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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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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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