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  • Internet Freedom and the Challenge of a Principled Foreign Policy
  • Theodore Kahn

In his article Internet Freedom: Historic Roots and the Road Forward, State Department innovation advisor Alec Ross offers a compelling vision of a U.S. foreign policy grounded in the principles of freedom and individual rights. In his vision, a proactive State Department would monitor and report violations of Internet freedom by foreign governments and actively counter their efforts by spreading the technology and skills needed to circumvent censorship. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials would engage in diplomacy to encourage Internet repressors to change their ways. Such a policy could have a powerful impact on the state of democracy and human rights around the world. Unfortunately, the Obama administration does not seem especially interested in pursuing it.

The Internet freedom agenda Ross outlines falls under the rubric of democracy promotion. As the article points out, democracy promotion—the idea that the United States should encourage the development of plural, democratic governments abroad—has a long history in U.S. foreign policy. While most presidents and top diplomats have embraced the principle in their rhetoric, U.S. support for democracy has a mixed record in practice. The Bush years provide a case in point. The administration couched many of its aggressive foreign policy actions—most notably the invasion of Iraq— in the language of democracy promotion. This association with the foreign policy milieu of the Bush years, and the Iraq War in particular, has seriously damaged democracy promotion’s reputation in Washington. Indeed, many of its day-to-day practitioners in the development field avoid using the term, preferring the more technocratic “democracy assistance.”

Undoubtedly aware of this sentiment, President Obama has not made democracy promotion a foreign policy priority of his administration. There have been encouraging words, such as his speech in Cairo last June where Obama expressed his “commitment to governments that reflect the will of the people,” but few actions to reflect that commitment.1 Instead, the administration has embraced a variety of authoritarian regimes for strategic reasons. We have continued our close ties with Arab autocrats such as Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for three decades, and the Saudi royal family; Obama has embraced Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, even as the Putin protégé and his mentor increasingly monopolize political power and abet a disturbing crackdown on civil society; and most glaringly, the [End Page 17] administration has studiously avoided provoking China’s leadership on issues surrounding rights and political freedoms. The anecdote in Alec Ross’ piece neatly makes the point: Obama’s tepid endorsement of “openness” was promptly censored by the Chinese, with no objection on the part of the U.S. administration.

Of course, the reasoning behind these policy choices is straightforward. In each of the instances mentioned above, the United States maintains a strategic relationship with the government in question that the administration deems more valuable than promoting human rights or civil liberties in those countries. In the case of Egypt, for example, President Mubarak has been a willing partner in U.S. security initiatives in the region. The United States has been loath to risk jeopardizing that cooperation by pushing Mubarak to expand political freedoms—a process that could, of course, bring about his replacement by a less friendly government. But it is unclear whether the assumptions underlying this strategic calculus are correct. During his second term, President Bush did make a push for political openness in the Middle East; Mubarak responded at the time with unprecedented reforms but quickly backtracked after an Islamist group did well in elections. The Bush administration did not press the issue, but the point remains that the United States has the leverage to prod our allies on issues such as human rights and political freedoms while maintaining a cooperative, strategic relationship. Indeed, Egypt watchers have pointed out that security relations with the United States remained strong throughout this period.2

More importantly, the supposed trade-off—a compromise on democratic principles for gains in national security—might actually undermine the ultimate objective. In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East authoritarian regimes have spurred the politicization and radicalization of Islamist groups, the ultimate...


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