The U.S. Democracy Project

The U.S. Democracy Project

Mini Teaser: American NGOs that push for democratic change abroad are facing growing resistance.

by Author(s): Jordan Michael Smith

But whatever the NED’s actual level of independence, it can’t escape its identity as a quasi arm of the U.S. government, devoted to supporting groups wishing to subvert autocratic governments or prevent them from gaining strength. Foreign governments in particular view the organization as merely a screen for U.S. foreign-policy interests, as reflected in an RT commentary suggesting that the “NED is so clearly part of the US government that legislators had to pass a specific law stating that it was not.”

The NED was born in the Reagan administration, when democracy promotion came into its own. As the late political scientist Samuel Huntington put it in 1984, “The Reagan administration moved far beyond the Carter administration’s more limited concern with human rights.” Though Reagan initially scorned the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights, once in office he called for a “democratic revolution.” In a famous speech at London’s Westminster in 1982, Reagan said, “It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation—in both the public and private sectors—to assisting democratic development.” To that end, Reagan announced an initiative to study democracy promotion, which led to the establishment of the NED in 1983.

The NED’s initial budget was $31.3 million. “At first, we were very small,” says Gershman. But the organization’s small size didn’t shield it from controversy. Its original board included Democrats and Republicans, representatives from the U.S. labor, business and education fields, foreign-policy specialists and members of Congress. Its first permanent chairman was John Richardson, a former assistant secretary of state. Gershman, a former aide to the U.S. representative to the United Nations, became president at age forty on April 30, 1984.

Almost immediately, some outsiders viewed the organization as a kind of handmaiden of the American establishment. Suspicions and allegations that it was merely an extension of the U.S. government were not long in emerging. Prominent board members, including former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former vice president Walter Mondale, underscored its government alignment, in the minds of many. The only difference between the NED’s activities and previous U.S. interventions in foreign countries, critics alleged, was that the NED operated under a spotlight, heralded by defenders as proof that the NED was a valuable and pristine institution.

The NED enjoyed undeniable successes in the 1980s. Soon after its founding, NED leaders had to decide whether to support Poland’s Solidarity trade union, which had emerged as a major force against that country’s Communist rulers—and, as a result, was banned by the Polish government. “We had a discussion with board members, to determine whether we could violate the laws of another country,” Gershman recalls. “Ultimately we concluded that we had to observe the laws only of the United States.”

Whatever the merits of this decision, it was to have major implications in later decades when nations with significant NGO activities within their borders complained that their customs and electoral systems were being trampled by outside agitators. But the immediate result in Poland was excellent. The NED worked closely with then CIA chief William Casey to provide vital supplies to Solidarity, which soon played an essential role in liberating Eastern Europe from Soviet rule. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national-security adviser to President Carter, credits these efforts with preserving Solidarity during its most harrowing times so it could play its subsequent liberating role. “To sustain an underground effort takes a lot in terms of supplies, networks, etc.,” he told Time in 1992, “and this is why Solidarity wasn’t crushed.”

Other efforts proved less salutary. In 1985, the New York Times reported that the NED had funneled $1.4 million to French center-right groups opposed to the policies of then president Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist Party. The cash was distributed secretly, in violation of the NED’s charter. Worse, one of the anti-Communist groups funded by the NED had ties to an illegal, extreme-right paramilitary group. Gershman lamely insisted that none of the money was “intended for activities that in any way could be construed as criticism of the Mitterrand government.” This interference in one of the world’s oldest democracies contradicted the NED’s stated mission, spirit and ethics. Upon finding out about the program, one persistent NED critic, Representative Hank Brown of Colorado (later a senator), argued that what he called “the French connection . . . requires Americans to ask how they would feel if they learned that the French Government was giving millions of dollars to the AFL-CIO to oppose the policies of Ronald Reagan.”

More generally, the NED’s prominent advocacy has served as a kind of inspiration for others bent on creating their own nonprofit organizations devoted to democracy promotion. Thus did the Democracy Establishment emerge as an important player in Washington. But the roots of the prodemocracy movement stretch back more than a century in U.S. history.

THE MOVEMENT can be said to have begun in the fateful year of 1898 with America’s war with Spain, which resulted from many factors, practical as well as idealistic. But the central trigger was America’s agitation about Spain’s colonial treatment of the Cuban people, some of whom had been in revolt against their Spanish overlords for years. Once the victory over Spain was complete, which took a mere three months, the United States decided it must build democracies in Cuba and the Philippines, which it now dominated, and a tradition of overseas nation building was born. President Woodrow Wilson’s interventions in Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as his participation in World War I, were all rhetorically defended at least in part by an American duty to support democracy in beleaguered nations. The failures of those adventures cooled America’s nation-building ardor, leading to the “isolationist” policies of the 1920s and 1930s.

Then World War II transformed the world and altered U.S. attitudes. “The first phase of the project of building an international network to promote democracy began in the early years of the cold war,” writes Nicolas Guilhot in The Democracy Makers. President Franklin Roosevelt, along with British prime minister Winston Churchill, pushed Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the 1945 Yalta Conference (unsuccessfully) to allow free elections in Poland. Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, determined that the destroyed nations of Japan and Germany must be rebuilt in America’s democratic image. The Marshall Plan, John Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress in Latin America, the interventions in Southeast Asia—all were at least in part attempts to export democracy to countries with weak or nonexistent consensual governments. The Cold War became defined by America not as a competition between two countries, the Soviet Union and the United States, but as one between two systems, democracy and totalitarianism.

During this time, prominent scholars such as Seymour Martin Lipset, David Apter and Samuel Huntington launched an academic subfield by studying the factors that led to democratic transitions. Variously called “modernization theory” or “development theory,” this field implicitly offered the U.S. government advice on how to foster democratic governments overseas. But the military failures of the Vietnam War revealed weaknesses in the democracy-promotion ethos and led to a new wave of liberal isolationism that captured the Democratic Party in the 1970s, while the Nixon and Ford administrations developed a narrower conception of the U.S. national interest. The result was a retreat from expansive efforts at democracy promotion.

NGOs such as Amnesty International began to fill the void. So, too, did the European Commission and the Catholic Church. The Helsinki accords, signed in 1975, led to the establishment of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Helsinki Watch (later changed to Human Rights Watch), which monitored the Soviet Union’s declared commitment to human rights. Freedom House began publishing its annual reports on the state of democratic rights in countries around the world.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War’s end, foreseen by almost nobody of note in the realm of international relations. This development had a profound impact on the American consciousness. To many, it demonstrated the widespread, if not universal, appeal of democracy. Eastern European peoples destroyed Communist dictatorships in order to make their countries more responsive to popular sentiment through the construction of market-based democracies. The Russian people responded, overrunning efforts by leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev to reform Communism in order to save it.

All this spawned in the American mind and heart a strong faith in the superiority of the American system. This was powerfully reflected in Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” essay in this magazine, which posited that liberal democracy was the political-ideological end point of mankind’s civic development.

There followed even more striking odes to the magic of democracy. The great diplomat and geopolitical thinker George Kennan abandoned his former dismissal of Wilsonism and now praised Woodrow Wilson’s “broad vision and acute sensitivities.” Samuel Huntington, who in 1984 had described the possibility of democratic development in Eastern Europe as “virtually nil,” now hailed the democratic wave there and wrote that “the dialectic of history upended the theories of social science . . . the movement toward democracy was a global one.”

Image: Pullquote: All NED grants and activities are subject to oversight by the State Department and Congress, which are not in the habit of giving away money without gaining a voice in how it is spent.Essay Types: Essay