In the past month, we've seen two quiet but important moves by the Barack Obama administration to cede U.S. control over key institutions.
In March, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that they would no longer contract with ICANN (the organization which manages Internet domain names), thereby effectively ceding U.S. management of Internet governance. More recently, the Obama administration has been trying to push a package of International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms through Congress which would hand more IMF control over to China, Russia, India and Brazil. Although these initiatives have flown under the radar, their consequences could be far reaching.
In the case of ICANN, domain name assignments will no longer be informally managed by the U.S. government. Control will likely shift toward international bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is the telecom body for the United Nations. Although having the Department of Commerce informally manage Internet domain names was never a perfect solution, the arrangement worked. Since 1998, when ICANN began working with Commerce, the Internet has grown exponentially. More importantly, the Internet serves as an unrivaled venue for the free flow of information, free expression and free markets.
The decision to cede Internet governance to a multinational organization such as the ITU is troubling. The ITU has advanced proposals that would restrict Internet freedom, mandate fees, and allow increased government monitoring. Should these proposals be applied, the Internet will no longer be completely free flowing and countries such as Russia and China will have increased control over content. For example, in China one cannot access websites discussing the Dalai Lama or Falun Gong, and even sites such as YouTube and Twitter are blocked. What if China was able to extend its blockage of Falun Gong websites worldwide? Or what if Islamic countries, where criticism of Islam is harshly punished, could ban criticism of Islam throughout the Internet? These possibilities are chilling, but the administration's decision makes them more likely.
Obama's support for IMF changes is equally concerning. In a fiscally challenging time, we can certainly debate the U.S. financial commitment to the IMF; however I think all Americans agree that if the U.S. is making financial contributions to the IMF then we should have a substantial oversight role.
As the largest contributor to the IMF, the U.S. has historically had out-sized influence in the organization, however the Obama administration reforms would both increase the U.S. contribution to the IMF and limit overall U.S. influence. The changes proposed would give other nations veto power over the U.S. representative on the IMF executive board.
In addition, the U.S. would double its contribution and would shift funding to IMF accounts where the U.S. exercises less oversight. Lessening U.S. power at the IMF by default strengthens the influence of Russia, India and China, nations that are often opposed to U.S. interests and have troubling histories of corruption and graft. Additionally, with international loans to Ukraine being of geostrategic importance, giving Russia additional power over the IMF is especially troubling.
Obama has implemented both of these initiatives very quietly, announcing the split with ICANN late on a Friday afternoon and trying to slip in the IMF changes into a Ukraine aid bill in the Senate. Although the president is going about these two initiatives in completely different manners, they are reflective of the same troubling trend: A blind deference to international institutions and a broad mistrust of U.S. power.
President Obama seems to believe that opaque international organizations will share U.S. values of free expression, transparency in government dealings, and support for democratic institutions. One would have hoped that Obama has learned some distrust of regimes such as China, Russia and Middle Eastern nations, many of whom hold broad sway in organizations such as the UN and IMF.
The informal U.S. leadership of Internet governance has been an astounding success, and U.S. leadership within the IMF is critical to ensuring that U.S. tax dollars are used effectively. It's long past time that President Obama stops blindly trusting international institutions and starts believing in the promise of American leadership based on our nation's values.
Chuck Fleischmann is Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District representative.