Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Obama's Support for Zelaya Contradictory

During the course of his presidency, President Obama has placed little value in encouraging democratic developments abroad, stating the need to focus on the “substance” of a government, rather than its “form.” While I adamantly disagree with Obama’s abandonment of democracy promotion in his foreign policy, he has raised an important point, highlighted in this excerpt:

We spend so much time talking about democracy…but democracy, a well-functioning society that promotes liberty and equality and fraternity,
does not just depend on going to the ballot box.

The scenario the president describes above, one in which something is democratic in name but not in practice, is a legitimate concern. In fact, it describes the reign of recently ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya to a tee. Although elected through elections in 2005, Zelaya has proceeded to trample upon the democratic foundations of Honduras, attempting to defy the nation’s constitution in an effort to seek an explicitly forbidden second term in office. This Hugo Chavezesque power-grab failed after the legislature voted overwhelmingly for his replacement and the supreme court rightfully had Zelaya forcibly removed.

Perplexingly, Obama resolutely supports the exiled president solely because Zelaya was democratically-elected almost four years ago. He has ignored Zelaya’s recent ploy, which is clearly a gross affront to Honduras’ constitutional democracy. Obama should revisit his earlier statement, which chastises assuming leaders are ruling democratically simply because they were elected, and reshape his position on Zelaya accordingly.

The above article is a modified-version of a post that appeared on the Heritage Foundation's blog, which you can view by clicking here.


Andrew said...

Hey, it's yer cousin. I saw you post this on Facebook and was intrigued. To be honest, I think I agree with you regarding Zelaya. His antics were thoroughly illegal, and prompted what happened. The international community takes a traditionalist look at it, as the truth is that the coup wasn't exactly legal either, but the international community seems to think that the disregard shown for established power is terrible, as though threatened by the precedent. Something had to happen in Honduras.
More importantly, though, I wanted to say that I think you really disregard the concept of national sovereignty in your analysis of Mr. Obama's foreign policy. Yes, the time of isolationism is over, but so is the Age of Imperialism; countries don't have the right to interfere with the domestic, domestic being the key word, affairs of others. Yes, they can suggest cooperation on issues of international importance- I think climate change is exceptional here in that there's no way to isolate it- but it is absurd to say that American interference in another country's domestic affairs is 'more democratic' than the regime, and American interference seldom helps the country achieve stability, a prerequisite for a functional democracy. Thats why Obama's comments regarding Mr. Zelaya are unjustified; simultaneously, that's why denunciations of other countries' internal practices are unjustified. The United States has demonstrated countless times that it is incompetent at deciding what type of government the citizens of other countries want (I think the Vietnam war is an extremely prominent, if cliche example of this- and keep in mind that North and South Vietnam did not exist until 1954- it took twenty years of American and French coddling to establish the distinction between the two regions that made the postwar situation so terrible), and the patterns in which it has funded militias, governments, planned coups, and gone adventuring internationally in other ways have reflected frequently that US 'promotion of democracy' is often a front for 'promotion of American interests,' or essentially neo-imperialism, which is nonetheless than active disruption of sovereignty (no wonder leaders like Ahmadinejad and Chavez emerge). The attitude that says that we should 'promote democracy,' either by condemning leaders with whom, realistically, we have to work pragmatically for more important things (Ahmadinejad) or criticizing the domestic policies of countries when any attempt by us to change these policies is as undemocratic as they themselves are initially, is the attitude that forgets that the US doesn't know what's best for the citizens of the rest of the world. Its the attitude that suggested we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq, quite frankly. Yes, Mr. Obama is working pragmatically with leaders of regimes whose methods shouldn't be approved of; firstly this is nothing new, and secondly he is doing it while responsibly promoting American interests while avoiding the excesses of ignoring sovereignty that have marked some of the worst policies of his predecessors. We don't understand other nations as well as we think we do, and are not in a position to decide what's right for them.

Jonathan Liedl said...

Andrew- Thanks for reading! I trust your experience thus far in Africa has been rewarding?

I think a mischaracterization that is associated with “promoting democracy/human rights” is that this practice is automatically equated to interference. I had raised this point with a previous commenter, who implied that the only form of “democracy-building” is military engagement based on ideology, a la Iraq/Vietnam. This is far from the case. As I said within the comments, I am clearly not advocating any type of force or negative posturing- militarily, economically, or in any other way. In fact, I am not even suggesting that an increased level of diplomatic engagement is needed. The fact of the matter is, the Obama Admin has neglected to promote democracy within nations where we already enjoy wide-open diplomatic avenues- such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, the Obama Admin removed conditions for Egypt to shape up its human rights record on a recent formal recognition of relations. Pushing for civil liberties and freedoms within these countries would not be excessively interferential, because, so to speak, our foot is already in the door. Furthermore, I reject the notion that pushing for reform within another country is akin to disregarding national sovereignty, for the simple reason that such measures are not presumed to hold any weight of law. They are up to the discretion of the nation in question, and are usually framed in a cost-benefit framework (i.e. I give you…/if you…) that acknowledges the nation’s right to choose what it considers best. This is the distinction I make between U.S. democracy promotion v.s. ICJ rulings and UN mandates, who don’t exact behavioral changes in the same manner as two sovereign states, but rather with the assumption that they supersede state sovereignty.

Jonathan Liedl said...

Due to globalization and the simple realities of the 21st century, the interconnectivity between nation-states is undeniable. The U.S. in particular, given its prominence in every theater across the globe, is especially sensitive to the developments within other countries. As a result, I would argue that it is certainly within their rights, let alone their best interests, to attempt to affect foreign states’ internal affairs, though not to the level of “interference” (which, I believe, may need some more exact defining). “Promoting democracy,” however abstract, should not be thought of as simply supplanting the standing government and installing a fledgling democracy. Simple pressure for minor reforms in a variety of areas, be it the institutional political framework, society, or the economy, will increase empowerment for reform within these countries, allowing their populace to bring about democratic changes in a manner that is more conducive to their culture and history in a much more stable and gradual manner than force-fed democracy would fair(although continued U.S. carrots and sticks are not to abandoned, just not overdone).

As alluded to before, I have no problem with stating that “promoting democracy” is by the by synonymous with “promoting U.S. interests,” although my idealistic self likes to think that the benefits expand well beyond the geo-political realm. Attempting to affect domestic reform within another country does not amount to a blatant disrespect for national sovereignty in my estimation, so long as the tools used to advance this goal are deployed at the level of state v. state (not buying votes or pre-meditating a coup, but through diplomacy).

So, in summation, I think you and I both agree that actively attempting to force democracy down the throats of other nations is not only an affront to the very concept of sovereignty, but usually ends up being detrimental to US interests in the long run. However, I firmly believe that some level of US prodding and coaxing towards human rights and democratic reform is not only perfectly acceptable within the construct of the global system, not only morally justifiable, but also vastly improves US interests in the long run (trading partner, less volatile, unlikely to support terrorism, less assistance and direct involvement as country develops self-sustainability)