The pivotal foreign policy event so far in the Obama presidency was not this week's summit with Russia. It was instead that rarest of all events: Barack Obama's silence.
When the people of Iran filled the streets of their country demanding a fair election, the U.S. clutched for a week. Uncertain of whether U.S. interests lay with the nuke-building ayatollahs or the democracy-seeking population, the Obama team essentially mumbled sweet nothings through the first days of the most extraordinary world event in this young presidency's term. That moment of hesitation, when a genuine and strategically useful democratic moment needed support, could prove costly.
When the Group of Eight nations tried to shape a response to the Iranian government's repression, Russia knew what to say about Iran."No one is willing to condemn the election process," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, "because it's an exercise in democracy."
Behold the official dumbing down of democracy.
Our purpose here is not to ridicule Foreign Minister Lavrov's absurd description of the Iranian elections. It is instead to show his statement the respect that anything dangerous deserves.
Two years ago in June, Vladimir Putin's main press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, visited the offices of the Journal editorial page. It was a remarkable meeting. The editors asked about the widely discussed criticisms of the Putin government's actions against opposition political parties and individuals and its control of the media. With a calm and confident smile, Mr. Peskov replied: "Ours is a different system of democracy." That was it. He stopped talking but kept smiling. The message sank in.
Dmitry Peskov was defining democracy in a way that could hardly be more different than the system of political pluralism developed over the past 300 years in the West. He couldn't have been clearer: We are changing the rules. Get over it.
In this light, President Obama's performance in Moscow was disconcerting, to put it mildly. In Mr. Obama's worldview, political systems apparently don't compete. They simply . . . are. "America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country," he said, "nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country."
Mr. Obama's political equivalence, conventional wisdom now among many Western sophisticates, is wrong and dangerous. Unless the West, led by the U.S. under this president, offers active push-back against the Russian definition of democracy, their version inexorably will back out ours.
The design of Iran's election was a perfect mirror of Russia's. Foreign Minister Lavrov wasn't ratifying it for our benefit. Like Dmitry Peskov, he couldn't care less what the Americans or Europeans think of his astonishing statement. His audience is the world's other leaders and parties.
Where is it written that American-style democracy will last forever, much less spread to new nations? If the members of the U.N. General Assembly could choose between the democracy of the U.S., Britain and France or that of Russia, Venezuela and Bolivia, likely it would be the latter. Genuine democracy is hard work. Why should the likes of Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Taiwan or Brazil endure that stress if Potemkin Village democracy is acceptable?
What Putin, Khamenei, Chávez, Morales and Mubarak want is fait-accompli legitimacy. When resistance to their dumbed-down democracy stops, they'll have it. China's Orwellian filtering software is a nice metaphor for what's at stake. Vocal criticism, even as eloquent as Mr. Obama's in Moscow this week or in Cairo, is not resistance. Real resistance requires acts of political push-back that all the world's people can see and recognize.
A study released last month by Freedom House, "Democracy's Dark Year," reported democratic erosion in most of the new European Union member states and in the then-inspiring "color revolution" nations -- Georgia's Rose Revolution, Ukraine's Orange Revolution and Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution.
Latin America is also tipping toward dissolved democracies. The 34 nations of the Organization of American States just voted to readmit the Cuban dictatorship. After the vote, the OAS foreign ministers broke into applause, and the meeting's host joyously announced, "The Cold War has ended." Those words of congratulations for unrepentant antidemocrat Fidel Castro came from Manuel Zelaya, then president of Honduras.
Elected in 2005, Mr. Zelaya has been using his muscle to import the Russian-Venezuelan-Iranian political model to Honduras. That means rigged future elections and the constitution changed by fiat to validate the rigging. After meeting with Mr. Zelaya in Washington Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton off-loaded Honduras's fate to former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias.
Letting genuine democratic aspirants in places like Iran and Honduras lose in front of a watching world will exact a price. The United States and the other John Locke democracies are in an active, long-term competition with fake democrats over whose politics governs the next century. And they will presume to choose which parties should run other counties.
There is the clear sense that anything the Bush administration did, the Obama sophisticates will not do. Does the fact that the Bushies pushed democracy mean it would be bad form to support even our own political system?
Thursday, July 09, 2009
Dumbing Down of Democracy