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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?”

McFaul’s idealistic articulation of American responsibility and self interest does not square with the “radical new approach” he recommends for the future. The United States, he argues, should “get out of the way and let others take the lead” by advancing “policies that will enable other governments, non-American NGOs, and international institutions to play a leading role in supporting democratic development.” There should be greater deference to multilateral organizations, including a proposed security organization for the Middle East, modeled after the OSCE, to bring together regimes hostile to each other and democracy itself.

Getting the federal bureaucracy “out of the way” of groups running democracy programs with American funds would be an excellent idea, as anyone who has ever tried to implement an Agency for International Development or State Department democracy grant will tell you. In theory, government funding allows independence from both the U.S. government and hostile regimes for groups such as Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy, and other groups offering political, civil-society, labor, and free-market training and development. The bureaucratic trend, however, is toward more micromanagement and neutralizing programs that dictators find troublesome.  

Yet McFaul is after something much more consequential: devolving American resources for democracy promotion not just away from the American government, but away from America altogether. “Some day,” he writes, “the center of gravity for democracy promotion should move from Washington to New Delhi or from Brussels to Santiago.” Here he seems more in sync with his current boss, whose remarks subtly but clearly reflect a belief that American leadership is in decline. 

McFaul pronounces America’s performance in promoting democracy underwhelming—even while crediting the U.S. role in defeating the Soviet Union, building NATO, and establishing a world financial system. These are manifestations of American leadership, with profound and lasting consequences. At a time when there is a concerted challenge to the idea of democracy from regimes in Russia and China, the United States should not contemplate a retreat from the field. Nor would most overseas democracy activists welcome this. For the foreseeable future, American leadership remains indispensable. That leadership, in turn, depends on officials like Michael McFaul who believe that promoting democracy is in the American national interest, and in the interest of people living under dictatorships.

Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative, managed a State Department human rights grant for Freedom House during 2007-09. 

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