Quandary for Washington That Echoes Across Asia

“Pro-democracy protests in Egypt should prompt Washington to take a new look at a perennial foreign-policy quandary of how to deal with dictators,” says Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellow Philip Shishkin, who focuses on Central Asia.

“Some prominent Egyptian voices have already faulted Washington for allying itself too closely to Cairo’s teetering strongman. It’s a familiar theme. When protestors overthrew a dictator in Kyrgyzstan last year, they accused Washington of ignoring his abuses in order to maintain a military base crucial for the war in Afghanistan. While it is tempting to suggest that Washington should take a tougher line on dictators, the reality is that the U.S. has strategic interests that often necessitate engagement with undemocratic governments. In Central Asia, it is the war in Afghanistan. In Egypt, it is the broader stability of the Middle East. And of course America’s relationships with China and Russia are freighted with so many economic and geopolitical interests as to push any meaningful pro-democracy agenda far into the background. The problem for Washington is that when a U.S.-allied dictator is overthrown, the new rulers aren’t inclined to embrace America. In some ways, it’s a uniquely American trap. The idea of democracy promotion has been a mainstay of U.S. foreign-policy discourse for at least a century even as successive American administrations have shown a willingness to deal with unsavory regimes. That perceived dissonance between rhetoric and action is what annoys grassroots pro-democracy activists in many parts of the world.” Philip is based in Washington.

And, a warning for Asian regimes as well:

“The unfolding events in Egypt are being felt around the world, but the lessons are not yet clear. It may well be the case that dictatorial regimes that completely cut off and ruthlessly suppress their people, like in North Korea and Burma, and autocratic regimes that actually drive somewhat distributed economic growth, as in China and Singapore, are more protected than non-democratic regimes that get caught in the middle between these two extremes. If this is the case, leaders across the Middle East and in countries in places as far afield as Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia should be worried,” says Asia Society Executive Vice President Jamie Metzl. Jamie, who used to work at the U.S. State Department and National Security Council, is in New York.

To arrange interviews, contact the Asia Society communications department at 212-327-9271 or pr@asiasociety.org.