In just the last few weeks, the Russian government has used a show trial to silence a prominent activist, Egypt’s junta has massacred protesters, Turkey has cracked down on peaceful dissent, and the rulers of Cambodia and Zimbabwe have stolen elections — again.
In each case, the Obama administration has done little more than mutter objections under its breath. Such seeming indifference has infuriated human rights and democracy advocates, who are dismayed by the mismatch between the president’s occasional stirring speech and his everyday lack of action.
More hard-boiled types, however — so-called foreign policy realists — have applauded Obama’s sang-froid, arguing that to focus on such issues would only distract him from the pursuit of America’s real interests, and that pressure wouldn’t work anyway.
I find sorting through such arguments difficult. That’s because both cases are made by smart people and with total conviction. And because both positions appeal to different parts of the body, heart vs. head. Yet columnists don’t have the luxury of sitting on the fence; those who do aren’t worth reading. So like a good wonk, I went to look for data. The idea was to use evidence, not sentiment, to settle the debate.
Unfortunately it turns out that there’s no comprehensive social science research on whether pushing regimes to democratize or respect human rights actually works. That might seem incredible. But the problem is that there are too many variables involved to properly conduct a study: So many factors shape states’ behavior that it’s almost impossible to say which are decisive.
While there may not be many conclusive surveys, however, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence, and the scholars who study it have formulated a rough guide to whether and when pressure can, sometimes, have the desired effect.
The first point these experts emphasize is that strong language — naming and shaming — doesn’t do much on its own. Rhetorical condemnation from Washington, like that aimed at the Soviet Union during the Cold War, can comfort local dissidents. And sometimes it changes a regime’s bad behavior in the short term, by getting a few political prisoners released, say. But such changes are rarely lasting or profound.
Threats are a different matter. According to Larry Diamond, a Stanford professor of political science and sociology and a renowned expert on democratization, these can include threatening to reduce or suspend aid, downgrade diplomatic ties, or cut back cooperation on things like military exercises. And these measures can work, if several conditions are met.
First, as Nicolas van de Walle, professor of government at Cornell, told me, the target country has to be small and poor, so that losing aid would cause it serious pain. This was the case with Niger and Gambia: Faced with sustained Western pressure after military coups in the last decade, both caved and restored civilian rule.
Diamond argues that it also helps to have lots of connections to the regime in question. That stands to reason: The more contacts there are between the local government and the outside world, the more levers there are to pull or points on which to apply pressure. Close military links prove especially helpful, as the United States found with the Philippines and South Korea in the 1980s.
Myanmar, meanwhile, which was finally convinced to liberalize by the promise of improved diplomatic and trade ties, shows the value of positive inducements: carrots as well as sticks.
Yet the political scientists who study these questions hasten to point out that you can meet all of these conditions and still fail to effect change. If the target regime is willing to withstand a lot of pain and wreck its country rather than yield (Zimbabwe), or if it’s rich, powerful and well entrenched (China, Russia, Venezuela), or if it knows that the United States needs it as much as it needs U.S. aid (Saudi Arabia) — then even the harshest forms of inducement are unlikely to accomplish anything.
There’s no way to guarantee success, in other words. There is, however, a way to guarantee failure: for the United States to waffle.
Which brings things back to the Obama administration. Whether out of reticence, ambivalence, tactical calculation or the difficulty of making policy in Washington, the administration’s response to the human rights violators it has faced in five years in office has been mealy-mouthed and confusing. In Egypt’s case, Washington backed Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship until Mubarak had no chance of surviving, then switched course and backed his democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi. But then it refused to openly criticize Morsi when his behavior grew increasingly authoritarian. Then, when Mubarak’s old cronies then threw Morsi out, Obama seemed to switch course again and refused to criticize them either. Adding to the confusion, in just the last week, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham visited Cairo to push the generals to restore civilian control while Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to defend them by declaring that the Egyptian military had acted to restore democracy.
The result of this vacillation? All sides in Egypt now hate the United States, which they’re convinced backs their enemies.
What this suggests is that even more important than having the right policy is having a policy, and sticking to it. By trying to play both sides, the Obama administration is winning over neither. It’s left with the worst of all worlds, and both Americans and the people of Egypt, Turkey, Cambodia, Zimbabwe (you can go down the list) are paying the price.