There has been a great deal of speculation about why the Obama administration has changed the tone and substance of U.S. policy on democracy and human rights. It is partly related to the tension between anti-imperialism and human rights in the liberal foreign-policy playbook. Iraq has also contributed to a backlash against values-based foreign policy strategies in a repeat of what happened to democracy-promotion after the Philippines intervention, World War I, and Vietnam. Politics are at play too, since Democrats now seem to believe that they can seize the political high ground on national security by embracing realism as their own (and perhaps peeling off some moderate Republicans in the process).
However, it would be far too simplistic too argue that the administration has “abandoned” human rights and democracy — at least in Asia. In fact, the administration has actually made the case for real pressure on regimes like Burma, North Korea, and even China. The problem is that these statements of policy have been overshadowed by conflicting signals sent in speeches by the president or decisions like not inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House during his visit to Washington this week. Ironically, by being both tough and soft at the same time, the administration risks losing both American prestige and progress on the democratic causes America has always championed.