Civil Society, Democracy, and America's Commitment to Asia and the Pacific

December 5, 2012
Dr. Tillemann With Youth NGO in Papua New Guinea

Our work to rebalance U.S. diplomacy in Asia goes beyond economic and security considerations. We are also committed to standing up for America's values.

In mid-November, I was in the city of Hangzhou, China participating in a groundbreaking conference on the role of civil society in U.S. foreign policy. The meeting was organized by the Institute for American Studies at Zhejiang University, and it marked the first time scholars in China have ever come together to discuss why organizations outside of government are such an important feature of America's global engagement.

Participants in the meeting included experts from Chinese universities, the Academy of Sciences, and leaders from American civil society organizations. Our Chinese colleagues arrived with a wide range of assumptions about how American civil society groups operate and the degree to which they are autonomous from government. Over the course of formal presentations and informal conversations, we explored how civil society groups provide a vital, independent source of ideas, advocacy and humanitarian engagement in the world. We discussed initiatives like Secretary Clinton's Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society that provide outside groups with an opportunity to help shape U.S. foreign policy. And we heard about how the authors of the U.S. Constitution saw a vibrant, diversified civil society as the single most important guarantee of stability in our country (see Federalist No. 10).

My meetings on the margins of the conference also provided an opportunity to learn more about the development of China's civil society. Activists working on many social and political issues in China face profound challenges and government pressure. But non-governmental organizations are becoming increasingly active on issues including health, education, the environment, and disaster relief. The provincial government in Zhejiang has even established an incubator to provide start-up assistance and office space to approved non-profit organizations. The governments of China and the United States continue to hold very different positions on what constitutes civil society and how civic groups should be allowed to carry out their work. But this conference helped break down important misconceptions about how civil society helps define America's -- and Americans' -- work around the world. I hope the meeting will provide the foundation for many future conversations on the topic, and our Chinese hosts deserve a lot of praise for their efforts to build understanding around this important issue.

Earlier in my trip, I visited Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and Indonesia. In Indonesia, we joined with leaders from 79 countries and international organizations to participate in the Bali Democracy Forum, Asia's premier regional meeting on democracy issues, and met with foreign ministers and other officials about how to strengthen cooperation between the Forum and the Community of Democracies. We also talked with activists, parliamentarians, and the Deputy Foreign Minister of Burma about how to apply lessons from Indonesia's democratic transition across the region.

In Papua New Guinea, despite widespread poverty, the prospect of a coming energy boom has transformed the capital into one of the most expensive cities in the world. It has also opened the door to a multitude of development opportunities and governance challenges. The people of Timor-Leste are preparing for the withdrawal of UN forces next month, and hoping for a chance at real peace, progress, and independence after decades of conflict. Both countries are at a crossroads. Their futures will depend on the ability of government, civil society, and the private sector to work together. We met with a broad range of leaders in both countries to examine how we can help support successful transitions, and strengthen democracy throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Editor's Note: The photograph accompanying this entry shows Dr. Tomicah Tillemann meeting with young civil society activists in Papua New Guinea.

Comments

Comments

Henry
|
United States
December 5, 2012

Henry in the U.S.A. writes:

Unfortunately, many NGOs also pursue a neo-colonialist agenda, hiding behind a facade of concern for human rights or "Good Governance." British groups like Transparency International or Amnesty International, or any of the groups sponsored by George Soros, are notorious for targeting Third World nations that are resistant to neo-colonial exploitation. Nations which are submissive in that regard may violate human rights to their hearts' content, without ever being subjected to criticism from these NGOs.

palgye
|
South Korea
December 6, 2012

Palgye in South Korea writes:

Finally saw the news that the Prime Minister of India heart surgery.He normally ruled India until 2014?Time to give him a break, and in 2013, elected new Prime Minister of India?

From our busy day-to-day wishes, but always slow, sometimes slow, we, all of us on the corner in a dangerous situation, dangerous driving, even a bad choice is forced. Sin is also likely to be risk-averse, and the time wasted. For all.

Molly
|
Maryland, USA
December 6, 2012

Molly in Maryland writes:

Civil society too often doesn't have a seat at the table. Thanks for making that happen, especially in a region where it is needed most.

mohammed r.
|
India
December 8, 2012

Mohammed R. in India writes:

dear sir, if i am interested and anxious to work in usa its quit difficult is there any system to migrate and get a work permit in usa plz reply back with your valuable suggestions.

with regards
mohammed rafeeq

Melissa
|
Maryland, USA
December 8, 2012

Melissa in Maryland writes:

@ Molly -- The region where this is needed most is the Middle East, but I don't know if efforts like this will work there. Syria, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen. What hope is there in these countries? The people there prefer war to peace. It is a way of life for them. They don't define women's rights the same way we do. I don't know how we even begin to start talking with them when we aren't even on the same page on basis rights.

Melissa
|
Maryland, USA
December 8, 2012

Melissa in Maryland writes:

Oops! I meant "basic rights" not "basis rights."

Ashim C.
|
India
June 2, 2013
US policy positions on human rights related matters should be tuned to the ground realties of coutries. India is a country where liberal values generally enjoy respect. Certain political elements in Kashmir, parts of North East and in extreme leftist violence affected hinterland, which is vast geographically and in terms size of polpulation, take undue advantage of this ideological creed knowing very well that any pinitive state action against their acts of violence and lesser acts of disruption of public life shall always be picked up by some one some where as human rights violation causing Indian government to go slow in the matter. It is suspected that these extremely disruptive elements in India have strong foreign connections. This suspicion is proven too in certain cases. What is more these extremist group have by now very established civil society activists to defend them on media. These civil society activists in fact enjoy the best of many worlds. They receive patronage by way of financial aid, which are often routed through liberal western countries by anti India vested interest, get often moral backing from opposition parties as whatever the civil society says and does reinforces most certainly but more often than not wrongly their habit and attitude of government bashing and finally, one's hunch is, they get support from extremists themselves - this civil society extremist linkage is curiously hardly ever discussed in media and much less explored by investigating agencies. Net effect of the situation is gross violation of basic rights of law abiding innocent people and perpetuation of poverty and backwardness due to obstacles to implemtation of whatever little developmental programs government has in these extremist violence affected places of India. One is sure there are similar situation prevailing in many developing countries. Internation community and diplomacy must first acknowledge that and then prescribe ways of judging legitimacy or otherwise of punitive state action against extremist violence. Not every government of the world like Communist Government of China nor every place in the world like Tibet or North Korea. Essence of state is power and government exercises that with accountability to democratically elected legislatures to be legitimate. Human Rights should be a tool in the hands extremists and their intellectual supporters in the garb of civil society activists in developing countries to prevent development for greatest good of greatest number. Many things can be justifiably said against communist China but it cannot be denied that other than the high patronage of western liberal countries following opening of China, which western developed economies needed badly, the other most important factor which has contributed to the rise of China is the discipline with regimentation imposed succesfully by Communist Party of China for first 40 years after Chinese revolution in 1949 and now nearly the entire western economy is benefitted by China.

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