Democracy-promotion: doctrine vs dialogue

About the author

Mariano Aguirre is Managing Director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF), Oslo

Did the former United States president, George W Bush, promote democracy better than his successor, Barack Obama, is doing? The question is given added point by recent criticism of Obama in both the United States and Europe on two grounds: his failure to condemn the Egyptian government in his address to the Arab and Muslim worlds in Cairo on 4 June 2009, and his reticence in relation to the protest-wave in Iran following the controversial election of 12 June.

Mariano Aguirre is director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre (NOREF) in Oslo. He is a fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam; former coordinator of peace, security and human-rights issues at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), in Madrid; former director of the Peace Research Center (CIP), Madrid; and former programme officer at the Ford Foundation in New York

A version of this article was published in La Vanguardia (Barcelona) on 7 July 2009

Among Mariano Aguirre's articles in openDemocracy:

"America underneath New York" (18 November 2004)

"The many cities of Buenos Aires" (16 February 2005)

"The Hurricane and the Empire" (5 September 2005)

"Spain's 11-M and the right's revenge" (10 March 2006)

"Bolivia: the challenges to state reform" (15 September 2006) - with Isabel Moreno

"Power and paradox in the United Nations" (7 November 2006)

"Mercenaries and the new configuration of world violence" (16 October 2007)

"Haiti: unravelling the knot" (2 September 2008) - with Amélie Gauthier

"Barack Obama and Afghanistan: a closer look" (8 April 2009)

"Torture: America's policy, Europe's shame" (17 June 2009) - with Jan Egeland
The argument in support of the proposition goes like this. Bush made mistakes, notably the Iraq war, and used mistaken means; but his goals were right, and he was a genuine advocate of democracy. The speech in Cairo in June 2005 by his second-term secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, in which she criticised authoritarian regimes in the region, is often cited as evidence of the Bush administration's commitment to democracy.

The Obama administration's position was formally presented by his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, at her Senate confirmation hearing on 13 January 2009. There, she indicated that the new government's priorities were to protect and advance America's security; keep its allies secure; promote shared prosperity for the US and other countries; and protect human rights. The use of diplomacy and development to pursue these objectives was emphasised. The fact that democracy-promotion was not mentioned disappointed some European and American observers - and especially irritated neo-conservatives who believe that the west has a mission to redeem peoples, especially the Arabs, from their repressive governments.

A landmark stance

For George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice, democracy-promotion was linked to the "war on terror". In their understanding it mirrored the situation during the cold war when democracy and anti-communism were considered one and the same thing. The logical implication is that to break with (or at least create a distance from) the war on terror involves a disengagement from the rhetorical promotion of democracy.

In this light, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's position could become a landmark in US foreign policy. Until recently, Washington supported any sort of regime as long as it served US interests. Now Washington has combined a statement that it does not want to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries with the adoption of a critical attitude towards repressive governments.

The argument that the George W Bush administration was more coherent in its defence of democracy than its successor is misleading. Condoleezza Rice criticised dictatorships in 2005, including her Egyptian hosts, and then forgot about democracy. The Arab world remembers that the Washington encouraged people in the region to rebel and subsequently abandoned them, just as it urged the Palestinians to vote but boycotted Hamas after the movement won the elections in January 2006.

True, there have been indications of policy shifts since the mid-years of the current decade. For example, Washington has adopted a cautious stance towards moderate social democracies in Latin America that are rhetorically critical of the US. This can be attributed to at least three factors: the regional dimension of the US's global loss of power (including the rise of regional powers and organisations); the fact that that some countries have succeeded in establishing a social-democratic and independent path while avoiding Hugo Chávez-style demagogy; and the broader trend that the spread of democratic electoral processes has undermined the legitimacy of external interference in domestic affairs.

A changing dynamic

But two more immediate and significant political judgments underlie Barack Obama's restrained reaction to events in Iran: support for civil society and respect for sovereignty. First, the president criticised the Iranian government for its repression, and supported society by recalling the fight for civil rights in the United States; this political nuance was more effective than the rhetoric of democracy-promotion. Second, he insisted on not interfering in Iran's domestic politics; Iranians strongly resent such interference from abroad (in respect of Russia and Britain, as former occupying powers; and of the United States since its role in the coup of 1953 and later support for the Shah).

Any explicit support by Obama for Mir-Hossein Moussavi would have provided the Iranian government with the pretext for imprisoning him as a traitor. The thousands of Iranians who took to the streets have displayed enormous common sense in not calling on the United States to offer its backing. Yet if the US has been cautions on Iran, the White House has crossed a critical line by stating that Israel is "occupying" Palestine and demanding that Israel halt the settlements. This has provided a twofold endorsement for the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state.

For too long the US and Europe have indulged in the hypocrisy of flying the standard of democracy and human rights while supporting the likes of Augusto Pinochet and Mobutu Sese Seko. It is important that Washington and Europe begin to recognise that democracy is built by local actors and is not promoted from outside. The president should proclaim non-interference while placing the spotlight on dialogue and human rights. Dialogue and negotiation with dictators over public liberties or nuclear proliferation is far more difficult than comfortably promoting democracy as an abstract principle.

Obama might fail; there are many forces ranged in opposition to him. But since he offered dialogue with the Arab world instead of preventive wars, there have been unexpected consequences: the election results in Lebanon, renewed willingness by Hamas to negotiate, and unprecedented pressure by Washington on Israel. In Iran, thousands of people have demonstrated peacefully in the streets, despite the repression.

All this reveals that political change has begun in the region. Even on the principle that the Bush administration sought to make its own, Obama's leadership is showing itself more effective.

This article is translated from Spanish by Fionnuala Ni Eigeartaigh

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy(CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009)

Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009)

Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu, "The gender of democracy matters" (7 April 2009)

Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to choose" (9 April 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east" (22 April 2009)

Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making" (28 April 2009)

Achin Vanaik, "Capitalism and democracy" (29 April 2009)

Anna Lekvall, "Democracy and aid: the missing links" (13 May 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy: response to Shadi Hamid" (15 May 2009)

Keith Brown, "Democracy on the ground: apathy, community and civil society" (25 May 2009)