“From Tunisia to Burma, we’re supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy,” President Obama said in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. “In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future,” he added.
Those two sentences were it on democracy and human rights. Two sentences are better than none, to be sure, and Ukrainian democracy activists responded positively to his mention of their situation. But the problem is that democracy and human rights need more high-level support than that.
Two headlines emerged from Freedom House’s just-released annual report, Freedom in the World: an eighth consecutive year of decline in democracy around the world and a leadership gap among the community of democratic nations, most notably the United States. Fifty-four countries registered declines in political rights and civil liberties, compared to only 40 countries that saw gains in those areas, according to the study.
Equally disturbing, the report decries the lack of pushback against the modern authoritarian challenge posed by regimes in Moscow, Beijing, and elsewhere and laments the receding role played in particular by the United States in supporting democratization around the world. “If there is no reassertion of American leadership,” the report notes, “we could find ourselves at some future time deploring lost opportunities rather than celebrating a major breakthrough for freedom.”
These two negative headlines beg the question about what is to be done. But instead of offering recommendations on what the United States needs to do, let me suggest a list of seven things we need to stop doing—seven “don’ts”, if you will. After all, one must end the harm that has been done to the cause of promoting freedom and human rights before one can proceed to any “to-do” list.
1. Don’t think that in today’s interconnected world threats to democracy and freedom elsewhere pose no threat to our own democracy and interests, or to those of our allies. The nature of regimes and societies matters, and threats to democracy, even in seemingly far-off places, can wind up hurting us.
2. Don’t fall for the false choice between staying out of difficult situations entirely, on the one hand, and sending in hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, on the other. There are many things we can do in between those extremes to support moderate, democratic forces—things like funding activists and showing solidarity by meeting with them and, yes, sometimes even limited military action (such as taking out Assad’s airstrips and planes, which we should have done long ago, when the Syrian opposition was less divided and not as extreme). This recommendation doesn’t mean putting American troops on the ground. It would be nice to do this with allies, but the United States usually has to lead. (France’s positive role in Mali last year is an important exception to that rule.)
3. Don’t assume that just because the United States cannot and should not intervene everywhere that we should not intervene anywhere. Intervention can come in many different ways (see point above).
4. Don’t call for leaders to step down from power and then do nothing to bring to fruition such an outcome. Enough said.
5. Don’t let U.S. economic and security interests drown out our interests in seeing an expansion of democracy in other countries. View our interests with respect to other states as a three-legged stool: We have economic interests, security interests, and democracy/human rights interests. All too often that third leg, democracy, gets cut short in our pursuit of our other interests. To keep the stool (a metaphor for U.S. policy) balanced and stable, we need to keep the three legs of interests roughly equal; otherwise, U.S. standing in a country could be badly damaged (see, for example, Egypt).
6. Don’t use the word “unacceptable” in describing another country’s human rights abuses if in reality you’re planning on accepting them. The Sergei Magnitsky Act passed by Congress in late 2012 over the Obama Administration’s objections imposes an asset freeze and visa ban for Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses, and there is a welcome push in the Congress to widen the Magnitsky Act globally. This legislation is the kind of response that gives meaning to the word “unacceptable.”
7. Don’t risk having freedom fighters in places like Ukraine wonder which side the United States is on. The image of Iranians during the June 2009 Green Movement holding up signs that asked which side the United States was on should be seared into every American official’s memory. Our reticence in taking action against unacceptable (there’s that word again) actions by President Yanukovych and his regime have created a sense among Ukrainians that we don’t care. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, supporters of the Ukrainian protestors carried signs saying, “Thank you for your deep concern; now do something.” Well said!