Foreign policy and autocrats

If we bet on the stability of authoritarian states, we will be right most of the time, but wrong at the crucial time.

History is made when the weather suddenly changes -- by deviations from the normal course of events. The challenge for American diplomacy is not to wait for shifts in favor of human rights and democracy before scrambling to appear to support them. It is not to wait until a dictator is half-way out the door before you condemn his abuses, freeze his assets, and demand free elections. It is to promote change in repressive states before it appears inevitable. If you think there is only a 10 percent chance that Egypt's post-Mubarak transition will usher in a government that answers to its people, or that in the next few years the Burmese military junta might compromise with the democratic opposition, or that a popular movement might successfully challenge political repression in Iran, then why not do what you can to help raise the odds to 20 or 30 percent?

By Tom Malinowski, Foreign Policy, January 25, 2011

German foreign policy seems to have an erratic behaviour in regard to demanding better governance and/or democracy in public. Sometimes delegations travel to a dictatorship and say nothing, sometimes they demand/propose democracy.
It looks to me as if the system behind it is actually bartering, as if German foreign politicians barter for the permission to criticize the host - and as if they don't criticize without such a permission.

The German foreign policy does certainly not make the impression of a crusade for democracy and freedom. It creates in regard to democracy/freedom rather the impression of a PR stunt series for the domestic voters.

That's odd, for in most cases the only risk is the risk to damage German business interests. Such a trade-off between pushing for freedom and domestic business interests seems only ethical if - and only if - there's really almost nothing to be gained. A predictably ineffective push for freedom (it might even be counter-productive) weights indeed lightly enough to be outweighed by business interests.

The article "Whispering at Autocrats" makes the point that this expectation of ineffectiveness is probably wrong if a country is ripe for revolution or if an autocratic government is dependent on foreign powers playing along.

Both the U.S. and individual European countries have likely most often not enough weight to topple distant autocratic regimes through mere critique, but the potential is still there.
A united EU could push an autocratic regime off balance at times - especially if the ties are rather close (or short).

The U.S. - entangled in much of the world as it is - has probably created enough connections to be able to deal decisive blows to autocratic some regimes through soft power as well.

The current events should kick off a reappraisal of our foreign policy in regard to autocratic regimes.
A democratic world is no safer world and thus no national security policy achievement, but it's a better world.



  1. "A democratic world is no safer world and thus no national security policy achievement, but it's a better world."

    This seems to be the core issue. Yes, a better world. Then again, its also better not to have low-income-countries employing children and illiterate people for mass-production of cheap goods to be consumed by significant parts of the Western world. But nothing makes an educated and open-minded Western citizen unhappy more quickly than rising retail prices.

    Its essentially the same issue as in Europe, ie. "liberating" the Eastern countries, with all the perceived (ie. not necessarily correct) repercussions for the Western peoples own material wealth.

    Its the perceptions that matter, and in this regard, throwing in a bit of populistic nonsense, as is so fashionable these days, Western populations will waver more than once in their resolution to back such developments if they hold potential unhappiness for themselves - if only for the shortest time.

    The other question for me is, should such developments really be triggered or instead only be supported, when they are clearly detectable? What I mean is, that "creating" one or another sort of momentum from the outside is always a dangerous gamble, that can backfire badly. Astute observation and a little more long-term thinking however seem very desirable with events such as now in the Arab nations. After all, why thinking in extremes...reducing the efforts to actually empower such regimes would already be quite beneficial in the long time before any clear signs of revolution can be seen. In a way Malinowski chooses the most convenient case, the regime, that is either totally dependent or ready to fall. But many regimes are not quite there yet (see Saudi-Arabia, Yemen etc and a number of African nations).

  2. Usually the position western politicians take is this, "We support democracy in other countries, as long as the voters choose what we want them to choose."