Michael Hirsh asks the wrong question:
Is it just a coincidence that at the same time as the Obama administration seems less worried about democracy than deal-making overseas, Russia and China are both cracking down on press freedoms and democracy, Vladimir Putin is ruthlessly seeking to reabsorb Ukraine into the Kremlin’s orbit, Egyptian democrats have retreated into virtual silence, and the Syrian secular opposition is fading away fast?
Hirsh thinks it isn’t, but almost all of these are coincidences. With some exceptions, many of Egypt’s “democrats” eagerly supported the military coup over the summer. The administration deserves criticism for failing to suspend all military aid to the post-coup government, but even if it had done this it is not likely that the conditions inside Egypt would be any better. Even if the administration were very concerned about democracy in Egypt, it’s not clear that it could have done anything that would have helped to bolster democracy in Egypt, since that is entirely up to Egyptians. The U.S. has some responsibility for what happens in a client state, but considering how little influence the U.S. has (or ever truly had) over what the Egyptian government does it is hard to take seriously that it is within Washington’s power to dissuade authoritarian regimes from behaving in an authoritarian fashion. Likewise, it is hard to believe that the U.S. is capable of enabling any government to behave badly when that government is not dependent to some significant degree on U.S. support.
There are U.S. policies that can provoke authoritarian governments to greater external hostility (see U.S.-Russian relations between 2003 and 2009), but the U.S. has little or no ability to pressure other major powers into changing their internal behavior. The Kremlin abused dissidents, journalists, and opposition members when U.S. Russia policy was confrontational and democracy promotion was officially a high priority in the last decade, and it is still doing so when democracy promotion is a much lower priority. The willingness and ability of an authoritarian regime to crack down on its opponents does not noticeably change based on what the U.S. does or doesn’t do. Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, but so far all that this has achieved was to provoke Moscow into shredding the adoption agreement it had just reached with the U.S.
The idea we “embolden” foreign authoritarian rulers to behave as authoritarians at home is baseless, and it is a statement about how important we think we are in the world rather than an explanation of why other governments behave the way they do. Putin and Xi can “crack down with relative impunity” today, but then that has been true of these governments for a long time. There is no real connection between how these governments behave at home and how the U.S. deals with them. Indeed, Hirsh doesn’t even try to demonstrate a link, but just asserts that there is one and leaves it at that.