The head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, Abbas Kamel, made a peculiar request during a visit to Capitol Hill in July: that the U.S. government imprison Mohamed Soltan, a U.S. citizen and human rights activist who had been previously detained in Egypt on spurious terrorism-related charges. Members of Congress and their staff rebuffed the Egyptian spymaster’s request. But his visit served to reinforce the view of some in Washington that Egypt, a longtime U.S. security partner, had become so brazen in its repression that it was time for the U.S. government to step up pressure on the Egyptian government over democracy and human rights issues.
The episode further invigorated an intense discussion during the summer over whether it was time to restrict U.S. security aid to Egypt. Breaking from the pattern set by prior administrations, the Biden administration decided not to waive the human rights conditions imposed by Congress on the aid. But it withheld only $130 million of the $300 million in restricted funds. The split-the-difference approach made few happy; it was enough to anger the Egyptian government but not enough to satisfy those who felt that the Biden administration should be more assertive on democracy and rights in Egypt.
Egypt is only one of several places where the Biden team has already confronted a longstanding, vexing dilemma in U.S. foreign policy: whether and how to address domestic political issues with security partners that engage in flagrant human rights abuses or are sliding backward on basic democratic norms. India, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and many other security partners pose hard questions and choices for the administration in this vein. Given that the Biden administration has pledged to elevate the place of democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy yet is also committed to maintaining or even bolstering U.S. security partnerships globally, it will almost certainly face further difficult choices ahead regarding how to balance democracy and security interests.
There is no magic solution to resolve such tensions. But when attempting to navigate the democracy-security dilemma, the Biden team should avoid the entrenched U.S. habit of only focusing on the specific case at hand and not drawing on accumulated experience and insights from the many other cases where this dilemma has surfaced. In so doing, policymakers often end up repeating flawed ways of thinking and acting, which can lead them to unnecessarily downplay the democracy and rights side of the policy equation and miss opportunities to push for positive change. Our recent study of U.S. engagement with democratically deficient security partners identifies six especially common and unhelpful policy patterns.
Operating from security interest autopilot
In many U.S. security partnerships, assumptions about the benefits of the partnership and the interests at stake tend to coast on autopilot. In Egypt, for example, aid has continued to flow at the same rate since the Arab-Israeli accords of the 1970s — despite regional dynamics having fundamentally shifted and the threat of war between Egypt and Israel having all but faded. When the issue arises of whether the U.S. can or should do something more to support democracy, these unquestioned and usually maximalist assumptions suffocate the impulse to engage before it is even properly considered. Taking a hard look across the interagency at what security interests really are at stake — in particular whether they may have faded over time — is an obvious but often overlooked first step in deciding how competing interests might stack up against them.
Assuming values and interests are disconnected
A common view from the security side of the policy establishment is that while democracy and rights might be a nice thing to push for in strategically unimportant countries, they are luxuries that Washington can’t afford to raise when hard-edged security interests are at stake. This apparently tough-minded realism may seem appealing to some, but it overlooks the fact that democracy and security are often intimately connected. Democratic deficiencies often seriously impair whether or how much a country aligns with U.S. security interests. For example, Hungary’s antidemocratic slide under Viktor Orban has contributed to the country’s warming ties with Russia and China, which Orban pursues in order to boost his illiberal domestic agenda. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, the country’s first seriously illiberal president since the 1980s, has ruptured major elements of the longstanding alliance between Washington and Manila. And in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the United States — its NATO ally — as a political bogeyman in his sweeping domestic crackdown on dissent, seriously limiting security cooperation in the process.
Overestimating downsides for security interests
When doing a cost-benefit analysis of a potential push on democracy and rights, policymakers often overestimate the potential downside consequences for security cooperation. Particularly because the United States has never really tried to engage some security partners on democracy and rights issues, U.S. policymakers are unsure of how they will react, and as a result remain paralyzed by reflexively strong fears of a harmful negative response. For decades, the U.S. executive branch held back from calling the Turkish genocide of Armenians as genocide for fear of antagonizing the Turkish government. When the Biden administration finally took this step earlier this year, the reaction from the Turkish government was remarkably mild.
Compounding this habitual overestimation is the assumption that when security partners take certain actions that benefit U.S. security, they are primarily doing so as a favor to Washington, when in fact often they are acting as much or more in their own interest. For example, when India stepped up its engagement with the United States, Australia, and Japan through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as “the Quad”) and when it expanded intelligence and military cooperation with the United States, many in Washington viewed these decisions as the successful result of years of intense American pushing to persuade a reluctant India to participate in a U.S.-backed security architecture. Yet India’s action was very much an expression of its own self-interest amid growing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and along India’s own border with China. Some broader strategic realignment was likely to have been carried out, no matter what particular outlook India’s leaders had about how they were being viewed or treated by U.S. policymakers.
Underestimating the wider democracy benefits
At the same time that policymakers habitually overestimate the hit to U.S. security interests in any pro-democracy gambit, they often underestimate the benefits on the democracy side. They often set up a straw man argument against such efforts, reasoning that if a U.S. push will not change the country’s overall democratic trajectory, then it would be better off not pushing at all. But this is simultaneously too high a bar and too narrow a view.
A more realistic expectation is that it may be possible to achieve some meaningful — albeit not transformational — results, like slowing the pace of repression, preserving at least a bit of space for civil society, or maintaining for some level of competition in a constrained electoral process. Moreover, the potential benefits may lie outside the governmental domain. Upgraded attention to democracy and rights may help bolster the morale of independent civic activists or fortify struggling independent media outlets. It may also send a valuable signal to neighboring countries that are also experiencing democratic difficulties, putting them on notice that Washington is watching and that it cares. This does not, however, mean the ask should be too small, which brings us to the next point.
Making the democracy ask too narrow
When U.S. policymakers do decide to push on democracy and rights, they frequently limit their ask. This is especially visible when U.S. officials focus intensely on a few select rights cases, particularly ones involving U.S. citizens. To the extent the Trump administration gave attention to democracy and rights issues regarding Turkey, its greatest focus was on Pastor Andrew Brunson, a U.S. citizen working in Turkey. After Turkish authorities detained Brunson as part of an anti-Gülenist sweep, the U.S. responded by ratcheting up diplomatic and economic pressure in order to secure his release. Individual cases like this give U.S. diplomats something very specific to press on, and when a positive response is achieved, allows them to point to definite results that will play well in the U.S. media.
Such interventions are certainly useful, but they generally do not strike at the more systemic issues that are causing such rights abuses in the first place. Instead, policymakers should give attention to structural issues underlying the troubling democracy and rights situation — usually institutional guardrails that have come under attack, such as judicial independence or fair electoral administration. In the case of India, for example, U.S efforts to raise democracy and rights concerns should address not only specific instances of rights violations, but also far-reaching issues such as discriminatory citizenship laws and the undermining of judicial independence. Or when a specific case is the focus of U.S. efforts, like the Brunson case, and some success is achieved, there should be an effort to leverage that success into a wider focus on the structural conditions that lead to specific abuses. In short, U.S. policymakers should be sure to go beyond addressing symptoms to identify and target the causes of democratic decline.
Emphasizing principle without also appealing to self-interest
When raising democracy and rights issues with a politically problematic security partner, U.S. comments are often replete with admonitions to “respect universal rights” or “uphold obligations to the values espoused in your country’s constitution.” Yet these vague appeals by themselves provide little incentive for the problematic government to change tack. It is usually more fruitful to complement such appeals with an emphasis on the partner government’s self-interest. For Turkey, for example, this might mean highlighting how Turkish constraints on pro-Kurdish political parties might embolden violent groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). For India, it could mean stressing how crackdowns on foreign-backed NGOs in India might hinder rural economic development. And in Turkey, it could mean pointing out that judicial abuses could reduce foreign companies’ interest in doing business there. Such arguments have to be carefully tailored to the local context. Framing democracy and rights issues in terms of self-interest is not merely an exercise in artfulness about addressing difficult topics; such arguments are also more likely to be at least somewhat persuasive.
By avoiding these six common pitfalls, U.S. policymakers will not necessarily be able to avoid or resolve the tensions involved in balancing U.S. democracy and security interests globally. Such tensions have existed in U.S. foreign policy for decades and will continue to exist for many more to come. But by heeding lessons from past experience, the Biden administration will have a better chance of crafting policies that fulfill both the administration’s aspiration to upgrade U.S. support for democracy and rights globally alongside its determination to preserve and, in some cases, expand important U.S. security partnerships.