Will the Good BRICS Please Stand Up?

You can call them respectable democracies, but India, Brazil, and South Africa will be judged by how they act abroad. And on the Syria question, it's been shameful.

As global power has shifted away from the West, the emerging order has come to be identified with the BRICS -- an unofficial geopolitical bloc consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. But the BRICS are equally divided between autocratic and democratic states. The growing reach of powerful autocracies is nothing to celebrate, but the rise of stable and increasingly prosperous democracies in the developing world -- India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Indonesia, among others -- has been the single most encouraging phenomenon in the world over the last generation. Those first three countries, in fact, have established an informal bloc known as IBSA. This, too, should be a profoundly welcome development. But it hasn't been, at least in Western capitals. In global affairs, it turns out, emerging democracies often behave a lot like Third World autocracies. And IBSA is turning out to be not so very different from the BRICS.

In a fascinating real-world laboratory experiment, all three IBSA countries served on the United Nations Security Council in 2011; India and South Africa remain on the council this year. All three were thus forced to take a position during the hugely contentious debates on military intervention in Libya and political intervention in Syria. The result has not been edifying, at least from the viewpoint of Arab and Western publics. India and Brazil abstained from Resolution 1973 authorizing the NATO operation in Libya, and all three refused to vote for a draft resolution last October condemning the "grave and systematic human rights violations" committed by Syrian security forces against civilians. India and South Africa did, however, vote for a similar resolution this February, which Russia and China -- the other BRICS members on the council this year -- vetoed.

This week, I met with Hardeep Singh Puri, India's ambassador to the United Nations. For those who knew his predecessor, Nirupam Sen, a hard-left Bengali Brahmin prone to delivering windy and condescending lectures before gumming up the works of the day's debate, Puri, a blunt and hard-headed Sikh, constitutes a very welcome change in the diplomatic weather. But diplomats and human rights experts say that, throughout 2011, India sought to block efforts by the United States, France, and Britain to raise Syria's growing assault on civilians in the Security Council, provoking some very ill will. "They were," says a diplomat from one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, "obstructive and not helpful."

When I asked Puri why he had declined to endorse the resolution last October, he pointed out that as president of the Security Council a few months earlier, he had written a "presidential statement" with almost identical language. He was making an active effort to stop the violence, he said. But the October resolution was unacceptable because it referred to Article 41 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of sanctions and other coercive measures. It sounded like a flimsy rationale because the measure made only passing reference to Article 41. More to the point, India, like Russia, took the position that the council had no business trying to coerce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by any means at all to stop the killing. In the official explanation of his vote, Puri said, "While the right of people to protest peacefully is to be respected, states cannot but take appropriate action when militant groups, heavily armed, resort to violence against state authority and infrastructure."

I was aghast when I ran across this statement, which parroted Damascus's own grossly cynical line. I asked Puri whether he still believed that, to which he said, "If the protests are peaceful, why would you want to use weapons against them?" Syrian forces would never fire on unarmed protesters. This was the kind of language Chinese diplomats used to deploy to explain their defense of Khartoum during Security Council debates over Darfur. Had India adopted China's skewed view of international human rights law?

It's precisely because the IBSA countries are respectable democracies that they can prove so useful to the less respectable. Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch, says, "For months, they enabled Russia and China to use their veto and block any Security Council action." It was far easier for the veto-bearing countries to claim that they were acting out of principle when they had India and others on their side. Of course, Russia and China wielded their vetoes again last month when India and South Africa shifted their votes, but it's striking that, since that time, both Moscow and Beijing have sought to distance themselves from Damascus. They've lost their cover.

India's behavior served the cynicism of others, but it was not, itself, altogether cynical. Unlike Russia, India has no real political or economic interests in Syria (or Libya). What is has are ideological reflexes left over from the era of the "Non-Aligned Movement," of which it was a founder. C. Raja Mohan, a leading Indian foreign-policy commentator, recently ascribed India's Syria policy to its long-standing preoccupation with "the anti-colonial theme" and to "solidarity" with the Arabs against Israel. Countries like India that long chafed under imperial dominion tend to see the West's moral activism as a new species of colonialism. India is thus a zealous defender of the principle of state sovereignty and reflexively opposes any intrusion into it. Puri says that he feared that the West was looking for an excuse to go to war in Syria, as it had in Libya, but Article 41 only authorizes the use of nonmilitary forms of coercion. He wasn't standing up to "humanitarian intervention" in Syria, which in any case had zero support in Western capitals last fall; he was defending Syria's right to do as it wished to its own citizens.

Why did India change its vote last month? Puri says that the resolution, which endorsed an Arab League plan designed to ease Assad from power, included a specific proviso excluding the possibility of military action. But Russia and China saw the new resolution as little different from the previous one and vetoed it too, implicitly defending their own right to do as they wish to their citizens, whether in Chechnya or Tibet. (India, too, is loath to set a precedent that could later justify Security Council action in Kashmir.) David Malone, a senior Canadian diplomat and the author of Does the Elephant Dance?, a book on Indian foreign policy, suggests a less legalistic explanation for the Feb. 4 vote: Once the violence grew worse and the Arab League more strident, domestic public opinion, in the form of pundits like Mohan, forced New Delhi's hand and persuaded it to look beyond the obsession with sovereignty. In this regard, of course, the IBSA countries do resemble the Western democracies: Policy responds to public opinion. Russia and China can smother or ignore the public in a way that India and Brazil cannot.

This raises the intriguing question of where the IBSA countries, as well as other emerging democracies, are heading. It's hard to predict. As one Western diplomat put it, anti-colonialism is in South Africa's "founding myth," and the reflexes associated with it will not quickly subside. Brazil, on the other hand, seemed far less comfortable defending Syria than India or South Africa, perhaps because Brazilian public opinion is more open to Western norms. All these countries have been wary of the principle that states have a "responsibility to protect" (R2P) their citizens from mass atrocities, as well as an obligation to act on behalf of people threatened with atrocities elsewhere. Puri says that India accepts the first part, but thinks that the second "needs to be addressed." But with Arab states like Qatar citing "R2P" to justify action in Libya and Syria, public opinion in non-Western democracies may begin to move beyond the anti-neocolonial reflex.

All three IBSA countries are candidates for permanent membership in the Security Council. Puri says that he is confident -- it's not clear why -- that India, at least, will gain that status soon. He is not troubled, he says, by the thought that giving aid and comfort to Russia and China will harm India's candidacy with the United States, Britain, and France, which could block it. One of the fundamental questions about the post-Western world we are moving toward is whether countries like India will be "socialized" to Western norms or whether things will work the other way around. The legatees of that system, above all in the United States, will feel a great deal more comfortable about the prospect of sharing power if the newcomers accept the obligations understood to come with that power.

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Terms of Engagement

The Egypt Backlash

Is it a fantasy to believe that the United States can still promote democracy in non-democratic states?

Egypt blinked. On Thursday, Egypt's interim military government, known as the SCAF, decided to end the crisis it had provoked, or perhaps stumbled into, by raiding the offices of four American organizations which promote democracy abroad, and arresting sixteen U.S. citizens. Rather than risk the loss of $1.3 billion a year in military funding, as the U.S. Congress had threatened, Egypt allowed the Americans to leave. But the breach in U.S.-Egyptian relations will not be healed so easily, nor will the fears for Egypt's democratic future be put to rest. And the whole affair has raised a collateral worry: Is it a fantasy to believe that outsiders can promote democracy in non-democratic states?

Foreign groups have made a difference in the past. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the organizations targeted in Egypt, first cut its teeth in Chile helping local NGOs defeat the dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1986 referendum. Both quasi-governmental bodies like NDI, which receives federal funding, and private groups like George Soros's Open Society Institute, played an important role helping to organize democracy activists in the 2000 election that unseated Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and in the "color revolutions" in Ukraine in 2003 and Georgia in 2004.

But autocrats don't hold onto power by being stupid. Vladimir Putin in Russia and his brethren in Central Asia "were shaken by the color revolutions" as Larry Diamond, a leading democracy scholar at Stanford University, puts it. And they fought back. In 2006, the National Endowment of Democracy -- the parent body to NDI and to the International Republican Institute (IRI), also targeted in Egypt -- produced a report titled "The Backlash Against Democracy Assistance," which documented the growing efforts by autocratic states to block democracy assistance, including by expelling foreign organizations and harassing their staff. The color revolutions, Diamond points out, posed less of a threat to totalitarian regimes like those in Beijing or Havana  than they did to the more numerous states, like Russia or Venezuela, which practiced "authoritarian pluralism," in which elections offered the illusion of democratic choice without threatening the regime's control. International groups could help local activists seize these empty rituals to threaten or unseat authoritarian rulers. And this was where the backlash was concentrated.

Groups like NDI and IRI strenuously defend their "nonpartisan" status, but they are not, of course, impartial when it comes to democracy vs. non-democracy. It's hard to fathom why a sensible autocrat would tolerate them. Autocrats used to do so because they didn't know any better. Eduard Shevardnadze, the strongman of Georgia a decade ago, never knew what hit him, says Lincoln Mitchell, a scholar who worked with NDI in Georgia at the time. "Now these people get it." Mitchell argues that leaders often feel that accepting these groups is the price they have to pay to earn U.S. foreign aid, and to ensure a warm White House reception. But he sees the standoff in Egypt as evidence that rulers who seek to cling to power are concluding that the game may not be worth the candle, and thus that what was possible ten or 15 years ago is not possible today.

Autocrats like Putin wildly overestimate the capacity of democracy groups to make a difference, perhaps because they refuse to acknowledge that the real threat to their rule comes not from outsiders, but from the frustrated aspirations of their own citizens. They have adapted (and over-adapted) to the training, organizing, and polling work which groups like NDI and IRI do in the way that football defenses respond to a new wrinkle in an opponent's passing game. Some do thus more subtly than others. The SCAF, through incompetence or inattention, managed to arouse the entire U.S. Congress and jeopardize the bilateral relation with the United States. By contrast, in 2009, Ethiopia, another autocratic U.S. ally, passed a law permitting domestic organizations to receive foreign funding, so long as 90 percent of their budget comes from domestic donors -- few of whom would be foolish enough to vex the regime with such gifts. Likewise, in an earlier incarnation of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak used to allow the groups to operate while making it almost impossible for them to work with local activists.

There are, it's true, all sorts of distinctive and peculiar aspects to the current melodrama in Cairo, which was provoked by a minister left over from the Mubarak government who appeared to be furious that some American aid was going directly to Egyptian NGOs rather than passing through her ministry. The SCAF did not premeditate the confrontation with the United States. But Egypt's military and civilian leaders have resorted to the classic backlash playbook by appealing to nationalist outrage over alleged violations of sovereignty by the foreign groups, who are said to have carried out a hidden "U.S.-Israeli agenda." And the appeal has worked, at least well enough to distract attention from the real goal, which is to discredit both the foreign groups and the local actors whom they fund. Leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood endorsed the decision to detain the American officials; they later defended the right of local NGOs to organize, but did not call for the release of the foreigners. The SCAF's reversal under U.S. pressure unleashed a fresh wave of nationalist anger, which even included moderate figures like presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei, who used Twitter to criticize "intervention in judiciary work."

Is the crisis in Egypt an aberration, or a harbinger? Daniel Brumberg, a scholar of Arab politics, points out that NDI is currently working in Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Jordan, and elsewhere in the region. "In terms of the Arab world," he says, "Egypt is an outlier. Overall, the U.S. organizations promoting democracy have had a pretty positive experience." That's an important point. Groups like NDI and IRI work in a vast range of countries; in the democratic ones, their work is generally non-controversial, and even in some non-democratic ones they are permitted to operate openly. But Lincoln Mitchell argues that democracy promotion in autocratic states tends to be inoffensive, and thus ineffective, as he noticed in a program in Azerbaijan which he evaluated for the U.S. government. "If you're doing work in Baku and the Aliyevs [the ruling family] aren't really upset, you're not doing a good job."

Mitchell thinks that the problem is inherently insoluble, and thus that the democracy promotion moment has come and gone. Another way of looking at it, though, is that the United States and other outside actors will have to decide how much they care about helping democratic forces in non-democratic states, and thus how much pressure they will impose on regimes to let those forces work. The Obama administration has gone to the mat in Egypt, where the regime was foolish enough to threaten American citizens, but not in Ethiopia. But the SCAF is still free to repress domestic groups -- a far greater threat to their continuing rule -- even though they've released the Americans. Larry Diamond argues that the United States must not let a disingenuous argument over sovereignty "trump a more basic international principle that people have a right to peacefully organize a civil society." He would like to see the Obama administration "push back very, very hard" against regimes that try to throttle democracy assistance, and do so in collaboration with other Western states and with the United Nations. International actors must be prepared at times to withhold goodies that matter to such rulers, whether in the form of aid or a diplomatic embrace.

There's no satisfying answer to this problem. Like it or not, the United States needs autocratic or semi-democratic  allies like Egypt and Ethiopia, not to mention Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan. It will not, and should not, put the right of NDI and IRI to operate freely at the top of the agenda with those states. With the worst of them, it's probably a waste of breath. And it's important to remain modest about what outsiders can accomplish even in ambiguous settings like today's Egypt and Azerbaijan. But the Arab Spring has decisively proved that people who have spent their whole lives under repressive rule are prepared to take risks, sometimes very grave ones, in order to gain a measure of dignity. And the United States has to be on the right side of that struggle. The Obama administration should take the crisis in Egypt as a wake-up call on the democracy backlash.

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