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The Obama Administration and Democracy Diplomacy

January 16, 2012

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have just issued a report by Thomas Carothers, Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat that looks at the place of democracy promotion in recent US foreign policy.  The basic thrust is that while the Obama Administration came to office inclined to deemphasize democracy under the force of events they have take on a greater prominence

As popular uprisings spread across the Arab world in 2011, the administration faced its most important and high-profile democracy challenge. While the advance of political change in the Arab world could be a watershed moment for the region, it also threatens to jeopardize various American economic and security interests. The U.S. policy response has been correspondingly mixed, combining support for democratization where it appears to be occurring with a willingness to continue close ties with seemingly stable authoritarian governments.

The Obama team’s overall engagement on democracy support is multifaceted and significant, and is rooted in a set of guiding principles that have helped revitalize the U.S. profile on the topic. At the same time, the administration downplays democracy and human rights in a number of nondemocratic countries for the sake of other interests. This inconsistency represents a familiar pattern rather than a change in U.S. policy.  The difference is that today, in response to growing multipolarity, the United States has moved away from any single, overarching foreign policy narrative rooted in the idea of remaking the world in the image of the United States.

The democracy agenda creates a need for traditional diplomacy – high level interventions in support of democracy – but also a range of public engagement activities that involve aid  agencies and civil society actors.  This is an area where the distinctions between diplomacy, public diplomacy and development become extremely blurred.

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