Fred Hiatt concludes his latest column on Obama’s foreign policy with this non sequitur:
In 2012, according to Freedom House, three countries became freer and more democratic, while 27 became less so — the seventh consecutive year of more declines than gains. That’s an unprecedented streak in the wrong direction — and not consistent with long-term, hard-headed U.S. interests.
This is an odd way for Hiatt to end his complaint about Obama’s foreign policy, because it so clearly demonstrates the limits of what the U.S. can influence. These limits have nothing to do with the president in office at any given time. This trend in declining global freedom and increased authoritarianism around the globe predates Obama and began at the height of the so-called “freedom agenda” when the U.S. was still occupying Iraq, which tells us that hyperactive or less active U.S. foreign policy has little or nothing to do with whether or not other nations liberalize and democratize. This suggests that the U.S. doesn’t have much ability to discourage or reverse this trend, and it also suggests that the U.S. has little success in promoting liberal democracy abroad even when our policies are at their most ideologically ambitious and activist. It’s not immediately obvious why this trend isn’t consistent with “long-term, hard-headed U.S. interests,” but even if this is true it’s even less clear what the U.S. could do to change it.
What if it is not true that “U.S. engagement and influence” can “open the world to more democracy and more prosperity”? More countries are becoming less free and less democratic, but the reason for this in many countries is that the middle class has increasingly soured on democracy when it empowers or threatens to empower majorities that don’t share their economic and political interests. Joshua Kurlantzick has been documenting this phenomenon for the last several years:
It seems, however, that this new global middle is choosing stability over all else. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, the rising middle class has often supported the military as a bulwark against popular democracy, fearing that it might empower the poor, the religious, and the less-educated.
That shouldn’t surprise us. This is hardly be the first time that middle-class liberals recoiled from mass democracy and/or religious movements. The important thing to bear in mind here is that the U.S. can’t change middle-class opposition to democratization in their own countries no matter how “engaged” it is in the world. Of course, it’s possible that this trend is temporary, but we should also consider the possibility that the U.S. may have to “engage” a world that is becoming less free and less democratic regardless of what the U.S. is doing abroad.