Where is the Obama administration heading when it comes to foreign policy – and particularly where does it stand on democracy promotion and support? On the campaign trail, the new President repeatedly emphasized his intention to expand U.S. diplomacy while buttressing the size and capabilities of the military. He stressed the interconnectedness of national security and economic issues.
Susan Rice, who served as a senior foreign policy adviser to Obama during the campaign and now will be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, outlined an ambitious global agenda -- "to prevent conflict, to promote peace, combat terrorism, prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, tackle climate change, end genocide, fight poverty and disease." But she didn’t mention developing democracy.
Of major significance, during her testimony to the Senate during her confirmation hearings, Hillary Clinton, the new Secretary of State, said Obama foreign policy would be based on three pillars – diplomacy, development and defense. No mention then of democracy. Likewise, at a question-and-answer session in February with staff at the State Department, democracy promotion was also absent.
In fact, only when it comes to Cuba, does Hillary Clinton mention democracy. On Cuba she has said: “Our policy is, first and foremost, about the freedom of the Cuban people and the bringing of democracy to the island…”
How are we to interpret the absence of democracy promotion and support in what top Obama officials say when they are outlining the foreign-policy goals of the new administration? Are we seeing a retreat from assisting the development of democracy? Recently, the Financial Times suggested that might be the case. But it is probably too early to make that determination: it is not clear that the administration has made up its mind.
With key positions at State and in the NSC unfilled, it is hard to plot the trend lines. It may well be that foreign-policy aides agree with Tom Carothers over at the Carnegie Endowment that democracy assistance needs to be rebranded in the wake of the Bush administration. What we might be seeing is a rhetorical tilt as opposed to a shift in substance, and the dropping of democracy as one of the pillars of foreign policy may just be a way of establishing some distance from the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush.
Engagement is certainly at the center of the thinking of both Clinton and Rice. On Africa, for example, Rice has been a strong advocate of intervention. In the past she has voiced a commitment to use American muscle to protect human rights in Africa, particularly in Darfur. She was critical of the lack of intervention in Rwanda and told the Stanford University’s alumni magazine after a 1994 trip to the country: “It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen. It makes you mad. It makes you determined.”
And both Clinton and Rice share a commitment to multilateralism – a promising sign.
Clearly, though, there is a major re-think going on. Afghanistan is a central issue in that re-think. Reportedly, there are some in the administration who argue state institutions there should be strengthened and democracy downplayed. The British are said to be arguing that democracy should be taking second place.
As the reassessment continues, the democracy and governance community must get its voice heard and explain clearly the interconnectedness of democracy, good governance, security and economic development.
By Jamie Dettmer, Director of Communications and Advocacy