Dismantling Reagan’s infrastructure of democracy in face of ‘authoritarian international’?


The State Department’s fiscal 2019 budget request is a proposal not only to slash the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy but also to disassemble its relationships with its core institutes, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. For the NED and those institutes, the proposal is an assault not only on their organizations but also on the pro-democracy mission, The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin argues.

“If implemented, the proposal would gut the program, force crippling layoffs and the symbolic meaning would also be shattering, sending a signal far and wide that the United States is turning its back on supporting brave people who share our values,” said NED President Carl Gershman (right).

China’s descent into despotism is just one example of a global authoritarian turn that jeopardizes the liberal international order, confirms that liberal teleology rested on shaky assumptions and highlights the emergence of an “authoritarian international,” notes Stewart Patrick, the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.”

Since it won independence, America has fluctuated in how best to support democracy abroad, he writes for The Hill:

Should it serve merely as a beacon for others to emulate? Or should it adopt the crusading mantle of a redeemer nation? Whatever path they have chosen, past American presidents have endorsed democracy as the only legitimate basis for political rule. For if the United States no longer stands for freedom, what does it stand for?

Still, it’s telling that authoritarians like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi feel compelled to engage in something resembling a democratic exercise and even to campaign for votes. Why bother? The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl asks.

“I think the answer is obvious: legitimacy,” says Stanford University’s Larry Diamond (left), an expert on global democratic trends. “There is still enough resonance today of the democracy principle so that leaders like Sissi and Putin feel the need to show that they have won in a superficially competitive election, that they are the people’s choice.”

The State Department proposal would allow the NED to continue issuing small grants but move funding of its core institutes to the State Department, where the IRI and NDI would have to compete with private contractors, Rogin writes:

The organizations involved argue that keeping funding decisions at arm’s length from the State Department allows the NED network to do things on the edges of the pro-democracy movement that the U.S. government can’t or won’t, such as supporting Chinese dissidents in ways that upset Beijing.

“USAID, the State Department and the endowment are a three-legged stool,” said NDI President Kenneth Wollack (right). “Dismantling one of those legs would undermine a fundamental pillar of U.S. foreign policy — a policy that represents a convergence of our interests and values.”

The U.S. has removed the promotion of democracy and human rights from its foreign policy agenda, says Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations. Its silence on these issues gives repressive regimes a free pass to crack down. But our increasingly divisive domestic politics are also part of the problem, he contends.

More broadly, the battle over the NED grants is a small but important piece of the ongoing struggle over America’s mission, Rogin adds.

“The work our government does to promote democratic values abroad is at the heart of who we are as a country,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the IRI’s board of directors, told me. RTWT

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