The Magazine

The People’s Choice

Democracy is no priority for Barack Obama.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By ELLEN BORK
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Advancing Democracy Abroad

The People’s Choice

Why We Should and How We Can
by Michael McFaul
Rowman & Littlefield, 304 pp., $27.95

Ronald Reagan campaigned for election on the distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, arguing that the United States could tolerate the latter. Once in office, however, he supported democratic transitions in several authoritarian allies. 

His shift may have had something to do with the influence of a few senior officials: In 1981, Elliott Abrams, then an assistant secretary of state, drafted a memo arguing that effective opposition to the Soviets required Washington to clearly distinguish itself from Moscow on human rights, a position that led to support for the left-of-center government of El Salvador’s Jose Napoleon Duarte in addition to a tough anti-Communist line against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Later, Secretary of State George Shultz and other officials persuaded Reagan to withdraw U.S. backing for the Philippine dictator
Ferdinand Marcos after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino and the fraudulent 1986 election. Shultz’s memoirs reveal that although Reagan was reluctant to abandon Marcos, a Cold War ally who hosted American naval bases, the president decided not only that Marcos had to go but that the United States had to support a democratic transition, not another dictator.

If democracy and human rights becomes a priority for the Obama administration, it may be because of the influence in internal debates of Michael McFaul, senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council staff. In his new book McFaul makes an unapologetic case for democracy and takes on the “renaissance” of realists and their perennial claims about how supporting democracy hurts American interests. “They are wrong,” he says flatly of their arguments that democracy can only be achieved after a certain level of economic development has been reached, that democratic transitions cause instability and conflict, and that democracy opens the door to radical, undemocratic forces.  McFaul shows these arguments to be overstated, empirically false, and generally specious.  

Unfortunately, the moral and practical value of democracy to American interests that McFaul establishes isn’t enough to determine policy. For the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama has been intent upon distancing himself from his predecessor, deriding (if indirectly) George W. Bush’s democracy efforts. Democracy, Obama has said, is “one of our best exports if it is not exported simply down the barrel of a gun.” Fortunately, despite his own criticism of Bush, McFaul understands that the case for democracy is bigger than any one administration’s failings. “Short term, knee jerk reactions against Bush,” he writes, “could produce long term negative strategic consequences for American national interests. Those fighting tyranny and seeking to advance democracy around the world also would suffer.” Officials must “remember the moral, security, and economic interest the United States has in promoting democracy, and then look for ways to pursue this policy objective more effectively.” 

Effectiveness, however, does not mean obfuscation, and here, McFaul is at odds with Hillary Clinton and other State Department officials who repeatedly omit the word “democracy” from statements of administration objectives, or talk about “reframing it within a development context.”

Shying away from the “d” word in favor of more euphemistic phrases like “good governance” or “human dignity” would send a terrible signal to the activists around the world fighting for human rights and democratic change. 

Before joining the Obama administration McFaul was a political scientist and expert in democracy promotion at Stanford. The views he developed in academia, and in working on democracy programs in Moscow in the early 1990s, run counter to the entrenched attitudes among foreign policy elites. For example, McFaul argues that an evolving attitude toward sovereignty supports rather than discourages pushing for democracy in other countries. “When the United States provides billions of dollars in aid over several decades to prop up the Egyptian dictatorship,” he asserts, “the sovereignty of the Egyptian people is being violated.” He also questions the reflexive quest for “stability” that favors dictatorships, as well as the idea that a posture of “noninterference” in other countries is possible or desirable. The majority of people do not wish to live in a dictatorship: “Which policy is more imperial,” he asks, “one that supports the aspirations of a people, or one that shores up the power of a dictator?”

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