Obama Bears Some Blame for Crackdowns in Russia and China

The president values deal-making over democracy, and that’s only emboldened Moscow and Beijing.

China's Vice President Li Yuanchao (R) shales hands with US President Barack Obama (L) during South African former president Nelson Mandela's memorial service at the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013. Mandela, the revered icon of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and one of the towering political figures of the 20th century, died in Johannesburg on December 5 at age 95. 
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Dec. 18, 2013, 10:11 a.m.

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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