CARL GERSHMAN has the confident air of a man who knows his importance in Washington. As president of the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), he oversees an organization of 171 employees. In 2012, his organization dispensed approximately 1,236 grants, averaging some $50,000 each—a total of close to $62 million—to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in ninety-two countries.
Thus, it isn’t surprising that Gershman would exude an unusual combination of idealism and political savvy about the ways of Washington. Well turned out in elegant suits and fashionable ties, he occupies a spacious office on the eighth floor of a fine building on Washington’s F Street. The pleasant coffee mug he carries, decorated with pictures of his children, understates the power and controversial nature of his work.
Gershman’s job is to promote democracy in foreign lands with as much force and reach as his budget and operational effectiveness will allow. The NED disperses grants not to individual dissidents or activists but directly to NGOs—civic organizations, associations and independent media. Unlike other U.S. democracy-promotion enterprises, it does not work with governments in the countries in which it promotes democracy. This pursuit sounds like a particularly honorable one to most Americans, given the widespread devotion to democratic institutions that is embedded in the U.S. national consciousness. “All people want freedom,” says Gershman, encapsulating a view widely shared throughout America, inside and out of the growing democracy-promotion movement.