To champion US values abroad, start with North Africa
President Biden has made clear that democratic values and principles are the foundation of American diplomacy. To address the myriad global challenges the United States faces, “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” This represents an important shift away from the foreign policy of the previous four years, recognizing that America’s national security interests are advanced by embracing democratic values both at home and abroad.
In the absence of these democratic values, authoritarianism and instability thrive. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than North Africa, where 10 years ago millions of angry, frustrated and hopeless people took to the streets — first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then across the Arab world — to demand freedom, opportunity and dignity, the very values Biden emphasized. While activists succeeded in removing dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Moammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak, who clutched the reins of power for decades in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, respectively, residual and successor governments have failed to meet the demands of their people. Today, many of the conditions that brought people into the streets, including rampant corruption, high levels of unemployment, persistent police brutality and brutal crackdowns against those who criticize the regime are worse, leaving the region teetering on the edge.
Improving governance in North Africa should be a priority of U.S. policymakers. There is a clear connection between poor governance and instability, which is a threat to U.S. national security interests. The region is home to a dangerous combination of unmet expectations and feelings of relative deprivation. While North Africa boasts high levels of education, those with university degrees often remain unemployed for years after graduation. The region also is home to the largest contingent of foreign fighters supporting ISIS globally.
Today, North Africa is at a breaking point, and without serious and sustained efforts to improve governance, the region is likely to further devolve into instability. Unfortunately, supporting good governance abroad is often seen as a tertiary concern among many policymakers who favor counterterrorism support and have neither the time nor inclination to invest the necessary political capital. Many policymakers have adopted the straw man argument that any support for good governance is a slippery slope to direct military intervention, occupation and state-building. This line of argument is often used to justify a laissez-faire foreign policy strategy that favors autocrats in the name of stability and a perception of democracy as a uniquely American and Western form of governance.
It is in North Africa that the Biden administration can rediscover its values-based foreign policy with like-minded and eager local partners. North Africa is a region ripe with political dynamism. Popular movements calling for good governance and nascent activism are encouraging signs of shared values. But positive steps forward must be nurtured and reinforced to prevent backsliding.
Tunisia has made important steps towards democratic consolidation, but its new government and system are already showing troubling cracks in the foundation with protesters in the streets today demanding work, dignity and freedom as loudly as they did in 2011. Algeria is in the midst of a full-blown popular revolution. Egypt presents a façade of stability to mask a deeply unstable balance between civilian and military rule and a brutal crackdown on human rights that has created more than 60,000 political prisoners. In Morocco, a slow simmering of political unrest lies just beneath the surface, rising up periodically. Libya is a completely failed state.
Thus, the region offers a new U.S. administration — working with allies in Europe and the region — myriad opportunities to use its diplomatic and programmatic toolbox to push for improved governance, increased stability and stronger partnerships based on shared values and interests.
At home, the Biden administration must prioritize repairing America’s democracy. The erosion of democratic norms and the challenge to democratic institutions have caused many around the world to lose faith in American support. Autocrats have been emboldened and now feel empowered to ignore any indigenous calls for change, should they arise. By standing up for democratic reform at home, as well as abroad, the Biden administration could send an important message of support to democratic activists in closed societies. As Biden himself acknowledged, “When we host the Summit of Democracy early in my administration to rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally, to push back the authoritarianism’s advance, we’ll be a much more credible partner because of these efforts to shore up our own foundations.”
The Biden administration may be tempted to turn inward, focusing only on the domestic threats to democracy, but such a move poses its own dangers. Autocrats may believe they have the freedom to act without impunity against domestic rivals; democratic activists may feel abandoned and turn to violence to achieve political objectives. If the Biden administration ignores human rights abuses in Egypt, fails to support Algerian protesters, or stands idly by as Libyans are caught in the crossfire of civil war, our credibility as “the shining city upon a hill” will be extinguished. Neither the minimalist foreign policy approach of the Obama administration nor the disengagement of the Trump administration has led to greater international stability, better functioning state institutions in the developing world, fewer terrorist threats to U.S. interests, or stronger alliances able to resist Chinese and Russian overtures.
The Biden administration would do well to consider a foreign policy approach that builds on the lessons of the past 12 years while acknowledging recent challenges to our own democracy at home. For decades, American foreign policy was premised on the idea that we could inspire others to adopt democratic norms and principles through our own example. That is still true. What’s changed is America now has an opportunity to show that democracy is not an end state but a commitment that must be renewed and strengthened. In North Africa, America can demonstrate this new humility, seek out partnerships, and together work to beat back the advancing tide of authoritarianism.
Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thomas Hill is senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace. They are co-authors of the forthcoming report on understanding U.S. national security interests in North Africa.