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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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?Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.