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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.