Democracy Abroad: Costly and Further Out of Reach

President Obama’s call for the United States to assist the Middle East and North Africa’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy reflects a longstanding U.S. foreign policy goal. His reluctance to spend much to achieve it was something different, however.

It shows how U.S. fiscal troubles will continue to limit Washington’s ability to achieve its goals both at home and abroad.

“It will be the policy of the United States to promote freedom across the region, and to support transitions to democracy,” the president said, echoing Harry Truman’s call to “assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way,” John F. Kennedy’s call “to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty,” and George W. Bush’s call for America to “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.”

The United States has long sought to advance freedom and democracy for moral and selfish reasons. While U.S. efforts on this score reflect America’s values, they also nourish a more peaceful and prosperous world, which makes the United States more secure and creates markets for U.S. goods.

Freedom and democracy don’t come cheap, however. Truman created the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s to rescue Western Europe’s economy and strengthen its democracies, and the plan allocated $13 billion over four years at a time when the entire budget was between $30 billion and $45 billion a year.

Bush replaced dictators with more democratic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11 in hopes that they would serve as models for the region – efforts that total hundreds of billions of dollars to date.

Obama’s vision of a more democratic region will not be easy to achieve. Though protests have toppled autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, dictators are fighting back in Libya and Syria, raising questions about where the “Arab Spring” is going.

“Our message is simple,” Obama said. “If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.”

The dollars, however, do not back up the words. Obama proposed to relieve Egypt of $1 billion in debt and guarantee another $1 billion in borrowing for infrastructure and job creation. He also proposed to create Enterprise Funds to stimulate private investment in Tunisia and Egypt, and he noted that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation will provide $2 billion to strengthen private sectors across the region.

So, rather than the enormous direct aid of the Marshall Plan, Obama proposes a few billion dollars in aid, debt forgiveness, and guarantees – at a time when the federal budget this year will total $3.5 trillion to $4 trillion.

Obama outlined a bold vision for advancing freedom and democracy. But, with the government swimming in red ink, he was hard-pressed to make a financial investment that does justice to the rhetoric. “The reality is that there just isn’t much money around for this project,” a top Obama aide told the New York Times.”

It’s a sad sign of the times, one that Washington will revisit frequently until policymakers address our fiscal challenges.

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