Mind Your Own Business

Why America needs to fix its problems at home before messing around in Asia.

Leading a responsible nation requires delicate balancing. U.S. President Barack Obama must manage the time he spends on domestic and international politics, so he doesn't neglect thorny national issues, or overlook international situations where the United States claims to desire to play an important role. When a nation's foreign policy is more assertive than its domestic policy, problems can arise. Back in November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that "In the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in." Clearly, he has both overstepped and not followed-up. But if Obama were able to balance this so-called "pivot" to Asia with domestic concerns, Asia-Pacific nations would welcome the United States as a responsible stakeholder in the region. Unfortunately, these days, that is not the case.

In early October of this year, Obama announced he would not be attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the premier gathering of Asian leaders, held October 7-8 in Indonesia. This is not the first time Obama has failed to attend top gatherings of the region's leaders. Though he dispatched the capable John Kerry to attend on his behalf, the secretary of state lacks Obama's stature, and thus is less able to push the U.S. regional agenda.

Obama appears overwhelmed by domestic problems. He cancelled his Asia trip because of the U.S. government shutdown, which arose from his desire to defend "Obamacare," his controversial health care program. Promoting universal medical insurance has been part of his party's platform for over half a century; similar plans are already available in many industrialized countries. However, Obama may have failed to understand a fundamental tenet of American exceptionalism: The United States has a unique history and culture that allows its citizens great liberty -- and many believe that includes the right not to buy medical insurance.   

Republicans may deserve most of the blame for the government shutdown, but as president, Obama shoulders the ultimate responsibility for shaping the nation's agenda and forging consensus so the government does not fall apart. Obama has been pushing the right agenda, but at the wrong time: Obamacare shouldn't be prioritized until the United States is able to balance its budget and foster the growth of middle-class incomes.

Obama's Asia policy suffers from the same excess of ambition and lack of balancing as his healthcare policy. Washington has expressed concern about Chinese vessels conducting economic activity in several Southeast Asian nations' exclusive economic zones. And the White House worries about China's "assertive" handling of territorial disputes with U.S. allies, including the Diaoyu -- islands in the East China Sea which Japan claims -- and Huangyan, a shoal in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. By meddling with the Diaoyus, Obama is taking an unbalanced stance in favor of Japan, thus stirring up tensions in East Asia.

Despite the controversies that periodically flair up between China and Japan, both countries' willingness to shelve the long-standing dispute secured four decades of regional peace and stability, ever since the two countries normalized their relationship in 1972. However, by nationalizing the main islands in September 2012, Japan disturbed the status quo and forced China to respond. The United States could have checked its ally's incautious and irresponsible behavior. Instead, it encouraged Tokyo: In April, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Diaoyu "fall under" the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which requires the United States to defend Japan. 

In the South China Sea, if the United States wished to act responsibly it would be building regional consensus based on international law. Ensuring that all Asian nations honor the U.N Charter and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which legislates maritime behavior, would be a good start.  

But the United States has not succeeded in convincing Asia-Pacific nations that these international laws are crucial to their foreign policy. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have all tacitly or explicitly admitted Beijing's sovereignty over the islands and islets within the South China Sea's nine-dashed line. However, these three countries have all seized some islands and islets on the Chinese side of the nine-dashed line. The United States has failed to fairly judge the dispute -- in fact, once again, it encourages these nations to contest Chinese claims. And even though the United States has not ratified the UNCLOS, it has asked China to allow that convention to govern its maritime behavior. If the United States were a responsible actor in the region, it would have ensured everyone plays by the same set of rules.

China is open to working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to draw up and implement regional rules. In mid-September, China discussed with ASEAN nations a South China Sea Code of Conduct that would help reduce tensions and ensure responsible behavior. And in his keynote speech at the APEC summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of Asia-Pacific nations working together for their mutual benefit, and indicated a willingness to build regional consensus.

The United States pivot to Asia is not unwelcome -- but for it to be a responsible and sensible policy, it has to be a balanced one. Otherwise, U.S. action will not only be counterproductive, but too costly for a nation currently mired in a budgetary quandary. No one wants the United States to stay away from East Asia -- but if it can't manage the task, perhaps it should stay focused on the problems within its own borders.  

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

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So What About the Other 364 Days a Year?

Forget the single-minded focus on election day. What Azerbaijan needs is support for its civil society.

Azerbaijan -- a country that boasts lots of oil and little in the way of democracy -- is holding a presidential election tomorrow. The current leader, Ilham Aliyev, is firmly in the saddle. The opposition is weak. The West's efforts to promote democracy there have so far done little to change the situation.

All this means that the result of tomorrow's poll is a foregone conclusion. But that doesn't mean that supporters of democracy should give up. In places like Azerbaijan, election day merely serves as a reminder that democracy also depends on what happens during the other 364 days a year. Just to be clear: this is not to deride the importance of voting. But genuine democracy also requires a flourishing civil society, the myriad institutions that allow people to organize their lives and express their desire for change as they see fit.

President Aliyev knows this, and he's correspondingly determined to prevent any challenges to his rule by cracking down on all and every manifestation of authentic associational life. In 2011, as the revolts of the Arab Spring were gathering momentum, reform-minded bloggers in Baku began to organize on Facebook. They intentionally scheduled their first antigovernment demonstration, called "Great People's Day," one month after the day of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation.  For the first time in Azerbaijan's history, three separate opposition forces allied to oppose the regime. The regime sprang into action -- with arrests, detentions, and fines.

As "Great People's Day" approached, the government arrested a number of activists and raided and, in some cases, shuttered independent NGOs. The government also suspended the activities of foreign-funded organizations like the National Democratic Institute and Human Rights House in Azerbaijan, a partner of the international Human Rights House Network. The cabinet also approved stricter registration procedures for international NGOs.

The state marshaled its resources. Administrators prevented subway trains in Baku from stopping near a popular protest site, and Baku State University forced students to stay late and threatened to expel any student who participated in protests.

The regime began to employ more sophisticated methods after the early protests in March 2011. The Facebook page for a planned demonstration in April was deleted by Facebook after a spam attack of unknown origin. The authorities monitored social media sites and used the information they gleaned to arrest and intimidate activists. 

These measures succeeded in tamping down the protests. Western-educated urban elites who had organized protests online, a group duly dubbed "the Facebook Generation," were quickly detained and arrested when they attempted to demonstrate in downtown Baku. In March and April 2011, the police employed a zero-tolerance policy toward public protests.  A year passed more or less quietly.

In early March 2012, two months before Azerbaijan hosted the high-publicity Eurovision Competition, the tactics changed, at least outside of Baku. In Quba, thousands of protesters burned government buildings after the regional governor's insulting remarks about local residents went viral on YouTube. Before this, most protests had been confined to Baku; when the government suddenly found itself confronting potentially explosive outrage in the countryside, it reacted cautiously. 

President Aliyev promptly fired the governor, restored order and was praised for listening to public opinion.  During the confrontation, Aliyev instructed local authorities not to use weapons on the protestors. For their part, the demonstrators limited their demands to local ones, namely the resignation of the regional governor. Demonstrators held placards with President Ilham Aliyev's photo to show their support for him while demanding the local governor's ouster.

But in Baku, the pattern was "wearingly familiar": Facebook Generation leaders would call for a protest and the authorities would immediately arrest those who turned out. During the Eurovision competition in May 2012, youth activists and opposition parties made multiple attempts to hold rallies calling for the end of the Aliyev in Baku that were easily stopped.

2013 has already seen four large protests -- three in Baku and one in Ismayilli -- and the authorities have responded by violently suppressing them with tear gas and water cannons. The demands coming from the 2013 protests were surprisingly parochial, however, and apolitical citizens organized three of the four demonstrations. None called for President Aliyev to resign. 

No one should expect anything new from the presidential election on Oct. 9. The outcome of this more or less rigged exercise is hardly in doubt, but the opposition isn't totally hopeless this time around. For the first time since independence, the country's opposition nominated a single candidate for president, Camil Hasanli.

But the opposition's unity will have a minimal impact on what is, to put it bluntly, a sham. The regime manipulates the elections -- mainly through near-total control of the media -- before voters set off to the polls. As a result, election day itself usually proceeds with few obvious irregularities. And yet, according to reports by reputable observers, Azerbaijan has never held an election that met international standards.

The bottom line is that Azerbaijan cannot continue to clamp down on freedom of expression, religion, and political life, or else it risks an Arab-style revolution, greater religious extremism, and even greater levels of human capital flight.

Many friends of democracy around the world might respond by pointing out that the Arab Spring itself hardly presents an encouraging precedent. The leader of the group, Tunisia, is experiencing profound domestic turmoil that has just led to the resignation of its elected coalition government; at the other end of the spectrum, Syria remains mired in a brutal civil war.

Yet it's important to keep an eye on the bottom line. It is precisely the chaos in the Arab world that should cause us to redouble our commitment to a gradual democratic transition away from authoritarianism elsewhere in the world. The Arab uprisings began with thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and finally millions of citizens taking to the streets, chanting, "The people want the fall of the regime."

The fact is that nothing sparks hunger for change like authoritarian torpor. The upheaval that ensued is a potent reminder that the greatest threat to society -- and international order -- comes from the destruction of civil society that is the specialty of the most virulent authoritarian regimes. When associational life is destroyed and only radical underground groups survive authoritarian repression, there are no good outcomes. Peaceful democratic change remains the best chance of avoiding these negative scenarios.

In the end, Western policymakers looking at Azerbaijan (or any other authoritarian country) cannot reckon with the comfortable continuation of authoritarianism: they must prepare for the possibility of change.  In order to increase the chances of a positive outcome, they should press for the development of civil society and the gradual but irreversible introduction of genuine democratic processes. At the same time, they should study the messy transitions underway in the Arab world and integrate corresponding lessons into the ongoing endeavor of movement toward a more democratic world.

As for policymakers in the United States, finding the right strategy might be a good start. In particular, it's time for Washington to cut its assistance to programs that promote political party competition in Azerbaijan. Since independence, the United States has squandered $55 million in democracy and governance programs in Azerbaijan with little to show for it. Some observers would argue that the country is actually worse off than it was 10 years ago. Instead, the United States should focus on assisting civil society along the model of the National Endowment for Democracy and avoid funding government organized non-governmental organizations as it has in the past.

Let's be realistic: the likelihood of even modest democratic change in Azerbaijan is infinitesimally low in the short term. Yet there's no point in abandoning efforts to promote change simply because of discouraging election results. Gradual but determined steps toward democratization offer the only viable path toward long-term stability in the country. No one ever achieved democracy through a quick fix -- and certainly not in a single day.