As protests roiling developing countries have spiraled into government collapse, general instability, and—in the case of Ukraine, at least—possible war, numerous observers have blamed the Obama administration for its seeming passivity. The White House, on this view, has been both over-tolerant of aggressive autocrats like Vladimir Putin and uninterested in standing up for democracy and human rights. President Obama pursues a "feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore," Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said last week.
The charge that the Obama White House has been soft on autocracy is hard to make stick. Obama did call for a "reset" in relations with Russia, echoing attempts by George W. Bush and prior presidents to make fresh starts with the Kremlin early in their terms. But the White House has now imposed tough sanctions on Russian leaders. Obama has taken basically the same approach as the Bush administration did to such other autocracies as China and Venezuela, even though his predecessor sometimes hid private conciliation behind tough public condemnations of Chinese or Venezuelan leaders. What's more, in countries like Venezuela or China, where top leaders can play on anti-U.S. sentiment, harsh public rhetoric from American presidents often backfires, boosting leaders' popularity.
The claim that this White House has ignored fundamental aspects of promoting democracy holds up better than the notion that the administration is soft on autocrats.
The U.S. is not the reason these developing nations are struggling with democracy. The countries facing serious unrest—Cambodia, Egypt, Venezuela, Thailand—face serious challenges in having weak institutions, elected leaders who behave like autocrats, and populaces that have become addicted to street protest. The people most important to making these democracies work are their leaders, voters, and activists. But disinterest inside the White House in promoting democracy has exacerbated democracy's global crisis. With three years left in its term, the Obama administration still has time to try.