Democratic solidarity: Strategic priorities address 21st century challenges


For the fifteen or so years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, efforts to advance democracy appeared to have historical momentum on their side. More recently, the authoritarian resurgence and democratic recession suggest that democracy assistance is pushing against the grain of history.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested recently that the institutions that played a vital role in winning the Cold War or which emerged from President Reagan’s Westminster speech, such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), may be in need of a makeover because “times have changed.”  

Thirty seven years to the week since the NED was formally established, its president Carl Gershman tells the Reagan Institute’s Westminster 2.0 working group how the organization has thrived precisely by adapting its strategic priorities to address 21st Century challenges.

First, and this is prompted by Secretary Pompeo’s “makeover” comment last week, the NED has been constantly modernizing since the very beginning and has remained at the cutting edge of democratic change.  This is why we survived the early challenges to our existence and built a bipartisan constituency in the Congress for our work.

In the 1980s we won people over through our work in Poland and other communist states, Chile, South Africa, the Philippines, Nicaragua and similar Third Wave countries. The 1990s was a rough decade because some people thought we were no longer needed after the Cold War and that the government could now do the work.  With funds scarce, we built momentum by creating initiatives like the Journal of Democracy and the World Movement for Democracy which had global impact and didn’t cost a lot – in addition to our grant-making in hot-spots like the Balkans.  9/11 ended the vacation from history and former opponents in the Congress supported our strategy for aiding democracy in the Muslim world.  Then came the anti-democracy backlash and authoritarian resurgence, and we’ve continued to grow to address these and other new problems.

The NED budget is today ten times what it was in 2001, and the most rapid growth has taken place during the Trump period, despite the fact that the Administration recommended slashing it.  Growth has created its own challenges and we’ve developed a stronger and more structured organization, though we’ve remained lean, fast-acting, and flexible.

In January 2020 the NED board approved an ambitious 6-point strategic plan that is based on initiatives we started at the request of the Congress in 2016.  The priorities address all the main challenges – liberalizing authoritarian countries, supporting key democratic transitions, building democratic unity, countering malign authoritarian influence, competing with authoritarians in the arena of technology and information, and strengthening and defending liberal values. We’ve also expanded our Strategic Cooperation Fund that strengthens cooperation with our four core institutes on common objectives.

Through all this change and adaptation, three things have remained constant – and this is my second point: We’ve successfully preserved our independence, which is the key to our success; kept together the NED family, which is the NED and its four party, business, and labor core institutes; and remained focused on our mission. Everyone’s on the same page, including our compliance team that ensures financial compliance and minimizes fraud by building the capacity of small NGOs to manage grants. Of 8100 grants in more than 100 countries, there have been fraud problems with only 26 groups.

National Endowment for Democracy (NED)

Thirdly, we don’t think of our work as an investment, which is a transactional term suggesting that the results are quantifiable and that the impetus for democratic progress comes from outside.  We prefer a term like solidarity, with our  job being to provide a comprehensive support system of grants, training, network-building, program-related research, and the political defense of frontline activists – the goal of which is to empower indigenous groups and movements to achieve their own goals and realize their own vision.  We’re consistently conducting independent evaluations of our grants in difficult countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, China, and the DRC, not for the purpose of quantifying how much we’ve advanced democracy but rather to learn lessons, strengthen accountability, and improve our grant-making.

This work is long-term and you often can’t see the payoff immediately. We would never claim credit for gains in countries like Sudan or Armenia, but we have a relationship to these events.  One board member told me recently, in relation to Sudan, that after 5 years on the board, he’s finally beginning to understand that the NED practice of supporting frontline grassroots groups over many years, until the time comes for a breakthrough, is really a very coherent strategy.  It may look scattershot, and board members sometimes wonder that we might be spread too thin.  But there’s a method to that bottom-up strategy. 

After the “velvet revolution” in Armenia in which our grantees were very prominent, one of our program staff explained our role in this way: “We do our work long before any protest occurs.  If we do our jobs well and pick the best people – no one needs to tell them what to do.  That’s the point of independent civil society.  We only work with groups that are independent, and our approach to making grants (rather than contracts) builds confidence and independence.  In the midst of a crisis, no one at NED tells these people to do.  We just stay out of it and let people act their conscience.  But because we have chosen the smartest, best organized, bravest, most independent people, they tend to stand up during these moments.”

National Endowment for Democracy (NED)

The key is to support the demand for change that pre-exists outside help and is deeply rooted in the society.  Programs that get a bad “return on investment,” if I may use that term, tend to be top-down, technocratic efforts to promote the rule of law, often in highly authoritarian and corrupt environments.  It’s better to support investigative journalists, civil society watchdogs, and innovative online media outlets. With transnational developments now happening so quickly, we also need to better link local groups with regional and international actors.  I think our work, steadily and over many years in some  of the toughest places, like Tibet and East Turkestan (Uyghurs), has also been valuable in building advocacy capacity and global support networks, and to let people in these dark corners know that they’re not alone.

To place this work in the context of broader US policy and strategy, I agree with Bill Galston’s observation in The Wall Street Journal last weekend that American patience with what leaders of both parties call “endless wars” has probably run out.  US policy will continue, of course, to defend our security against new military, technological, health, environmental, and other threats. Yet in relation to the Westminster agenda of advancing freedom and democracy, I would hope that our government could provide a context within which groups like NED and its institutes can work quietly and over the long haul to meet the global demand for rights and freedom that is greater than ever before with the spread of information and transnational networks.

That means the US should seek to preserve a  stable international order; in that context to use American political and diplomatic influence to keep political space open for democracy activists, independent journalists and others; to use the US public voice and influence to defend human rights, liberal values, and democratic norms that are under assault, including in multilateral arenas like the UN; to strengthen our alliances and what former National Democratic Institute (NDI) head Ken Wollack calls the ‘architecture of democracy‘ that now exists, to one degree or another, in all regions; and to use US funding to strengthen democratic governance, especially through the work of the four NED institutes.

The pandemic has been used by authoritarian and even some hybrid and partly democratic governments to tighten centralized controls and restrict rights, while the US and other democracies have been distracted and too much on the sidelines.  But the struggle for basic freedoms and the rule of law goes on, and the US needs to renew the vision set forth in the Westminster Address.  What you’re doing can help make that happen.

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