Talking A Great Game By Christian Caryl

July 11, 2012

So far, Washington’s pivot to Asia has included a lot of work on security and trade. Democracy, not so much.

Hillary Clinton is approaching the final phase of an astonishing 13-day tour of the world. She’s spent much of her trip in Asia, including stops in Mongolia, Vietnam, and Laos. And that, of course, is entirely in keeping with the Obama administration’s interest in re-orienting U.S. foreign policy to that part of the world as part of the famous “pivot.”

The pivot, of course, is motivated by the realization that it’s the rise of China (and certainly not a bunch of ragged Islamist revolutionaries) that poses the greatest challenge to U.S. dominance in the 21st century. It is Asia that is the new fulcrum of the global economy, and it is Asia that is home to some of the world’s most pressing global security challenges — especially now that some states in the region find themselves directly confronting the Chinese over territory and resources.

So it’s no wonder that Washington policymakers describe both trade and security as central to their new Asian agenda. But in the meantime a lot of people have forgotten that the pivot was always supposed to be based on a third ingredient: support for democracy.

“If the secretary is serious that the values we hold are an important part of the pivot, then the administration needs to advance them alongside — or ahead of — security and trade,” says Ellen Bork, a longtime Asia expert at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative Washington policy group.

Interestingly, Secretary Clinton has used her trip as an occasion to remind us of precisely that point. During her visit to Mongolia, she gave a stirring speech about U.S. efforts to bolster open societies in Asia — even going so far as to describe “support for democracy and human rights” as the “heart” of the new American strategy. She also attended a high-profile meeting with a number of other leaders from the Community of Democracies, the club of democratic countries established in 2000 for the express purpose of furthering their common values. Their choice of venue for this particular meeting might seem a bit odd, but it was actually pretty appropriate, considering the remarkable progress that the Mongolians have been making with their own democratic system over the past two decades.

All fine and good. It’s certainly important to talk about democratic values. It boosts the morale of activists and raises the blood pressure of despots. Beyond that, though, what has the shift in U.S. policy brought the region’s would-be democracies so far?

Secretary Clinton cited several achievements:

“So we speak out against repressive laws and harassment of civil society. We’ve created an emergency fund for NGOs and individuals who come under threat. We have strongly supported a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Assembly at the UN Human Rights Council. We have created a new global forum, the Open Government Partnership, to promote transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. And we speak out on behalf of marginalized people — racial, religious, ethnic minorities, LGBT people, and yes, still women.”

An emergency fund for NGOs sounds like a worthy initiative — even if there is only a few million dollars in the kitty. The Open Government Partnership is admirable, too, at least in theory. But a new position at the U.N. Human Rights Council? Let’s just say that I’m not holding my breath.

What else? While Hillary was in Ulaanbaatar, she also attended the launch of a new international initiative called the LEND Network, a State Department-assisted effort that aims to use personal contacts and state-of-the-art technology to provide leaders in places aspiring to democracy with urgently needed know-how. The idea is to let aspiring democrats schmooze with people from countries that have recently gone through their own democratic transitions. This seems eminently sensible. Nowadays, Egyptians or Sudanese are much more likely to listen to Turks or Indonesians lecture them on the values of democracy than to Americans or Europeans. But it is ultimately pretty modest stuff.

It’s worth noting that none of the initiatives she mentions apply specifically to Asia. She cited the progress in Burma as evidence of the success of resolute American support for democracy there, and perhaps that’s true. But I doubt that she scored many points. Many in the region continue to argue that it was precisely the engagement policies of regional organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that bore fruit there, and not any grand strategic design on the part of the United States. (What if it was the combination of both approaches that finally had an effect?) The discussion, at any rate, continues.

And what about speaking out on behalf of marginalized people? Hillary’s speech in Mongolia did send a barb in the direction of China, Asia’s biggest human rights abuser. “We need to make the 21st century a time in which people across Asia don’t only become more wealthy,” she said. “They must also become more free.” Yes. But I doubt that this gentle rhetoric really caused any sleepless nights in Beijing — especially considering that she never mentioned China by name in her speech.

Equally revealing were the remarks she made in Vietnam, her next stop after Mongolia. Facing the cameras after her meeting with the Vietnamese foreign minister, she spoke about the importance of “economic growth,” and regional security cooperation, and then some more about economics and trade. Finally, near the end of her speech, came this:

“Democracy and prosperity go hand in hand, political reform and economic growth are linked, and the United States wants to support progress in both areas.

So I also raised concerns about human rights, including the continued detention of activists, lawyers, and bloggers, for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas. In particular, we are concerned about restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club. The Foreign Minister and I agreed to keep talking candidly and to keep expanding our partnership.”

So she “raised concerns.” It’s good to hear that somebody is talking candidly about these things in Vietnam — a country that remains under one-party rule just as onerous as that in China. Yet you can bet that her hosts carefully noted the order of priorities in her speech. As Hillary mentioned, trade between the two countries now amounts to $22 billion a year. Vietnam, with an eye to China’s increasingly aggressive play in the South China Sea, is eager to rev up its military cooperation with Washington. With monster deliverables like these in play, surely even the Politburo in Hanoi ought to be ready to endure some serious lectures on human rights.

“We’re always complaining that we don’t have leverage in these countries,” says Bork. “But here’s a perfect case of one where we do. It makes sense for us to introduce us some respect for reforms, for human rights, demands for qualitative change, into our negotiations with Vietnam. But I don’t see it happening.” Human Rights Watch, for its part, has called upon Clinton to make human rights the centerpiece of her discussions at the ASEAN summit that she’ll be attending in Phnom Penh beginning on July 11.

So what, in the end, is the United States specifically doing to support democracy in Asia? I can’t really point to much that’s substantial or concrete. Talk is cheap (particularly when you compare it with the billions, say, that Washington continues to send to the militaries in Pakistan and Egypt every year). How about some large-scale funding for civil society groups in Burma, for example? That’s just the kind of thing that could really make a genuine difference in one of Asia’s most strategically situated countries. But so far there’s no sign of anything comparable in the offing.

Christian Caryl is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, and a senior fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies

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