Support, Don’t Promote, Democracy Abroad

The debate rages over what and how much world leaders and other senior officials should and should not say in public about the actions and policies of countries other than their own.  Prominently debated is whether the leaders of democratic regimes should chastise others for failure to observe basic human rights regardless of the consequences in economic, political or even military terms.  Naked domestic expediency aside, there is a respectable philosophical argument to the effect that a democratically elected leader should not shrink from openly expressing the political beliefs of his electorate in the interests of making friends or striking profitable deals with autocratic regimes; A respectable, but rarely productive, philosophy. The end result should be measured by the progress of democracy and the safe-guarding of peace and security. How to achieve this desirable result is of crucial importance.

Retired Ambassador and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman has provided food for thought in an article dated October 18, 2010 (accessible on-line at In essence, Grossman argues persuasively that the United States, for maximum effectiveness, should support rather than promote democracy, or political and economic pluralism, abroad.  This is a practical, not an ideological, proposition. This approach takes a preference for democracy for granted and focuses instead on to get there:  “Supporting democracy requires a nuanced, long-term approach that includes encouraging the rule of law, institution-building and basic pluralism as precursors to democracy.”  Up-front promotion of democracy, on the other hand, brings resistance, defensiveness or outright rejection and, justifiably or not, charges of hypocrisy.  Grossman approvingly quotes an Atlantic Council report of 2008, as follows:  “America’s role should be to stand behind, not in front of, democracy movements.”  He chooses not to comment on the foolishness of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s launch of “transformational diplomacy” and its goal of putting American diplomats out in the provinces to stir up local opposition to undemocratic rule in the capital.  (She apparently did not stop to wonder whether those undemocratic rulers might, as is their right, object to and disallow such activity.)

On the first stop of a visit to India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea,  American President Barrack Obama on November 8 told the Indian Parliament that the United States will back India in its bid to occupy a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council when and if additional seats are created. A friendly gesture to an appreciative audience representing the world’s largest democracy, the pledge, as could have been foreseen, has already antagonized others along the route for varying reasons:  China, already a permanent member of the UNSC and opposed to India’s candidacy; Pakistan, India’s long-time sworn enemy; and Japan, an established democracy but also a competitor for that prospective UNSC seat.  Neither China nor Pakistan qualifies as a democracy, neither is on Obama’s itinerary, and both surely resent the implied American criticism of their own, home-grown system of government.  In the very short term, one wonders whether Obama considered the November 10 G-20 meeting and the potential for Chinese trouble-making with respect to U.S. monetary problems and policies.  Did Obama’s public nod to Indian democracy, under no particular challenge from within, outweigh American interest in good relations with, and the eventual growth of democratic institutions in those other two highly strategic countries?  Even if no provocation was intended, was that nod necessary given other obvious objectives related to U.S. national security

As British Prime Minister David Cameron was about to land in China with some forty business executives in tow, The Independent on November 8, after acknowledging the importance of trade for the United Kingdom, opined:  “It would be refreshing to hear some plain speaking from a British Prime Minister on human rights….It would be unconscionable for Mr. Cameron to drum up more trade while playing down China’s egregious violations of human rights.”

One day earlier, The Guardian’s “Editors’ Choice” was a plea for freedom by human rights activist Ai Weiwei, under house arrest.  (Having gotten its rocks off, the paper had to admit in a foot-note that Weiwei was to be released that very day.)  On November 10, Cameron openly lectured the Chinese authorities about the need for political reform in an appearance at Peking University, claiming that he was not lecturing but simply doing what the British people would expect him to do.  We do not know how those business executives made out, but we can be certain that the British scored no points in China concerning human rights.

A week earlier, November 3-5, Chinese President Hu Jintao paid a state visit to France to the usual fanfare, flags and banquets.  Cultural exchange was prominently on the agenda, with an agreement covering bilateral cooperation at the technical level for the conservation and restoration of works of art.  But the visit was also clearly and unapologetically about business, witness the sale over time of French aircraft to the tune of $14 billion, French uranium at $3.5 billion, and other French products that brought the total to $22.8 billion.  (Huffington Post, November 4th.)   With no specific mention of democracy or human rights, the two sides exchanged clear but non-provocative statements.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted as follows:  “The world is confidently waiting for China to take on all the responsibilities that accompany its rediscovered power.”  And, when questioned by the press about human rights in China, Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying had this to say:  “We don’t criticize your political system.  It’s up to you to improve it.  Our regime has its own problems.  We’re not perfect.  That’s why we are going forward with reform.”

The subject is about enhancing security with the help of careful and intelligent diplomacy at all levels, both public and private, while supporting the development of political and economic pluralism throughout the world.  According to the on-line journal China Daily of November 6, President Hu Jintao wants France to play an active role in promoting practical cooperation between China and the European Union.  The success of France and some other EU members in bringing China and Russia into closer communication and cooperation with the western world cannot help but lead to greater democracy and respect for human rights in those countries.  In every way, American interests, including national security, are well-served in the bargain.

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