Argument

The Value Proposition

Candidates like to preach the preeminence of American values on the campaign trail, but it's interests that dominate inside the White House.

Throughout the history of modern U.S. diplomacy, America's foreign policy has frequently been torn between two competing and often overlapping tensions: protecting U.S. national security interests and upholding America's values, particularly as they relate to human rights and democracy promotion. Navigating these two occasionally incompatible impulses has been the bane of many a president's time in office.

But you might never know such a tension existed if you just listened to the way politicians talked about U.S. foreign policy on the campaign trail. More often than not, those seeking America's highest office are troubadours of human rights and cynical of any decision that might put "interests" ahead of doing the "right" thing.

Just this month, the values vs. interest debate reared its head again in the one place where it consistently has for much of the past 20 years: China. As U.S. officials -- from Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, all the way up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- worked feverishly to end a diplomatic imbroglio over the case of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who had holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Republicans took pot shots at Barack Obama's administration for failing to take a stand with the better angels of American nature.

Indeed, when news stories began trickling out that the Obama administration had forced Chen to leave the U.S. Embassy, Republican candidate Mitt Romney offered a rather restrained statement of displeasure, calling it a "dark day for freedom" and "a day of shame for the Obama administration." According to Romney, "We are a place of freedom, here and around the world, and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack."

While Romney's campaign literature talks about the need to balance U.S. interests and values, this latest attack is very much at pace with Romney's rhetorical broadsides against the president. According to the Republican standard-bearer, Obama just isn't that interested in defending American values around the globe. On Iran, he did nothing, claims Romney, as the mullahs wiped out the pro-democracy Green Movement. On Syria, Obama was slow to react and stop the bloodletting. The result, says Romney, is that Obama has turned the Arab Spring into an "Arab Winter." Just last week he argued that the right direction on foreign policy "is to communicate our strength, our determination, and to indicate that if people want to be friends with America, that they're going to have to hold to the principles that we find dear."

Romney, like many a presidential wannabe, talks a tough game on human rights. But don't believe a word of it. All presidential candidates, whether Democratic or Republican, prioritize human rights when running for president -- less so when they actually reach the office.

More often than not, a new president finds himself coming down on the interests side of the equation. Remember candidate Bill Clinton attacking George H.W. Bush in 1992 for meeting with the "butchers of Beijing" after the Tiananmen Square massacre? Several months later, once ensconced in the White House, he backed down, granting China most-favored-nation trading status.

Jimmy Carter ran on a platform of restoring human rights to a prominent place in U.S. foreign policy, and as president he took important steps in that direction. At the same time, however, he found himself torn in knots on the need to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East and Latin America, further détente with the Soviet Union, and recognize communist China -- all the while maintaining his pledge to make human rights a foreign-policy focus of his administration. By the end of his presidency, he was moving in a more militaristic, anti-communist direction.

President George W. Bush made democracy promotion the centerpiece of his second-term foreign policy, but within a year he had quickly backed away from the cause in Egypt and Palestine, when political realities got in the way.

In 2008, Obama didn't talk as much about human rights and democracy promotion. Rather, he spoke of reversing the policies of the Bush administration that threatened civil liberties and undermined America's image in the world. But at the same time that he ended torture and sought, albeit unsuccessfully, to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center, he also signed on to many of the war on terror policies -- such as drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan -- for which Democrats had criticized his predecessor.

In reality, Obama's human rights record over the last three years has been something of a mixed bag. Supporters can certainly point to the U.S.-led intervention in Libya to support anti-Qaddafi rebels and the efforts to push Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak out of power in January 2011. On a multilateral level, the administration has been a big backer of reforming and mobilizing the U.N. Human Rights Council and has used the forum to condemn human rights violators like Syria, Libya, and Iran. On the downside, the White House has continued to back key allies in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, and Bahrain out of a rather cold calculation of U.S. interests. On China, Secretary Clinton received criticism for appearing to play down human rights during her 2009 visit there, suggesting that the issue should take a back seat to other issues of bilateral importance; it's a stance that for the most part has been dialed back in the years since. In the end, Obama's record is that of pragmatist -- emphasizing human rights in places where the United States could make a difference and de-emphasizing it in places where it cannot or where national security interests are judged to be more important.

In short, this means Obama has pretty much acted like every president ever does when it comes to human rights.

Now to be sure, what is said on the campaign trail in regard to foreign policy often doesn't survive once a president finds himself in the Oval Office, but rarely is the backtrack as decisive as it is on human rights. As Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said to me, "No one has found a way to campaign for president and also sound like Henry Kissinger."

Indeed, on the campaign trail, the United States is described as virtuous to a fault, exceptional of course, and above all omnipotent. It's on this latter point -- the issue of U.S. power and influence -- where the greatest divide between rhetoric and action can be found.

Romney likes to attack the president for failing to speak up when the Iranian government was shooting pro-democracy protesters "in the streets" -- and perhaps Obama should have said more. But one shouldn't confuse rhetoric with the ability to actually achieve results. In reality, there is pretty much nothing Obama or any president could have said to prevent the bloodletting that accompanied the mass protests in Tehran in the summer of 2009 -- and short of going to war, there is little that Romney will be able to do as president to turn Iran into a Jeffersonian democracy.

A similar phenomenon exists with China. The United States can stamp its feet all it wants on Chinese human rights abuses, but doing so is unlikely to reshape Beijing's behavior (if anything, it'll do the opposite). As China-watcher Zachary Karabell noted the other day, "Casting American responses to the fate of Chinese activists seeking radical changes in their government as a mark of American weakness says more about American delusions of power than about actual weakness."

In the end, presidents, no matter how powerful they may seem, don't have all that much power to force other leaders and other countries to bend to the U.S. will (not that they've ever had that much to begin with, but at least during the Cold War and the specter of Soviet domination they had a tad more leverage). On human rights, that power is even more constrained by the tension between doing the right thing and doing the best thing for U.S. national security. For 20 years, the United States has been complaining about China's human rights record and the existence of continued political, social, and cultural repression. But that hasn't stopped the two countries from developing a rather close economic relationship -- and one that both sides went to great lengths to preserve during the Chen crisis.

Indeed, the biggest realization that any presidential candidate will find if they happen to win the presidency is that the power they think they've accumulated really ain't that easy to wield -- and that tough talk on human rights is usually only just that.

Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Burma Can Bring It

It’s true: Burma faces an uphill climb in its transition to democracy. But the odds may be better than you think.

Earlier this month, when the indefatigable Aung San Suu Kyi assumed a seat in Burma's parliament, her diminutive figure was almost lost in a sea of military uniforms. On April 1, she and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs in an unprecedented parliamentary by-election. The arrival of the NLD members in parliament marks the first time in many decades that pro-democracy activists have had a chance to participate in government. Yet their victory comes with many qualifiers. The current constitution, engineered by the generals who have ruled Burma for the past half-century, stipulates that one quarter of the seats in parliament must be reserved for the military. Much of the remainder is held by members of the pro-government party.

The constitution, which essentially rigs the political process in favor of the armed forces, appears likely to remain in effect for the foreseeable future, given that three-quarters of the parliament must vote in favor of any constitutional amendment for it to pass. This considerably limits the prospects for genuinely democratic reform. It's a situation that has prompted a great deal of hand-wringing among observers of Burma's political situation. Many pundits predict that Burma will never make the transition to full-fledged democracy even if free and fair multiparty elections become the new norm, making it a flawed and illegitimate democracy similar to many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union. "The country's power holders -- a long-entrenched, anti-democratic military and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) -- have not yet given up any significant structural levers of power," noted  Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at a conference in Washington earlier this week.

True enough. Yet there are good grounds for optimism. Research that we've conducted  on the political histories of countries that have moved to democracy after inheriting constitutions from autocracies reveals many positive precedents. Our work suggests that it is possible to build democratic institutions and enact policies that benefit a majority of citizens, even in cases where holdover constitutions enable elites to retain considerable political power following democratization. To do so, new democracies must embark on a path of piecemeal constitutional reform.

There are many examples of countries that began their moves toward democracy with autocratic constitutions and then later reformed them. In some of these countries there is now a solid consensus over fundamental rights, and formerly entrenched elites, while strong, no longer single-handedly dominate the political game. These include Chile and Colombia, two examples from Latin America that represent a potential model for Burma. While many observers were initially skeptical  that these transitions would result in liberal democracy, these countries have nonetheless managed to deepen democratic institutions.

In Colombia, a bargain between the Liberal and Conservative parties led to the overthrow of military rule and the establishment of democracy under the National Front in 1958. The parties colluded to rotate power and exclude outside competitors for sixteen years. The poor could hardly improve their lot by turning to the constitution, a document written by autocratic elites in 1886. Yet the constitution was progressively amended, and in the face of popular pressure following a failed 1988 reform aimed at increasing citizen participation, an entirely new document was adopted in 1991. The judiciary was made more independent, and citizens were granted tutela, a mechanism to swiftly appeal to courts to protect basic individual rights.

Modern Chilean democracy is similarly founded on the basis of an autocratic constitution. General Augusto Pinochet passed a constitution in a heavily managed referendum in 1980 after seizing power from the democratically elected Salvador Allende in 1973. Despite a transition to democracy in 1990, the constitution provided a host of safeguards for the military and key elites incorporated in the regime, including the appointment of autocratic elites as senators for life and allowing the military to choose the head of armed forces. A series of constitutional amendments has slowly and cautiously chipped away at the remaining undemocratic elements in the Chilean system, most notably a set of key reforms in 2005 that were hailed as a democratic deepening by then-President Ricardo Lagos.

Colombia and Chile provide models of how elite or military-biased democracies can evolve in a more liberal direction over time. But such an outcome is not predestined. Getting started on that path presupposes, above all, that military incumbents can be persuaded to return to the barracks. The representatives of the new order can give autocratic incumbents credible commitments that their worst fears -- wholesale seizure of their assets, prosecution, or even death -- will not come true after a transition. Furthermore, they can slowly reform holdover institutions to avoid triggering a reactionary coup, by introducing staggered constitutional and legal reforms that only gradually strip away the power of the military and other elites in a targeted fashion.

Offering assurances to entrenched elites lowers the stakes of politics, making it more likely that they can be persuaded to hand over power. There are several ways this can be done. The creation of independent courts may act as an insurance policy for ex-members of the authoritarian regime, making it less likely that former autocratic elites will suffer political vengeance through prosecution. A broad-based party structure can tie elite interests to those of selected groups of poorer citizens. The establishment of greater checks and balances on government makes it more likely that elites will be able to block any critical threat to their well-being. Finally, if opposition parties eschew radical ideologies that espouse extreme changes in the distribution of resources or the country's cultural and religious values, then elites and their military patrons will feel less threatened and may loosen their grip. For example, the exclusion of Communists, who threatened to expropriate former autocratic elites, from the left-wing alliance of Christian Democratic, Social Democratic, and Socialist party leaders in Portugal in 1975 was key to convincing the military to give democratization a green light, bringing an end to a year and a half of political turmoil following President Antonio Salazar's ouster. It also reduced the likelihood of elites having a reason to topple democracy to protect their interests later down the line. This transition served  as a model for future transitions in Spain and across Latin America.

After autocrats are persuaded to relinquish power, democratic reforms can be introduced gradually, in a way that prevents them from reversing democratic gains. For instance, in the case of Chile, the reserved seats for the military were rescinded sequentially rather than all at once. A major reform that revoked all military seats at once, by contrast, could have easily served as a rallying point for former autocratic elites to launch a coup to cut democracy short. Also, elected politicians can slowly chip away at the influence of illiberal autocratic legacies, such as restrictions on assembly and free expression, by building popular support for stronger political change. One way to do this is for opposition parties that join post-transition parliaments to avoid patronage, and instead base their political platforms on universal policies such as education reform and the promotion of the rule of law. This makes it harder for conservative parties allied with the military to buy votes themselves or to argue that democracy is no better than dictatorship. Clientelist strategies, by contrast, tend to erode the legitimacy of new democracies in the eyes of voters, reinforcing a culture of corruption and increasing the likelihood of support for a coup or democratic backsliding.

Finally, as former autocratic incumbents age, and as their power base shifts, democracy can deepen. Examples of this "wait it out" strategy, in which reformers wait to introduce significant changes until the proponents of holdover institutions are weakened, retired, or die, include Turkey and South Africa.

There is, of course, always the risk that true political pluralism and citizen rights remain stillborn unless the people are allowed to adopt an entirely new constitution that redefines how politics is played. There is considerable truth to that claim -- and it is a risk that faces not only Burma, but also other transitional countries coping with long periods of dominance by the military, such as Egypt. Our research shows that democracies that inherit autocratic constitutions have greater political overrepresentation of economic elites, suffer from more gridlock, and manifest less local autonomy and pluralism. We also find that these "gamed" democracies spend less on education, health, and housing than democracies in which new constitutions are adopted after free and fair elections.

So there is no guarantee that Burma's fitful and tenuous political transition, ironically engineered by seasoned authoritarians, will culminate in liberal democracy. But neither does the country's authoritarian constitution condemn it to eternal dictatorship. In fact, by containing the seeds of future reforms that will allow democracy to flower, this flawed document may be its only hope for a better future.

Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages