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By William Fisher
Political pundits have been making a big deal of the ’similarities’ between foreign policy positions taken by President Bush and Senator Kerry. In contrast, some observers have been calling Senator Edwards – in the words of the Washington Post – a “politician willing to push beyond conventional foreign policy ideas and introduce imaginative proposals….”
The reality is that neither contention is true. The differences between Kerry and Bush may well be ‘nuanced’. And many of Senator Edwards’s ‘imaginative’ foreign policy ideas may have been around for years in one form or another.
So do we have a two-party Tweedledee and Tweedledum? On the contrary. The major differences between the two sets of presidential and vice presidential candidates are vast. But they are less about substance than about nuance and style. This is not unimportant; in foreign policy nuance and style are critical to consensus-building and, therefore, to success.
Senator Edwards’s recent proposals on US policy toward the Middle East provide an informative glimpse into his ideas.
For example, in what he calls his ‘Strategy for Freedom’, Edwards would create an "organization for security and cooperation" in the Middle East. Its mission would be to bring reform-leaning Arab and Western Governments together to promote and finance transparent political and economic reforms.
The Bush administration later promoted a similar idea, the Greater Middle East Initiative, to be undertaken cooperatively by G-8 and Arab nations. It was seen by virtually every Arab government as an attempt to ‘impose democracy from outside’. Shortly afterward, Republic Senator Richard Lugar outlined a plan for the G-8 to engage with the Greater Middle East “in a way that allows the nations of the region to set their own priorities for the new millennium”. Lugar’s plan, the Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust, would unite the G8 countries to partner with wealthy Arab states to “pool resources to deliver grants…based, in part, on the high priority needs identified in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Reports, which were written by Arab scholars.”
Also in the Middle East, Edwards proposes to reorient US assistance toward
non-governmental bodies and away from non-democratic governments led by dictators who show no interest or offer only false promises in developing democracy. Edwards would also encourage democratic reforms by rewarding good performers -- those who demonstrate respect for democratic practices and a willingness to implement political reform - with increased aid, incentives for investment, and debt relief.
On a more global basis, in 2002 President Bush unveiled the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), designed to increase core US development assistance by more than 50 percent over the next three years by making grants to poor countries to spur economic growth and attract investment. The MCA is limited to “countries that govern justly, invest in their people, and open their economies to enterprise and entrepreneurship…”
Edwards also proposes linking US aid to progress on human rights and democracy. The US has, from time to time, attempted to create this kind of linkage. A couple of years ago, the State Department used quiet diplomacy ‘under the radar’ to tell Egypt – one of the largest recipients of American assistance – to clean up its democracy act. If it made the policy uniform, a large minority of US aid beneficiaries would find themselves on the ‘democracy blacklist’. These include many important US strategic allies, like Pakistan.
Another Edwards idea is a “freedom list” to expose governments that jail dissidents for political or religious expression and persuade them free such prisoners. For a decade, the US State Department has published and widely publicized an annual Human Rights Report that does precisely that. Similar initiatives are taken by the UN Human Rights Commission and by many non-governmental human rights groups around the world.
Edwards also proposes a "Democracy Caucus" at the United Nations to punish members who fail to embrace democratic reforms by excluding them from powerful positions. This group would bring together states committed to democracy and human rights to push for these principles at every level of the UN system. He believes this “will help prevent states like Libya from heading the UN human rights committee, which only undermines the UN's credibility.”
No one can disagree with the UN’s increasing lack of credibility – and motivation – in democracy building. After all, a very high proportion of the UN’s member countries are led by people who are either unelected or elected in highly suspect circumstances. The permanent staffs of specialized UN agencies like the Human Rights Commission bravely struggle with this problem every day. The Commission identifies the key attributes of good governance as transparency, responsibility, accountability, participation, and responsiveness to the needs of the people. And staffers are frustrated every day by many of the UN’s own members and by the organization’s paralyzing bureaucracy.
Senator Edwards also proposes to substantially increase support for international democracy programs, starting by doubling the funding of the National Endowment for Democracy, which supports grassroots civil society programs worldwide. Edwards would double the organization’s budget to over $80 million, focus specifically on programs in the Middle East and Africa -- and call on US allies in Europe and elsewhere to match these funds by establishing similar institutions.
The Edwards proposals do not sound like those of a “politician willing to push beyond conventional foreign policy ideas and introduce imaginative proposals. Moreover, whether similar ideas come from Kerry or Bush – or even Cheney -- they are far from new, much less ‘imaginative’. Development professionals have been proposing variations of them for decades. Nonetheless, while some appear to be pragmatically undoable, they all deserve careful consideration.
That is not the issue. The issue is who is likely to be more capable of persuading authoritarian leaders that their self-interest lies in embracing democratic reform – while keeping their cooperation and goodwill to fight terrorists. This is a process that requires a full diplomatic deck. Commitment from the top down. Patience.
The ability – and willingness – to listen. Sensitivity to the realpolitik of a partner’s domestic constituencies. Knowledge of a partner’s culture. Knowledge of the world and how it works. ‘Getting to yes’ negotiating skills. Toughness when toughness will work. In other words, nuance and style.
Fed by TV soundbites posing as ‘news’, many American voters may find it difficult to understand that the world is rarely black and white; it is zillions of shades of gray. It is, in a phrase, a world of style and nuance.
Unfortunately, Messrs. Bush and Cheney are not noteworthy for these attributes. But, as Senator Edwards puts it, “encouraging democracy takes more than President Bush's combination of high-minded rhetoric at home and high-handed arrogance toward our allies.”
About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration