In his recently published criticism of U.S. democracy programs, particularly those of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Jordan Michael Smith characterizes that organization’s work as “controversial.” Controversial? In 2003, on the twentieth anniversary of NED’s founding, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution commending its work and pledging future support. The vote was 390-1. A not-for-profit organization that receives federal funding, the Endowment has been a line-item in the budget of every president, Democratic and Republican, year in and year out, since its inception thirty years ago.
Of course, supporting civic organizations that seek our assistance is indeed regarded as controversial by authoritarians who seek to crush the aspirations of their own people. Smith takes at face value the accusations of such authorities as the Kremlin-funded Russia Today, Iran’s former envoy to the United Nations, and Egypt’s justice minister, that NED and other democracy-assistance groups seek “to determine the governmental systems of other countries.” Had he interviewed NED's grantees (detailed in its freely available annual report), he would have found that NED supports independent democratic activists and NGOs that are politically diverse, pragmatic, and reformist. Often, their activities are in tension with the array of interests that the U.S. government pursues.
It is true that the NED and other assistance groups provide support to democrats operating in closed societies. But they do so only at the request of indigenous actors. This would constitute “interference” only if one held that governments alone can legitimately determine such cross-border appeals and transactions.
The National Interest has now published at least three articles over the past year questioning the merits of democracy assistance. Those of us on the NED board are grappling with many of the same issues that Smith and other contributors to this publication raise. Smith, for example, is quite right that NED "enjoyed undeniable successes in the 1980s." What lessons can be applied from Poland's Solidarity movement to the upheavals of the Arab Spring? The challenge in the Middle East is compounded by the rise of illiberal forces in several countries, including Egypt, that seek to restrict outside democracy assistance. We will need to adapt but continue to support positive forces across the regions. But the alternative to innovative democracy assistance is not a new cold peace. More likely, it is an escalating cycle of violence that could force a far costlier intervention down the line.
I see no contradiction between encouraging democratic institutions abroad and preserving vital national-security interests. The two are complementary and mutually reinforcing. In the long run, a world in which states respect the dignity of their people can only be beneficial to America.
Zalmay Khalilzad is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and president of Khalilzad Associates. From 2007 to 2009, he served as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. He has also previously served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and special presidential envoy to Afghanistan. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.