Opinion/Column: The limits of human rights and diplomacy

    Americans have been convinced since the founding of the republic that all nations should adopt our system of individual rights and government elected by the people, because it is the best form of government.

     Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2015 1:15 am

    Donald Nuechterlein

    Americans have been convinced since the founding of the republic that all nations should adopt our system of individual rights and government elected by the people, because it is the best form of government.

    Most European states were then ruled by kings and the nobility, not by citizens in free elections. A century and a half ago, we fought a costly civil war to reaffirm our commitment to government by the people.

    All European countries today, with the exception of Russia, have regimes that guarantee individual rights, free elections and the rule of law. Despite vigorous efforts by Russia’s liberal elements a few years ago to bring about real democracy, Vladimir Putin has turned the government into an increasingly repressive regime, while keeping the trappings of a democracy.

    To our south, most Latin American states 30 years ago adopted democratic rule in place of the military dictatorships that ruled many of them — including Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Nevertheless, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador are either communist-led regimes (Cuba) or authoritarian ones that restrict individual rights and a free press.

    It’s notable that President Obama reopened relations with Cuba this year even though there’s little evidence the regime will relax its tight controls. Human rights did not have to top priority in this case.

    In East Asia, many countries — including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and Singapore — are functioning democracies. But others — notably China, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma — are ruled by communist parties or by authoritarian military leaders.

    Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, is now a functioning democracy. 

    It’s the Middle East and East Africa that present Washington with a major dilemma in foreign policy: How to promote democracy as well as regional security in this turbulent and highly strategic region. How far should we press human rights and democracy on countries that have never practiced it and whose support we need to pursue U.S. vital strategic interests in the area?

    Egypt is the best example of this quandary. Here’s the largest Arab country, with a long history but no experience with democracy except for a brief, chaotic rule by the Muslim Brotherhood party. The 2011 ouster of Egypt’s military leader and president, Hosni Mubarak, by dissidents was intended to form a constitutional democracy, but resulted in the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. The Brotherhood’s controversial policy to move Egypt toward Islamic governance, and its failure to deal with the economic crisis, then led to massive protests in Cairo 2014 and precipitated a military takeover headed by Gen. Abdel al-Sisi, now Egypt’s new president.

    The Arab Spring brought hope to millions of Egyptians that democracy would finally arrive. But it was not to be, as the country turned again to the military to maintain order. The Obama administration continues to provide Egypt with arms, even though liberal members of Congress object to assisting its repressive government. Again, human rights got a lower priority in U.S. policy.

    Saudi Arabia is another prime example of conflict between human rights and foreign policy priorities. Here is the richest country in the Middle East and one of America’s oldest supporters in the region. It is also deeply concerned about Iran’s efforts to undermine Arab governments and was stunned by the Obama administration’s acquiescence in the ouster of President Mubarak in Egypt and emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Saudi Arabia’s new king recently appointed younger, more conservative members of the royal family to key cabinet posts. They insist on continuing the air war against Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels.

    Washington’s efforts to restrain the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen were met with rebuff from Riyadh. The Saudi ambassador to Washington said his government would continue the air strikes until Houthi insurgents stopped their war against Yemen. A New York Times headline April 23 read: “Saudi Defiance Reflects Limits on U.S. Strategy.”

    Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry insist on negotiating with Iran over its nuclear weapons ambitions, but they will lose influence over the future actions of key Arab states. Like Israel, they fear Iran’s eventual dominance of the Persian Gulf and adjoining regions to the west.

    Eventually, these states might ask Washington not just for arms, but also for a formal U.S. guarantee of their security. That would put the White House on the cusp of an even larger dilemma.

    Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist, author and lecturer who lives near Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected].

    SOURCE www.dailyprogress.com