Is it just a coincidence that at the same time as the Obama administration seems less worried about democracy than deal-making overseas, Russia and China are both cracking down on press freedoms and democracy, Vladimir Putin is ruthlessly seeking to reabsorb Ukraine into the Kremlin's orbit, Egyptian democrats have retreated into virtual silence, and the Syrian secular opposition is fading away fast?
No, it's probably not a coincidence. Democratic progress around the world is, if not exactly in reversal, then certainly stuck in a kind of self-doubting stasis. And the relative realpolitik from Washington—the downgrading of the democracy agenda in U.S. foreign policy—is very likely encouraging antidemocratic attitudes in world capitals that thrive on smothering dissent. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his relentless efforts to head off greater crises in the Middle East, East Asia, and South and Central Asia, is finding common ground with dictators and autocrats right and left, especially in Moscow and Beijing. He knows he needs China and Russia to present a united front on Iran and Syria, just as he needs them to back his flagging Mideast peace efforts.
Both Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the twin pillars of Obama's second-term national security team, would heatedly deny that they are shying away from the democracy agenda, of course. Kerry last week expressed his "disgust" with the crackdown on pro-Western demonstrators by President Viktor Yanukovich, to whom Putin has offered $15 billion in credits and a price break on Russian gas supplies in exchange for Ukrainian fealty to Moscow rather than the European Union. Kerry also sent Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to mediate (and, apparently, hand out biscuits). Rice, in a recent speech at the Human Rights First Annual Summit, bluntly criticized both Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. She said that Russia has engaged in "systematic efforts to curtail the actions of Russian civil society," stigmatized the lesbian and gay community in Russia, and coerced neighbors such as Ukraine. Rice also condemned as "shortsighted" China's policy of increasing restrictions on the Chinese people's "freedoms of expression, assembly, and association."
Still, it was striking to see Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., addressing the Kiev throngs by microphone last weekend while no one more senior than Nuland was present from the administration, and the most strenuous action she took was to proffer bread.
To be fair, the old fight for democracy is not what it once was in the glory days after the collapse of the USSR. Everything looks a lot grayer now. The protests in Maidan Square are just as nationalistic as they are freedom-loving, and it is almost as difficult to embrace some of their leaders, such as Oleg Tyagnibok of the nationalist party Svoboda, who has made anti-Semitic comments, as it is to welcome the anti-American jihadist groups fighting Bashar al-Assad into the ranks of America's democratic allies.
Still, critics have accused Obama of habitually shirking the democratic agenda, especially since the start of the Arab Spring at the beginning of 2011. "From his first days in office, President Obama has seemed unsure of the role that American power and principles should play around the world," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a prospective candidate for the 2016 GOP nomination, said in a speech last month. The neoconservative-leaning Washington Post editorial page again castigated Obama this week for doing far too little to avert Syria's horrific and almost intractable situation: "It's impossible to know what U.S. leadership could have achieved, but it's hard to imagine a more frightful outcome," The Post said.
All of it is a reminder that the conversion of the world to democracy has never been an inevitable process. It needs helping along, and it's not getting much of it now. China and Russia both feel free to do their own thing, and they're not much worried about countervailing forces. Democracy is in retreat, and Putin and Xi can crack down with relative impunity. It's hard to imagine anything on the horizon that could stop them.
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