many of which they obtain. They often have high expectations that democracy will bring economic equity and an end to corruption—expectations that, in many nations, have not been met. In such young democracies as Ukraine, corruption gets worse for a time. As in a political campaign, then, managing the public’s expectations in the early years of an emerging democracy is critical to maintaining public support and preventing “authoritarian nostalgia,” the public desire for a strongman who might come in and try to restore order.

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