Democratization a ‘key focus for Obama’s final year’


President Obama will seek to consolidate his ­foreign-policy legacy this year by traveling widely and working with allies to combat extremism and foster the rise of emerging democracies, said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, according to The Washington Post.

When thinking about Obama’s foreign policy legacy and his upcoming travel agenda, it’s important to keep in mind how much carefully worded language and U.S. government narratives could contribute to this process, notes Taylor Dibbert, a Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

“The Obama administration can be expected to frame developments in Burma, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Vietnam in a consistently positive light,” he writes for The Huffington Post. “2016 looks like an inauspicious time for U.S. officials to question the extent of democratic gains or to emphasize concerns about the multitude of challenges which lie ahead. The framing of Obama’s democracy promotion legacy has already begun.”

In the twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the architecture of liberal modernity has looked relatively stable [and]…it’s been hard to imagine the basic liberal democratic capitalist order cracking up, let alone envision what might take its place, analyst Ross Douthat writes for The New York Times.

Here in the dying days of 2015, though, something seems to have shifted. For the first time in a generation, the theme of this year was the liberal order’s vulnerability, not its resilience. 2015 was a memento mori moment for our institutions — a year of cracks in the system, of crumbling firewalls, of reminders that all orders pass away. … And the fact that so many disaffected voters find [Donald Trump] attractive is a revelation, an objective correlative to polls showing declining faith in democracy, and a window, perhaps, into a more illiberal politics to come.

But there are encouraging lessons in these changes that are worth noting at this time of democratic pessimism, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman writes for World Affairs:

  • The first is that democratic civil society activists and grassroots social forces, which were chiefly responsible for the electoral gains made in 2015, have impressive resilience and staying power, not just in semi-open autocracies but also in backsliding and repressive authoritarian countries. In Africa they include bloggers in Ethiopia, youth activists and trade unionists in Zimbabwe, investigative journalists in Angola, and human rights defenders and peace activists in Burundi and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where leaders are preventing reform by manipulating election schedules,creating tensions that could erupt into violence. In Russia, where the government has passed repressive laws to intimidate and control NGOs and where democratic leaders like Boris Nemtsov have been murdered, activists continue to work fearlessly to expose elite corruption, defend human rights, and offer independent news and information to counter the regime’s steady drumbeat of nationalist propaganda. In China, despite the harshest political crackdown since the death of Mao Zedong, a Freedom House study reports that more people are joining rights-defense activities, information is spreading despite censorship, the fear of repression is waning, and the disillusionment with party corruption is growing.  These examples are just the tip of a massive iceberg of civic activism that exists in all regions of the world and that may at this moment be preparing the way for new democratic breakthroughs in the future.
  • This leads to the second lesson, which is that the world’s resurgent autocrats do not sit securely on their thrones. They repeatedly warn about the danger of foreign-instigated “colored revolutions.” This is actually an implicit admission by the world’s authoritarians that their greatest fear is the popular revolution that would be triggered by the regime’s inevitable attempt to reverse the unacceptable results of a reasonably free election. ……
  • The third lesson is that the leadership to advance democracy around the world is no longer coming from the democratic West now absorbed in its own problems. Rather, a homegrown and indigenous democracy movement has taken root in one country after another among people and organizations in the global south and the post-communist world fighting to defend their rights and human dignity. This is not to say that these people and organizations don’t need the political and moral support and solidarity of the world’s leading democracies. They do, and no effort should be spared to enhance that support, such as it may be, from non-governmental organizations and advocates, as well as from parliaments and government leaders and officials. It is simply to recognize that at the moment, the energy and determination needed to sustain democracy’s advance is going to come from the people on the frontlines of democratic struggles.  


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