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DEMOCRACY AND THE PIVOT TO ASIA

The great “pivot to Asia” that is said to mark American foreign policy these days raises a critical human rights issue: is democracy promotion part of the “pivot,” or a casualty of it?

As Christian Caryl wrote on foreignpolicy.com, “it’s no wonder that Washington policymakers describe both trade and security as central to their new Asian agenda. But in the meantime a lot of people have forgotten that the pivot was always supposed to be based on a third ingredient: support for democracy.” Secretary Clinton has certainly stated this clearly: “I have to say that in many ways, the heart of our strategy, the piece that binds all the rest of it together, is our support for democracy and human rights.”

The question is, how do we translate that objective into an effective policy?

Secretary Clinton listed several initiatives: “We’ve created an emergency fund for NGOs and individuals who come under threat. We have strongly supported a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Assembly at the UN Human Rights Council. We have created a new global forum, the Open Government Partnership, to promote transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. And we speak out on behalf of marginalized people — racial, religious, ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and yes, still women.”

Every one of these is a positive contribution. But in my experience, the most effective form of democracy promotion is direct rather than indirect. It does not come from financing NGOs, or UN rapporteurs, but from direct U.S. government pressure on foreign governments to stop abusing human rights and allow for some political opening.

Here is an example: Egyptians who were active in the struggle for democracy during the Mubarak years have commented to me, and to many others, that the regime got off their backs during 2004-2006. They were arrested less often, could publish more daring comments in the press, and could speak more freely. This was the moment of the toughest U.S. pressure on Mubarak to lighten up, symbolized by then-Secretary of State Rice’s speech about democracy and reform at American University in Cairo in 2005.

These Egyptians attribute the relaxation of pressure on them, and the slightly more open window for dissent and for political activities, to direct pressure from the top of the U.S. government. They do not ever say “thanks for the NGO activities” or “thanks for the UN rapporteurs.” And in my own view, those more indirect ways of pressing for democratic change can be too easy for the United States. They rarely threaten bilateral relations with the country in question, nor do they interfere with security or commercial relationships. But I think they are rarely as effective as targeted, top-level pressure: comments by the President and Secretary of State, made openly as well as in private, naming countries rather than vaguely referring to the need for progress.

The next administration, whether Republican or Democratic, will continue the pivot to Asia due to the challenges and opportunities we face there. Whether that will include a robust democracy element remains to be seen. But we should judge whether it exists not by listing indirect, all too easy steps for our country to take through NGOs or through the UN; we should instead insist on tougher, sometimes more difficult, direct American support for political openings.

In the Reagan years, I recall Secretary of State George P. Shultz placing human rights at the top of his discussion list when he met with Soviet officials. Why? Because if it were near the bottom, the Russians would think those issues were near the bottom of Shultz’s, and Reagan’s, true concerns. That’s a lesson we should recall during the “pivot to Asia.”

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, D.C. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush, where he supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House.