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Libya, Obama and Rising Democracies—A Commentary by Pratik Chougule ’12

The following commentary was posted on RealClearWorld.com on March 25, 2011.

Libya, Obama and Rising Democracies
By Pratik Chougule ’12

As significant as it is that the United Nations and the Arab League endorsed the intervention in Libya, the Obama administration must grapple with the fact that two key states did not offer their support: India and Brazil. One of the president's foreign policy priorities has been to push for stronger ties with rising democracies outside the West. President Obama's high profile visit to India, in addition to his more recent trip to Brazil, highlights his dedication to a bilateral approach toward emerging democracies.

The goal is a generally worthy one. The growing economies and stable democratic systems of countries throughout Asia and Latin America make them natural American allies. If the U.S. wants the UN, for example, to do more to promote American interests, it will need to win over these rising powers. India and Brazil are symbols and leaders of this group.

Yet the Security Council vote on authorizing force against Libya shows the limits of Obama's outreach to date. Neither India nor Brazil approved the push for action against Muammar Gaddafi, even though traditional Non-Aligned Movement holdouts like South Africa and Nigeria initially supported intervention.

Part of the reason for their continued obstinacy is the Obama administration's diplomatic strategy, or lack thereof. In his bilateral agenda toward rising democracies, the president has emphasized the need for closer economic integration as opposed to greater geopolitical like-mindedness. Even in India, where the president expressed his support for New Delhi's bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council, few preconditions were set to warrant such overtures from Washington. Geopolitical issues were even less salient during Obama's visit to Brazil.

While the administration should continue to bolster economic relations with these states, it should complement these efforts with greater pressure to stand with the U.S. politically. The overriding challenge is to convince rising democracies to temper their emphasis on protecting state sovereignty at the expense of other international imperatives. Despite their democratic institutions at home, India, Brazil and other emerging states have consistently staked out foreign policy positions that enable the tyranny of the world's worst regimes.

Libya is a good place to start. The widespread international condemnation that Gaddafi's enormities have provoked lowers the political price that rising democracies will have to pay to side with the U.S. India, Brazil and others will not join the military effort, but there are other ways that they can help.

The Obama administration should push democracies to refrain from public statements condemning the mission in Libya. The reality of former Western colonies isolating Gaddafi would undermine the anti-colonial pretensions that he and other tyrants invariably invoke during periods of confrontation with the West.

More concretely, the administration should encourage them to help facilitate a democratic transition in Libya. The world's democracies should bolster ties with the rebel government in Benghazi, provide it with greater assistance and help prepare the opposition to assume power. (Of course, it would help if the U.S. itself recognized the opposition government and clarified that its goal in Libya is regime change.)

Washington is in a strong position to push rising democracies to support the effort in Libya. The simple reason is that these countries cannot achieve many of their long-term international objectives without American support. Take UN Security Council membership. In order for that to happen, the president, as well as two-thirds of the Senate, would have to approve their accession. President Obama should be perfectly clear: the U.S. will not dilute its own sovereignty at the behest of countries that do not support its core interests. Gaddafi has a long record of obstructing many of these interests - counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, human rights and more.

Given existing power realities, the onus is primarily on rising democracies to reorient their agenda toward the U.S. Even if it is true that the U.S. is in a state of relative decline, it will continue to play a dominant role in international institutions that it created and continues to bankroll.

The mission in Libya will be a long-term ordeal, and it is not too late for rising democracies to play a more constructive role. With Gaddafi likely to fall, it is in America's interest to assist the rebels. The Obama administration should prod rising democracies with a simple message: without greater solidarity with the U.S., their aspirations for global leadership will remain distant at best.