The Open Government Partnership – a new direction for US foreign policy?

The new US- and Brazil-led initiative to encourage government transparency could provide the US another means to promote democracy and free trade.

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    US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton listens at right as Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota speaks during the Open Government Partnership high-level meeting at the State Department in Washington Tuesday.
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The US and more than 50 other countries met Tuesday to discuss a new international initiative to promote open government around the world, the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The aim is to create a multinational, multi-stakeholder compact to advance openness, accountability, transparency, and good government. The OGP is to be announced at the inauguration of the United Nations in September of this year. While the OGP appears to be a promising means of advancing the human condition, it immediately raises a few conceptual and methodological points of contention, as well as a few critical questions about the direction of US foreign policy.

First written-up in November 2010, the Partnership was initially to be co-chaired by the US and India, but India is now out and Brazil is in. Like much about the initiative, the reason for this switch remains hazy, but what is known is that it will involve upwards of 50 countries, and will be led by a “Multi-stakeholder International Steering Committee” comprised of governments from Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and more than 60 civil society organizations from around the world. Notably, one of the original catalysts for the OGP, India, is missing from the group.

Tuesday's July 12 inaugural meeting was closed to the press save for the opening and closing remarks.

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Criteria for being part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP)

Documents provided by the initiative establish four criteria for eligibility, based on a 16-point index wherein countries must meet a minimum membership threshold of 12 points. The criteria, judged by “an independent group of experts,” comprise the following categories:

a) Fiscal Transparency (2 points each for two budget documents)

b) Access to Information (4 points)

c) Disclosures Related to Elected or Senior Public Officials (4 points)

d) Citizen Engagement (4 points)

Is Brazil fit to co-chair the OGP?

The scoring is apparently somewhat tricked-out. Brazil, the co-chair of the OGP, still has not passed an access to information law (freedom of information), and as I have written about extensively in other posts, resistance to openness has been a prominent feature of politics in both Brazil's Congress and presidency. Notwithstanding the historical record, Brazil scores 15 out of 16 points. On access to information, Brazil scores 2 points for possessing a constitutional provision for public disclosure. It scores an addition point for having a draft access to information law, which is now being considered in Congress. Thus on this criterion Brazil scores almost full points, even though its constitutional guarantee to access public information is effectively impracticable without comprehensive regulation (a freedom or access to information law) and the draft law has been stuck in Congress since 2009. A recent bill to conceal dollar numbers on procurement contracts for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics has also apparently been glossed over, as has Brazil’s somewhat dysfunctional Transparency Portal – Brazil’s earns full points on fiscal transparency.

The question that should be on everyone’s minds is whether Brazil is fit to co-chair the OGP, much less whether it should qualify for the OGP in the first place. If the OGP adopts these sorts of permissive benchmarks before its formal inauguration, much less makes a co-chair of a country not leading on transparency, can we expect the OGP to be anything more than feel-good window-dressing?

A new direction in US foreign policy: backdoor democracy promotion?

Clearly, the idea of openness is good business for US foreign policy. The United Nations has proven an unsatisfactory arena for collective action, precisely because of the chasm between authoritarian regimes and democracies. Alternative international arrangements are difficult to come by. The idea of a new “League of Democracies” or some other formulation has been tossed around over the years, but benchmarks for distinguishing real democracies from sham democracies are tricky. Moreover, the US does not want to set up an “us versus them” collectivity that might offend authoritarian allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the monarchies of the Middle East, among others.

A multinational collectivity of countries devoted to the cause of “openness” is appealing precisely because of its inoffensiveness. Countries may want to be a part of this initiative, and there may be economic upsides to doing so, such as technology and knowledge transfers, preferred diplomatic treatment, and public relations bragging rights.

As fellow blogger David Sazaki and I recently discussed (and he recently wrote about), while openness may help advance the human condition by providing greater freedom, as well as access to information, education and technology, it also smacks of backdoor democracy promotion. A bad thing? Not on the face of it, but as with democracy promotion, the ever-present danger is a double standard: ‘open’ status for our friends even if they do not credibly meet minimum requirements.

Breaking Open the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China)?

Yet ‘openness’ is a strategic concept that may help achieve several instrumental goals. First, it may “break open the BRIC” by creating a dividing line between the great emerging economic powers – the democratic governments of Brazil and India on the one hand, and the two authoritarian giants on the other, Russia and China. By consolidating strategic alliances with Brazil and India, the US pulls two major regional players into its sphere of influence, and isolates authoritarian regimes reluctant to engage in real openness.

It may also bring about democracy. Some may remember the term "Glasnost," a rough equivalent of "openness" in Russian. It was one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s key liberalizing policies, designed to assuage pent up dissent. It also opened the floodgates for the greatest democratic transition of the 20th century. The concept has the potential to do the same in countless other places, such as China, Russia, and Iran. It would be difficult to imagine real openness not leading to democratic change, and for this goal it may prove a valuable instrument in the evolving toolbox of US diplomacy.

It may prove equally valuable in achieving a long-coveted goal of the US – opening markets. The US has more free trade agreements than any other country in the world – about a dozen in the Americas alone, if the CAFTA and NAFTA are taken into account. Brazil was not chosen to co-chair the OGP by hazard. Opening up this continental country would be bonanza for US companies. It is not only a young, growing market of more than 190 million consumers, but in most areas outside of commodities, Brazilian companies are uncompetitive compared to their US equivalents. It’s not surprising why: most Brazilian industry hides behind efficiency-eroding tariff walls, public officials engage in sweetheart deals with local firms, and doing business in Brazil is little less than a Kafkaesque adventure in bureaucratic entanglement. By encouraging an ‘opening’, market-minded Brazilians and lobbyists could make a greater case for reforms to alleviate these obstacles. The US might gain access to Brazil’s coveted consumer markets, procurement contracts, and the country’s abundant natural resources, including oil.

The extractive industries are a particularly salient focus for the OGP, as with other large international campaigns for transparency and accountability, such as the Transparency & Accountability Initiative. The rationale behind this focus is rather evident. As I discussed last post, there is a strong association between mineral wealth, inequality, corruption, and authoritarianism – exactly the types of pathologies the world’s progressive countries are trying to prevent.

The Metaphor of Openness

Openness is vulnerability. By contrast, the first rule of international relations and politics more generally is self-preservation: defense, blame avoidance, and distrust. To engage in real opening will imply overcoming these basic political instincts, a monumental challenge that will require a cultural change spanning decades, if not centuries. Transparency and freedom of information initiatives across the world are still young, and the OGP is a promising exploration of whether nations are strong enough to be vulnerable.

But the will to openness may not be completely self-determined. Certainly, the Arab Spring of 2011 demonstrates that ‘opening’ may be forced. The revolutions that occurred across North Africa and the Middle East used the purported tools of openness – social media and technology – as a means to an end. Technology is instrumental in this sense; it effectively helped citizens overcome collective action dilemmas, and gave voice to demands for freedom against terrible odds. As fellow bloggers have pointed out, technology is an excellent instrument for shaming governments and expressing anti-system sentiment, but will it prove equally vital in constructing valuable structures of openness?

Regardless of what the skeptics say, if there was ever a time in history to launch an international open government partnership, this is it. Historically, it’s a highly atypical diplomatic initiative: unideological, nonexclusive, engaged with all levels of government and society, and diffuse – it’s a heck of a promising initiative, if it turns out to be for real.

--- Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil. He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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