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President Obama and Democracy Promotion: Revisiting George Weigel

Back in 1994 George Weigel wrote one of the most interesting of a crop of books that set out a prospectus for US foreign policy after the Cold War. Weigel wrote as a democratic internationalist, formed by the Scoop Jackson tradition within the Democratic Party and inspired by the Polish antitotalitarian revolution.

It’s been interesting for me to re-read that book in light of the recent conservative attacks on President Obama’s policy toward the upheavals in the Arab world.

“American leadership is still sorely needed,” said Mitt Romney in response to the killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans in Benghazi. Bill Kristol objected to the “fundamental lack of seriousness of the Obama worldview” in the president’s UN speech this week. Applauding Obama’s vision, Kristol charged him with not being “serious about doing what it takes” to achieve it.

It seems to me that Weigel’s book took a more sophisticated view of “what it takes” to defeat authoritarian rule and build democracies. He called his book Idealism without Illusions, and his aim was to “break the Realist / Idealist logjam” in foreign policy thinking. His central insight concerned the lesson of the Eastern European democratic revolutions of 1989–1991. Totalitarianism had been defeated and democracy triumphant, he argued, not just because the West had played diplomatic hardball or had wielded better military hardware (though both of those things mattered). More important was the way that activists in the East had challenged state control of politics by reinventing politics itself. They had fought for human rights, built up a civil society as the “social embodiment of the transcendent moral dimension of the human person” (Weigel’s words), and, in Vaclav Havel’s happy phrase, had lived in the truth. All this had eroded the dictatorships from within and prepared the ground for a democratic alternative once the tyrants fell.

So Weigel took the long view when it came to democracy promotion: totalitarian and authoritarian societies were damaged places; the tyranny of the political had atomized society and atrophied the moral economy. That’s why he understood the centrality of the slow cultivation of the democratic virtues or habits of the heart in building any democracy. It’s why he understood that the transition to democracy would be fragile and would be built largely from the ground up. 

It seems to me that President Obama got closest to this kind of insight in his UN speech in precisely those passages that have been mocked as fluff.

What gives me the most hope is not the actions of us, not the actions of leaders. It is the people that I’ve seen. … The faces in a square in Prague or a parliament in Ghana who see democracy giving voice to their aspirations. The young people in the favelas of Rio and the schools of Mumbai whose eyes shine with promise. These men, women and children of every race and every faith remind me that for every angry mob that gets shown on television, there are billions around the world who share similar hopes and dreams. They tell us that there is a common heartbeat to humanity. 

The problem is not the president’s rhetoric. The problem is that the Democratic Party—over-reacting to the Bush years—has failed to think through the policy challenge of travelling from Obama’s rhetoric to action on the ground. As Democratic Party policy thinker Will Marshall has observed,

At critical junctures—the emergence of Iran’s “Green Movement” after a rigged 2009 election, and the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011—the president seemed to lose his voice. The new imperative of “engagement,” along with the old policy of supporting friendly despots in the Middle East seemed to take precedence over solidarity with people rising up [against] corruption and tyranny. Likewise, the administration’s desire to “reset” relations with great powers like Russia and China too often has meant hitting the mute button on disputes over human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. To autocrats, U.S. reticence on values comes across as weakness; to the people they misrule, as a betrayal of their hopes.

Perhaps Weigel can help here too. He distinguished two kinds of foreign policy. There was “national messianism,” which he thought dangerous because of its recklessness and addiction to “far shorter timelines” than could deliver effective change. But there was also Reinhold Niebuhr’s idealism without illusions. On the one hand, realism: that “crucial set of cautions essential to the exercise of practical reasoning about America’s role in the world,” cautions that, if we are sober enough to see, have simply been forsaken in some recent well-intentioned expressions of democratic internationalism. On the other hand, there is what Niebuhr called “the important residual creative factor in human rationality.” Weigel translates Niebuhr’s opaque prose: “Things can change—things can be made to change—for the better: sometimes.”  

The president—any president—now needs policy advisers who can think through how to use the tremendous moral authority, diplomatic clout, political leverage, and military capacity of the US to prevent the confiscation of the political by the contemporary totalitarians and authoritarians, to protect and aid the democratic forces, and to help them create a politics of civil society. 

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