Is Obama Doing Enough on Democracy?

08/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The global challenges to democracy were brought into sharper focus over the past month with Iran's crackdown on election protesters and the coup d'etat in Honduras. Soon after these events, President Barack Obama traveled to Russia, where the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian and human rights violations are on the rise, then to Ghana, a country that has emerged as a model for democratic reform on the African continent. Civil society and human rights groups eagerly anticipated this trip and looked for indications that the administration would support democracy, not only in Russia and Ghana, but around the world.

There are basically three ways that an administration can support democracy internationally - through what it says, where it puts its money and what it does. So at the six-month mark, is Obama doing enough to support democracy and human rights activists around the world?

First: The administration's rhetoric on democracy. While there were initial stumbles, exemplified by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's dismissal of human rights in negotiations with China, the administration is making notable progress. Since her Beijing trip, Secretary Clinton has made a point to highlight democracy and human rights issues in her public remarks and is making an effort to meet democracy activists from around the world.

In Moscow, the president's speech before a group of civil society activists marked the most important evolution in the administration's democracy rhetoric. He listed the issues championed by his audience: freedoms of speech and assembly, rule of law, free elections, and accountable government. He reminded them that, "They're universal values. They're human rights. And that's why the United States of America will support them everywhere. That is our commitment. And that is our promise."

Using his personal story as a community organizer and successful opposition politician as a platform, the president is beginning to engage directly with embattled human rights and democracy activists in ways that few other American leaders could.

If his rhetoric is any indication, the president appears to be headed in the right direction.

Second: the financial resources that an administration commits to democracy efforts. Prior to his Russia trip, President Obama released the details of his 2010 budget request to Congress. In its annual analysis, Freedom House found that overall funding requested for democracy and human rights programming increases by nine percent and every region of the world sees an increase. "Making its Mark: An Analysis of the Obama Administration FY10 Budget Request" shows that the administration has sought to bolster funding for important initiatives like the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Near East Regional Democracy fund.

However, the administration requested a cut for the State Department's Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor, the office that writes reports on human rights around the world and provides grants to help support human rights activists. In Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, support for democracy and human rights activists is infinitesimal compared to the challenge they face from entrenched authoritarian governments. The administration decided to maintain historically low funding in this often forgotten corner of the world.

Overall though, the administration's financial investments are an important expression of support and serve to counter a growing anti-democratic tide that is emerging from countries like Russia, China and Iran.

While financial and rhetorical progress is being made, the administration can and should do more. In fact, U.S. diplomats are obligated to by law.

The Advance Democracy Act, enacted into law through the Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, directs chiefs of mission in nondemocratic and transitional countries "to formulate a strategy for democratization, to consult and provide support to democracy activists and movements, to publicly condemn human rights violations, to visit local landmarks associated with nonviolent protest, and to meet with government leaders to discuss human rights and democratization."

While the administration's public rhetoric and funding requests are beginning to address the global challenges to democracy, it is critical that the State Department and National Security Council put the weight of the American foreign policy apparatus behind the work of human rights defenders and democracy activists. The administration should enhance the commitment of chiefs of mission to implement their responsibilities and to do their utmost to support the front line defenders of democracy and human rights within their countries.

The president clearly addressed these democracy issues in Russia and Ghana. His diplomats should interpret his language on democracy not as boilerplate to be diminished, but as a serious policy decision to help those activists most at risk. Like the president said in Moscow, that should be their commitment. And it should be their promise.