By Fred Hiatt
Monday, October 4, 2010; A17
After enjoying a good run in the 1980s and 1990s, democracy has been playing defense lately. Dictators have grown wise to people power. China, Russia, Iran and Cuba have been more successful exporting and extolling their systems than democracies have been in promoting theirs.
In his first two years, President Obama seemed only sporadically attuned to this negative shift. In Cairo, Oslo and elsewhere, he spoke powerfully about freedom, dignity and democracy. But democratic allies felt that his focus was on improving relations with authoritarian powers, while democracy activists felt there was always some priority higher than theirs: nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, climate change.
Then a couple of weeks ago, in his second annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama declared that "freedom, justice and peace in the lives of individual human beings" are, for the United States, "a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity."
"So we stand up for universal values because it's the right thing to do," the president said. "But we also know from experience that those who defend these values for their people have been our closest friends and allies, while those who have denied those rights -- whether terrorist groups or tyrannical governments -- have chosen to be our adversaries."
Most interestingly, Obama appealed to younger democracies to incorporate their values into their foreign policy, too.
"Recall your own history," he urged them. "Because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others."
Behind that appeal is a frustration with countries such as Brazil that, even as they evolve democratically, retain a dictator-tolerant worldview. India, an older democracy but an emerging power, rolls out the red carpet for Burma's strongman; South Africa indulges the depredations of Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe.
Obama soon will embark on a trip through Asia designed in part to put meat on the bones of his new rhetoric. He will visit the democracy success stories of India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan; he will announce grants for nongovernmental organizations that the administration hopes will flower into the kind of domestic lobbies that can push their own governments to promote democracy abroad.
Ultimately, other nations will test Obama's actions against his words. Democracy promotion must always compete with other core interests in American foreign policy, but if freedom is, as he said, a "pragmatic necessity," then there have to be times when it takes precedence over those other interests.
It's hard to find such examples in his first two years. The administration criticized the narrowing of freedom in Russia, but cooperation on Iran was a higher priority. It chided Hosni Mubarak for choking civil society in Egypt, but the autocrat's cooperation on Israel-Palestine mattered more.
Sadly, in fact, it seemed fellow democracies often paid a higher price for real or supposed human-rights failings: Colombia, for example, where human rights was the excuse for not promoting a free-trade agreement.
If Obama's speech signals a genuine shift, we will see the administration insist on election monitors in Egypt or withhold aid if Mubarak says no. It will wield real tools -- visa bans, bank account seizures -- to sanction human-rights abusers in Russia and China. It will not only claim to support a U.N. inquiry into Burma's crimes against humanity but will call in chits from friends in Thailand, Singapore or India to make such an inquiry happen.
And maybe the administration will stop sabotaging Obama's message on his most active foreign policy front: the war in Afghanistan. There, in its almost aggressive insistence that the war is about protecting the U.S. homeland -- and only about protecting the U.S. homeland -- the administration undercuts its claim to be a champion of "universal values."
U.S. security can be the only justification for risking American lives abroad. But "standing up for the freedom of others," to quote the president again, has always been part of why Americans fight.
The world sees that Afghans and Pakistanis suffer most from this war and that Afghans, especially Afghan women, will suffer most if the war is lost.
So when the White House derisively proclaims that Afghanistan will never be a true democracy, when it almost proudly insists that the war has nothing to do with Afghanistan's freedom and everything to do with destroying al-Qaeda and protecting New York -- it powerfully, and needlessly, wounds Obama's message.