Obama's Moment

How the president can seize back the initiative on foreign policy.

In foreign affairs, the central challenge now facing President Barack Obama is how to regain some of the ground lost in recent years in shaping U.S. national security policy. Historically and politically, in America's system of separation of powers, it is the president who has the greatest leeway for decisive action in foreign affairs. He is viewed by the country as responsible for Americans' safety in an increasingly turbulent world. He is seen as the ultimate definer of the goals that the United States should pursue through its diplomacy, economic leverage, and, if need be, military compulsion. And the world at large sees him -- for better or for worse -- as the authentic voice of America.

To be sure, he is not a dictator. Congress has a voice. So does the public. And so do vested interests and foreign-policy lobbies. The congressional role in declaring war is especially important not when the United States is the victim of an attack, but when the United States is planning to wage war abroad. Because America is a democracy, public support for presidential foreign-policy decisions is essential. But no one in the government or outside it can match the president's authoritative voice when he speaks and then decisively acts for America.

This is true even in the face of determined opposition. Even when some lobbies succeed in gaining congressional support for their particular foreign clients in defiance of the president, for instance, many congressional signatories still quietly convey to the White House their readiness to support the president if he stands firm for "the national interest." And a president who is willing to do so publicly, while skillfully cultivating friends and allies on Capitol Hill, can then establish such intimidating credibility that it is politically unwise to confront him. This is exactly what Obama needs to do now.

One move he can make immediately that will strengthen his position: appoint a secretary of state with deep bipartisan support. In today's polarized political climate, Obama would gain important leverage if he were to consider a Republican with a moderate foreign-policy outlook. Of course, it follows that if he chooses a Democrat, it should be someone who commands significant congressional respect on both sides of the aisle.

Even before he has his new team in place, Obama needs to think carefully about his second-term agenda. What kind of legacy does he want to leave behind? And here, what not to do is just as important as what to do. A president who aspires to be recognized as a global leader should not personally stake out a foreign-policy goal, commit himself eloquently to its attainment, and then yield the ground when confronted by firm opposition. The bottom line is that -- whether dealing with an antagonistic Vladimir Putin, the increasingly self-confident leadership of a dramatically rising China, the elusive and evasive Iranians, or the so-called Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" -- Obama's success will depend on the degree to which he is seen as truly committed and dead serious. Commitment and credibility go hand in hand.

For example, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the unfortunate fact is that under the last three presidents, U.S. policy has been either sincere but gutless, or simply cynical. The recent Palestinian statehood vote in the United Nations, in which the United States -- despite its intense efforts -- obtained the support of only eight other states out of a total 188 voting, marks the nadir of the dramatically declined global respect for U.S. capability to cope with an issue that is morally troubling today and, in the long run, explosive. It dramatizes the consequences for the United States of declined bipartisanship in foreign affairs and of the increased influence of lobbies, thus underlining the need for assertive presidential leadership in foreign policy and national security.

In confronting difficult foreign-policy challenges, a president has two potential moments of grand opportunity. The first occurs during his initial year in office because by the fourth year, any attained success will erase the political costs incurred earlier. If he is reelected, the second opportunity arises in the first year of the second term because history, not the public, will henceforth be his ultimate judge. Obama, who has demonstrated a genuinely incisive intellectual grasp of the new challenges that America confronts on the world scene, may never have a better chance to shape what future historians write about his legacy.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Stop Talking About Civil Society

Using terms like "civil society" is a distraction from the real problems in authoritarian countries. 

On November 29, 2012, European Union representative Catherine Ashton discussed her recent trip to Uzbekistan, one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. "I raised the issue of judicial reform, and the increasingly important role that civil society needs to play," she said in a prepared statement. "I had a really good meeting with representatives of Uzbek civil society. Civil society -- including human rights defenders -- forms an important aspect in every reform process and they should be promoted."

When Ashton invokes Uzbekistan's "civil society," one cannot help but wonder to whom she refers. Uzbekistan's government bans any civic organization not under its official sanction, including religious groups, human rights associations, political parties, and independent activists and journalists. After 2005, when the government shot to death hundreds of people attending a protest over the imprisonment of local businessmen, the government expelled nearly all foreign organizations that fund community initiatives. The civil society section of Freedom House's annual Nations in Transit report on Uzbekistan is a round-up of all the people arrested for attempting to create civil society. Each year, more and more of them flee the country.

In Uzbekistan, "civil society" is a secret society, working underground and dodging state persecution, unable to achieve almost any of its aims. They are not a bridge between government and the people, as the definition of "civil society" traditionally implies, but a symbol of the implausibility of such a category in an authoritarian state.

So why would Ashton use such a term? "Civil society" is a buzzword long favored by international organizations, who tend to define the term so broadly that it is nearly meaningless. The World Bank, for example, defines civil society as "the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations." The term "civil society" tends to appeal to Westerners because it is both libertarian, emphasizing a lack of government involvement, and communal, promoting civic duty and concern for one's fellow man. For democratic states, it is an ideal; for authoritarian states, an illusion.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a proliferation of groups seeking to "promote" or "strengthen" civil society in Central Asia. Twenty years later, nearly all these initiatives have failed. Central Asian governments view civil society programs as a threat to their autonomy, while Central Asian citizens tend to regard them with apathy or cynicism, having witnessed firsthand their ineffectiveness and vulnerability to political pressure. Attacks on civil society groups have increased over the past few years. Even Kyrgyzstan, whose abundance of foreign aid organizations lent it the nickname "NGO-stan", has been cracking down, most recently arresting a researcher for the International Crisis Group.

The observation that civil society initiatives have failed should not be interpreted as a criticism of the people working for the organizations in question. Most are sincerely attempting to improve living standards in Central Asia and many have played a vital role in documenting corruption and repression. The problem lies with the term "civil society" itself, and the misguided policy initiatives that have derived from using it as a category of analysis.

"Civil society" is a concept that has little application to the reality of authoritarian rule in many countries. Civil society groups often declare they are apolitical, but to declare oneself as apolitical in an authoritarian state is a political stance. What civil society groups may see as an impartial focus on the citizen, the government interprets as a willingness to act outside of state parameters and ignore state objectives.

In Central Asia, governments portray themselves as both the expression of and the patrons of the people -- a relationship promoted as sacrosanct. That a category of independent, civically engaged citizens should exist outside government patronage is offensive to authoritarian leaders and implausible to the people forced to live under them.

The term "civil society" forces citizens to pick a side -- "the government" or "the people" -- in a system where to choose sides is personally harmful, difficult to practice, and tricky to conceptualize when the government is so thoroughly embedded in citizen life. To be a "civil society activist" is to essentially declare oneself as an enemy of the state. To be an enemy of the state under an authoritarian regime is to be reclassified as an "enemy of the people." That the term is a Western import only increases its subversive status.

Complicating the matter further are groups which promote goals that both Western NGOs and authoritarian regimes find objectionable. In Central Asia, this includes Hizb-ut Tahrir, a nominally banned organization which seeks to improve civic life through Islamic education -- and to replace Central Asia's dictators with a caliphate. Under the sweeping definition of "civil society" used by international organizations, Hizb-ut Tahrir ostensibly qualifies as a civil society group. When religious expression is controlled by the government, as it is in most Central Asian states, citizens will turn to groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir for alternative sources of information on Islam -- but that does not necessarily mean they share the group's goals. Similarly, citizens will seek out Western civil society groups for money, access to technology, or educational advantages without supporting their ideals.

Both the category of "civil society" and the purpose such groups serve for citizens are more ambiguous than either authoritarian governments or Western activists portray them. Daily life in an authoritarian state is a series of compromises, often without ideological underpinnings or firm allegiances. Participation in "civil society" initiatives -- whether those promoting democracy or Islamic fundamentalism -- should not be taken as an indicator of anything other than the resources (or lack thereof) available to the individual in question.

Yet international organizations continue to treat "civil society" as if it were a magic bullet, a set quality that can be "strengthened" until democracy is achieved. In authoritarian states, civil society is not a solution, because it is not even a category. Instead, it is a distraction from the serious problems citizens face. The brevity favored by policy-makers does not reward ambiguity, but "civil society" is a term that should be stricken from the agenda. Authoritarian states are shadowy and self-contradictory enough without introducing a piece of Western jargon that sheds no light on political conditions and potentially harms the people encouraged to identify as its representatives.

Most of all, talking about "civil society" gives authoritarian states far too much credit. Catherine Ashton should not be talking as if civil society exists in Uzbekistan. She should be talking about the tiny group of embattled activists persecuted for promoting democratic ideals. That is not a society. That is an abomination, indicative of the triumph of authoritarianism in Uzbekistan and the inability of Western policy officials to realize meaningful reform.

To acknowledge this defeat is not to preclude hope for a better future. Rather, it is to ground future initiatives in reality instead of abstractions of little local relevance. Authoritarian states need to be challenged, literally and figuratively, on their own terms.