Will democracy “medal” in the Obama administration after all?

Robert Kagan argues that President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech signals that “the world had better get ready for a tougher, less forgiving, more quintessentially American approach from a man who certainly gave the soft touch a try.” Kagan sees the speech as a turning point not just with respect to Afghanistan policy, but also in Iran policy and, more generally, democracy promotion. Kagan suggests that Obama has revised his overall approach to the world based on the reality he encountered during his first year of dealing with the likes of Russia, China, and Iran.
Kagan may be right. However, I suspect that the tone and content of the Oslo speech was mainly the product of political reality. Obama knew that most Americans, even those who support him, don’t believe he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Under these circumstances, it would have been daft for Obama to have accepted the prize with a speech in which he played to the anti-American prejudices of the lefty foreigners who awarded it to him. To me, the speech signals the end of Obama’s surprisingly tone-deaf rhetoric on foreign policy. Whether it signals anything more remains to be seen.
If Obama actually has re-evaluated his approach to democracy promotion, he has much work to do, as this piece by Joshua Kurlantzick makes clear. The Obama administration was barely able to speak in support of Iranian dissidents last summer. It has cut funding to independent groups promoting democracy in Egypt. It has de-emphasized human rights abuses in Sudan as it deals more closely with a regime whose leader is under indictment by the International Criminal Court. It has called for direct dialogue with the Burmese junta.
Moreover, during his recent trip to China, the president was essentially silent on the subject of human rights. And he refused to meet even privately with the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan leader was in Washington.
These developments are consistent with life inside the Obama bureaucracy. The Bush administration established a deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy. According to Kurlantzick, the Obama administration’s National Security Council has explicitly downgraded the role of democracy specialists.
Perhaps most revealingly of all, when Secretary of State Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year, she spoke of three “Ds” that animate the administration’s concept of global leadership. They were defense, development, and diplomacy. In this administration, then, “democracy” does not even “medal” within its own letter. I’d like its chances better on Sesame Street.
Perhaps all of this is about to change. But I’ll believe it when I see it.


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