Democracy’s continuing struggles



After the end of the Cold War, experts who closely studied trends in democratization believed that democracy was destined to sweep the globe. But predictions of democratic triumph did not materialize, notes Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Still, the Obama administration has consolidated aid programs for democracy and for governance in many countries, essentially cutting democracy assistance. Meanwhile, the president himself appears reluctant to use the bully pulpit to advocate for rights and freedoms abroad, he writes:

Malaysia is a prime example of the administration’s reticence. Gore had publicly rebuked Kuala Lumpur for its crackdown on protestors. But when Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim faced charges, in 2014, of sodomy in a case that Human Rights Watch called “politically motivated proceedings under an abusive and archaic law,’ the Obama administration said little. Visiting Malaysia in April 2014, Obama declined to meet Anwar, and instead fulsomely praised the Malaysian government, ignoring its growing crackdown on all forms of opposition.

A China win is good for America?

On the other hand, the administration has become so fixated on countering Beijing that it fails to realize that some of the Chinese actions it is fighting do not imperil the United States’ interests, Kurlantzick writes for The Washington Post. Meanwhile, the (largely futile) battle doesn’t just alienate allies. It also takes U.S. diplomats, money and arms away from places that truly matter to the United States. In some places, America would do best let China win, he argues:

The Obama administration has overreacted to these perceived dangers by devoting significant resources to improving ties with mainland Southeast Asian states, several of which have deeply undemocratic or illiberal governments. It has worked hard for rapprochement with Burma, including visits from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama himself. The administration has upgraded defense ties with authoritarian or semi-authoritarian Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, and may soon do so with Burma as well. Obama has built a close personal relationship with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, now in trouble for allegedly taking $600 million from a government fund. …..

Despite China’s growing global influence, its image in many regions, including in Asia, is still weak. In the past decade, its relations with many of its neighbors have soured, largely because of its aggressive claims in disputed coastal waters. The same Pew surveys that found favorable views of China in Africa also showed that negative opinions of China were much higher in Asian nations such as India, the Philippines, Japan and Vietnam, where 74 percent of people had an unfavorable view of China. In Europe, Australia and parts of Latin America, initial excitement in the 2000s about the impact of new Chinese investment and aid has given way to decidedly mixed views among citizens and governments about Beijing, including fears that China will not play by trade rules, will steal technology and will make investments that offer little benefit to local economies.

“The right strategy requires a nuanced understanding of where the United States should pick its stands against a rising China and where it is necessary to concede some power,” Kurlantzick contends. “In Southeast Asia, for instance, that means helping the countries most likely to have to defend themselves in the South China Sea (including Vietnam and the Philippines) while worrying less about mainland states (such as Burma).”


Print Friendly, PDF & Email