David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House, where Arch Puddington is vice president for research.
As he develops his second-term foreign policy agenda, President Obama should include a prudently implemented strategy to expand freedom’s reach to those parts of the globe where fear and repression prevail. By embracing support for freedom, the president would advance American interests and burnish his legacy as a leader who achieved major change for the United States and the world.
To date, the president has been uneven on the exercise of U.S. power to promote democratic change. Obama spoke eloquently at the State Department and at the United Nations last year about the vital role democracy plays in a peaceful world. After the Arab movements began, he recognized that the embrace of democracy by Arab societies is essential to the development of peace and prosperity in the region. During the 2012 campaign, Obama repeatedly declared his commitment to the cause of global freedom.
On the other hand, Obama’s conviction that he could find ways to forge productive, “win-win” relations with enemies of freedom led to the “reset” initiative with Russia that included playing down the rampant violation of democratic standards and human rights under Vladimir Putin and ignoring the pleas of Iran’s beleaguered Green Movement in 2009. Obama administration officials seemed to believe, at least initially, that the burden of pressuring authoritarian regimes to change should not be shouldered entirely by the United States, and they looked to regional powers such as Brazil or South Africa to take on human rights and democracy challenges. Shifting the burden has not worked. We have learned, rather, that if the United States does not take the lead in pressuring repressive powers, the job won’t get done.
While the president has often characterized himself as a foreign policy realist, experience has shown that the support of freedom and the national interest are often mutually reinforcing. Here are policy challenges where the administration’s support of democratic principles could make a difference:
●China. China has one of the world’s largest populations of political prisoners and leads the world in developing sophisticated methods of censorship. With a new leadership taking control in Beijing at a time of growing labor, ethnic and social unrest, now is the time to remind those in authority that a government’s global reputation is earned through respect for freedom of thought and free institutions; to press China publicly to release political prisoners; to speak out when Beijing extends its methods of control beyond its borders; and to insist that international human rights bodies stop ignoring China’s repressive domestic practices.
●Russia. Putin has displayed his contempt for American ideals, and the rights of Russia’s citizens, in myriad ways. Confronted with domestic opposition — against whom he launched a brutal crackdown — Putin accused Washington of bankrolling regime change and expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development. Facing a decline in popularity, he further marginalized independent media, including U.S. broadcasting services. Abroad, Russia unapologetically backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, contributing to a death toll approaching 40,000, as well as Belarusan dictator Alexander Lukashenko. The Obama administration should demonstrate its revulsion by supporting sanctions on Russian officials responsible for gross human rights abuses, which the House passed Nov. 16. The president should also have regular contact with forward-looking members of the opposition and beef up U.S. foreign broadcasting, especially as Putin tries to tighten the flow of information on TV and the Internet.
●Syria. Last year, the administration properly joined the campaign to prevent an atrocity in Libya through enforcement of a no-fly zone. If the president is serious about avoiding a repeat of the kinds of atrocities that Rwanda and Bosnia endured, he should rethink his hands-off approach toward Syria by instituting a no-fly zone and more active support for liberal-minded figures among the anti-Assad opposition.
After Hillary Clinton steps down, the president should appoint a secretary of state with a record of support for human rights and democracy promotion. He should name officials with a commitment to human rights to high positions in his foreign policy apparatus and see to it that officials responsible for democracy policy are visible, outspoken and influential within the policy bureaucracy. He should direct that agencies responsible for foreign-assistance decisions prioritize democracy criteria. Finally, Obama should set an example by speaking out about freedom’s essential role in a peaceful world, denouncing those responsible for acts of repression and meeting regularly with those engaged in the daily struggle for freedom.
Incorporating a serious democracy initiative as a major element in U.S. foreign policy is critical when anti-democratic forces are acting with growing brazenness and disdain for world opinion. Such an initiative would mark a change in course for Obama but could enhance his historical reputation. After all, those presidents who fought the forces of tyranny — FDR, Truman, Reagan — are remembered as among the greatest of our national leaders.