As he develops his second-term foreign policy agenda, President Barack Obama should aim to expand freedom's reach to those parts of the globe where fear and repression prevail. By embracing support for freedom, he 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 the United Nations last year about the vital role democracy plays in a peaceful world. After the Arab Spring 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 global freedom.
On the other hand, Obama's conviction that he could forge productive relations with enemies of freedom led to the "reset" initiative with Russia that played down the rampant violation of democratic standards and human rights under Vladimir Putin.
Obama administration officials seemed to believe, at least initially, that the burden of pressuring authoritarian regimes shouldn't be shouldered entirely by the United States. They looked to regional powers, such as Brazil or South Africa, to take on human rights challenges. But shifting the burden has not worked. If the United States does not take the lead in pressuring repressive powers, the job won't get done.
The support of freedom and the national interest are often mutually reinforcing. Here's 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 sophisticated methods of censorship. With a new leadership taking control in Beijing, 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; 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, 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. And Russia unapologetically backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, contributing to a death toll approaching 40,000.
The Obama administration should support 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.
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.
Appointments. 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 outspoken and influential.
Obama should speak 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.
David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to global freedom, where Arch Puddington is vice president for research. This is from The Washington Post.