On July 4th, 2009 President Obama delivered a speech in Cairo where he called on Muslim nations to embrace democracy, calling democratic principles “universal” and promising that democracy would lead to stability and prosperity. At that time Mr. Obama said, “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone …
But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.”
In Cairo, six years ago, Mr. Obama held these values out not only as being morally sound, but also as being the preconditions for economic prosperity. Obama saw a relationship between lack of democracy and the reluctance of nations to encourage innovative entrepreneurial ventures to stimulate economic growth. He saw Middle Eastern nations as relying, instead, on the low hanging fruit of exploiting their raw resources for easy cash.
Obama told his Muslim audience in 2009, “No development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work. Many Gulf States have enjoyed great wealth as a consequence of oil, and some are beginning to focus it on broader development. But all of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century.”
In many ways, Mr. Obama’s speech to Muslim nations in parallels his recent speech to African nations as he spoke, this week, before African Union delegates in Addis Ababa. Mr. Obama said, “I believe Africa’s progress will … depend on democracy, because Africans, like people everywhere, deserve the dignity of being in control of their own lives. We all know what the ingredients of real democracy are. They include free and fair elections, but also freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly. These rights,” he added, “are universal.”
Just as Mr. Obama argued that democracy creates conditions favorable for education and innovation in his Cairo speech six years ago, he returned to that theme this summer in a thinly veiled reference to China’s growing influence on the continent, “Economic relationships can’t simply be about building countries’ infrastructure with foreign labor or extracting Africa’s natural resources. Real economic partnerships have to be a good deal for Africa — they have to create jobs and capacity for Africans.”
His indirect criticism of China’s approach to economic projects in Africa continued as he said, “And I know that there’s some countries that don’t say anything — (laughter) — and maybe that’s easier for leaders to deal with (Laughter). But you’re kind of stuck with us — this is how we are. We believe in these things and we’re going to keep on talking about them.”
Mr. Obama has made it clear that believes that democracy is always a work-in-progress. This is a theme that has shaped much of his political discourse, even during his first run for the presidency in 2008. In a speech in Philadelphia, when his campaign for president was in danger of being derailed for reasons that many believed were racially tinged, Mr. Obama argued that he was optimistic about the democratic project in the United States because it is dynamic and always on the road to improvement.
Mr. Obama said, “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” In Addis Ababa Obama returned to this theme as a reason African leaders should accept criticism from abroad and engage in introspection and self-criticism,
“Our American democracy is not perfect. We’ve worked for many years, but one thing we do is we continually reexamine to figure out how can we make our democracy better. And that’s a force of strength for us, being willing to look and see honestly what we need to be doing to fulfill the promise of our founding documents. And every country has to go through that process. No country is perfect, but we have to be honest, and strive to expand freedoms, to broaden democracy.”
Obama continued, “I want to repeat, we do this not because we think our democracy is perfect, or we think that every country has to follow precisely our path. For more than two centuries since our independence, we’re still working on perfecting our union. We’re not immune from criticism. When we fall short of our ideals, we strive to do better.”
Mr. Obama’s speech to representatives of Islamic nations gathered in Cairo, in 2009, was soon followed by what became known as the “Arab Spring” in which one government after the other, across Northern Africa and the Middle East, was toppled and, descended into chaos.
Many young would-be reformers expressed disappointment and criticized the Obama administration for not backing up their fine words with adequate support when they sought to implement the changes he spoke about. Young reformers struggled in futility as conditions worsened in their countries and Americans seemed unsure of what role, if any, they should play in the unfolding events.
Whether or not this experience is likely to repeat itself in Sub-Saharan Africa is anybody’s guess. The American president’s speech was heady stuff; the hard part will be to translate that inspiration into practical action and what support, if any, young Africans can expect from the Americans if things start to get messy.
C. Matthew Hawkins taught community economic development at the University of Pittsburgh and American history at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. He will soon be attending St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore as a theologian from the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.