March 6, 2009

Expert Says U.S. Faces Crossroads

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Along with the global economy, America’s reputation as the beacon of democracy is also facing critical crossroads, according to Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.
Carothers, a leading democracy expert and author of the most cited article on democracy promotion in the English language, lectured on the future of “U.S. democracy promotion under the new Obama administration.”
“[Obama] wants to rebuild America’s reputation as a global partner, and show that the U.S. can work with other countries productively to solve problems,” Carothers said.[img_assist|nid=35879|title=It’s like this…|desc=Thomas Carothers lectured yesterday on the future of democracy under the Obama administration.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“Secondly, [Obama wants to promote] a willingness to talk as opposed to being confrontational and aggressive. We’re [asking] regimes like Syria, Iran to find a way to solve the problem[s] peacefully,” Carothers added.
According to Carothers, the six-week old Obama administration is already taking steps in the right direction. The administration is attempting to speak with hostile regimes that are willing to engage in constructive dialogue. They are also looking to repair America’s human rights dark spot by planning to remove the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within the next year.
“I agree that the U.S. has to be humble and relatively careful [due to] the disastrous effects of the Bush administration, and it’s hard to say what they should do in general [because there is no] science in diplomacy, there’s no cookbook,” said Prof. Nicholas van de Walle, government, who attended the lecture.
Despite the administration’s initiative, rebuilding America’s reputation is not an easy task. Carothers outlined two major areas of concern: the notorious legacy of the Bush administration and the global political climate.
“President Bush caused democracy promotion to be loosely associated with Iraq. Democracy became a hypocritical, offensive cover for American intervention, and caused the majority of Americans to believe democracy promotion is a part of aggressive foreign policy,” Carothers said.
America’s image as a leader in democracy, according to Carothers, was critically injured by certain actions in the war on terror, abuses of the legal system and widely publicized violations of human rights at prison camps.
On the global scale, it is easy to perceive that democracy is in trouble and authoritarianism is on the march.
However, Carothers claims that the basic picture is actually one of “continuity and a fair amount of stagnation.”
“If you look at the numbers, we have 89 democracies today, whereas 10 years ago we only had 86, and the number of autocracies shrunk from 48 to 42,” Carothers said.
“There has been a loss in momentum. The third wave of democracy that started in the ’70s has stopped. It’s like a car whose engine is turned off but is still moving. Most countries are stuck one way or another,” Carothers added.
As for the Obama administration, Carothers believes there is pressure on the new team to pull back on democracy promotion because the topic has been made “radioactive” by the Bush administration.
“This is where I think the danger lies. It’s important to dissociate from problems, but important to dissociate without giving up,” Carothers said.
Carothers also pointed out that in the past three decades, every U.S. administration was forced to deal with the issue of democracy promotion one way or another, and the Obama administration will be no different. George H. W. Bush promoted democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall to hold together the post-communist world, and George W. Bush decided that the promotion of democracy was a way to undercut political extremism in the Muslim world as a result of the September 11 attacks.
Regardless of the present economic conditions, Carothers argues that the promotion of democracy should not be compromised by economic concerns.
“Forgetting and not paying attention to [promotion of democracy] is wrong because the world expects some position from us and some definition from the U.S. about what we believe in. Like it or not, we cannot avoid democracy promotion.” Carothers said in an interview.
Although Carother’s proposed foreign policy agenda was accepted by many members of the audience, many were still skeptical about Obama’s stance on human rights issues.
“The detainees [of Guantanamo Bay] are going to be scattered in different prisons in the states instead. I think that’s two-faced. I don’t care if they get two cakes a months or one pie per week, prison is prison no matter how you put it,” said Shai Eynav, a local Ithaca photographer.
Concerns about the sheer volume of Obama’s tasks were also voiced.
“I’m very skeptical that the administration [has the capacity to] do everything they promised. We should not get carried away too much. Let’s not surprise ourselves in the wrong way,” Eynav added.
“I think the damage done in the [past] eight years creates a significant challenge, and we [also] have tremendous economic challenges at home,” said Siobahn Cornwell, MPA ’09.
“But if anyone out there has the skills we need right now, Obama’s our man,” she added.