The Obama approach to world politics--engage, apologize, avoid friction, be humble, reach out to previously scorned tyrannical regimes--is being criticized nowadays on pragmatic grounds. A record of 10 months shows this modest approach has brought modest if any returns. Low costs, the president's defenders argue, and low risks, so it has been worth trying, even if the gains have been small.
But the Obama approach has a moral cost that is usually overlooked and that is very high for our country and for embattled fighters for human rights everywhere. It is true that we live in a Westphalian state system, but time--decades of human rights activism--has undermined the view that what a state does inside its own borders, to its own citizens, is no one else's business. Yet this administration appears devoted to that older view, and its lack of enthusiasm for human rights policy is already quite clear. One could not escape the whiff of disappointment, even annoyance, emerging from administration ranks when Iranians took to the streets after the June election there was stolen. It seemed the administration was actually irritated that those shenanigans might interfere with starting a new diplomatic track.
On his Asia trip the president consorted, at the ASEAN meeting, with the prime minister of the repressive regime in Burma, General Thein Sein, just as he had met at an OAS meeting with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Under a policy of promoting human rights and democracy, the United States should be focusing its policies toward such countries on what goes on within them, on supporting democracy activists and promoting the expansion of freedom, on opposing repressive regimes and working when we can to undermine them. But the approach Obama is taking is the almost inevitable product of elevating multilateral diplomacy, for you don't conduct diplomacy with demonstrators and bloggers, much less with political prisoners. You conduct it with the guy across the table, behind the placard that reads "Iran" or "Myanmar" or "Egypt."
True, it ought to read something like "Ayatollah's regime, hated by Iranian people," or "Representative of vicious Venezuelan dictator," but that won't happen outside political cartoons satirizing the United Nations. Multilateral diplomacy means small talk with torturers, tea with dictators, negotiations with regimes that survive through sheer brutal repression--and it means putting such unpleasant facts aside to gather U.N. votes and seek consensus.
That's the path the Obama administration has chosen, and the real societies that those placards supposedly represent are too often forgotten. A great nation like the United States has many and varied interests, and we need both to do business with tyrants and to engage constantly in multilateral diplomacy. But we need to remember that the people who really own those nameplates that say "Syria" or "Myanmar" are absent--the best of them sometimes in prison. We need to recall that multilateral diplomacy is not morally cost-free. The Obama administration's disengagement from human rights advocacy and its embrace of multilateralism are already proving that.
America's relations with complex Middle Eastern states such as Egypt are often difficult. Egypt is a combination of republican forms (a presidency, a parliament, political parties, a judiciary) and authoritarian reality where the security forces, the ruling party, and above all President Mubarak dominate the state and decide who gets what. For the United States, which values Egypt as a peace partner of Israel and as the reliable operator of the Suez Canal, Egypt's internal problems can create tensions we might otherwise wish to avoid. But we cannot, if we mean to understand what is really happening in that country: How popular or unpopular is the government and the ruling party, what would happen if there were free elections, does any of the new foreign investment trickle down below the super-rich, what will happen when the octogenarian Mubarak is gone?