Unmasking the Democracy Promoters

Unmasking the Democracy Promoters

As the UAE shuts down an American NGO, a reflection on how crusades on behalf of presumed “universal values” have a way of going awry.


The Times reports that the United Arab Emirates has shut down the offices of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit U.S. agency whose mission is to promote democracy around the globe. The NDI is often called an NGO, short for nongovernmental organization, which might leave some people a bit quizzical given that this particular NGO is funded to a significant extent by the U.S. government. But Wikipedia helpfully explains: “In cases in which NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status by excluding governmental representatives from membership in the organization.”

Given the language of the Times story on the matter, by reporter Steven Lee Myers, one could get the impression that most people consider it the most natural thing imaginable for the U.S. government to fund organizations that send people into the world to spread democracy, even to the point of helping to foster revolutions in countries deemed insufficiently Jeffersonian. Myers calls the UAE decision “a surprising act of diplomatic defiance.” He also labels it “especially provocative,” given that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to arrive in the region shortly for talks with the UAE and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.


And Clinton herself followed suit by declaring that “we very much regret” the UAE action and adding that NDI plays “a key role in supporting NGOs and civil society across the region, and I expect our discussion on this issue to continue.”

But perhaps there’s merit in stepping back just a bit and seeking to look at it from the perspective of the receiving country. Egypt recently arrested members of a number of democracy-promoting NGOs operating in that country and threatened to prosecute them amid concerns expressed by many Egyptians that they were meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. Egyptian officials were responding in part to reports that three U.S. NGOs—NDI, Freedom House and the International Republican Institute—had received some $65 million to press their views in Egypt on how that country should conduct its government. They said this was “illegal foreign funding” to influence their elections.

The case got particular attention in the United States because the son of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was charged in criminal court there along with a number of others. They were released only after the U.S. government threatened to halt $1.3 billion in projected arms sales to Egypt. But the NGO activities were not allowed to resume.

Russia also has expressed outrage at the activities of U.S. NGOs in that country. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin complained, during his race for the Russian presidency, that hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly from the United States, were being funneled into his country to influence those elections. China has expressed similar concerns.

And now the United Arab Emirates, which some NGO officials find particularly puzzling given that the NGO activists there weren’t seeking to influence governmental structures in the Emirates but rather in nearby countries such as Saudi Arabia.

For anyone trying to understand why this anger is welling up in those countries, it might be helpful to contemplate how Americans would feel if similar organizations from China or Russia or India were to pop up in Washington, with hundreds of millions of dollars given to them by those governments, bent on influencing our politics. One supposes it would generate substantial anger among Americans if these groups tried to tilt our elections toward one party or another. But suppose they were trying to upend our very system of government, as U.S.-financed NGOs are trying to do these days in various countries—and have done in recent years in numerous locations.

This is a foreign-policy issue that deserves more attention than it is getting in American discourse. Hardly anyone seems interested in the anti-American anger that such activity generates and the diplomatic complexities it creates for our country. The Steven Lee Myers article in the Times reflects the general view that these NGO activists are merely doing what comes naturally to those who believe American democratic structures represent universal values that should be embraced universally throughout the world.

But the arrogance of many of these people is almost guaranteed to be incendiary in target countries. Consider the words of Michael McFaul, once the NDI’s representative in Russia. “We’re not going to get into the business of dictating [Russia’s] path [to democracy],” he said. “We’re just going to support what we like to call ‘universal values’—not American values, not Western values, universal values.” Who, one might ask, is the arbiter of such universal values, and how does one get appointed as crusader in their behalf? To get an answer you would have to travel to Russia, where McFaul now serves as U.S. ambassador.

One contrarian voice on this issue is Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator (and member of the TNI advisory council), who argues that such activity is not only wrong but harmful to American interests. He asks: “Does the United States interfere in the internal affairs of nations to subvert regimes by using NGOs to funnel cash to the opposition to foment uprisings or affect elections? Are we using Cold War methods in countries with which we are not at war—to advance our New World Order?”  He replies: “So it would seem.”

It would indeed seem that Buchanan’s questions deserve at least some attention in the country’s public policy discussions. That’s because crusades on behalf of presumed “universal values” have a way of going awry.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His next book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians, is due out from Simon & Schuster on June 26.