For the first time in its 38-year-history, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has a new president and chief executive officer, Damon Wilson. With decades of experience bridging government, think tanks, and humanitarian work, Mr. Wilson begins leading NED this week.
“NED has the potential to catalyze a broader coordinated campaign in support of democracy and freedom at a historic moment,” says Mr. Wilson of his goals for the organization during this time of unprecedented democratic recession. “That’s the vision and excitement that I hope to bring to NED: how we harness the unique capabilities, the unique position, the unique assets, and the unique traditions of NED—not just to continue to stand by and support civil society activists, as it does so well‑—but to rally like-minded partners in common cause, so that ultimately we are part of an offense in favor of democracy and freedom.”
Growing up in North and South Carolina, Mr. Wilson lacked the opportunity to travel, but his friendship with the son of a dissident professor who escaped from Romania during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist dictatorship made an impression at an early age. “In third grade, I learned very quickly what it meant, to just a regular family, to grow up under tyranny,” recalls Mr. Wilson. “And I think that left a searing lesson on me not to take for granted, and to understand, what it means to grow up in freedom and with the protections of democracy.”
As communist regimes repressed the captive nations of Central and Eastern Europe and proxy wars played out around the world, Mr. Wilson was coming of age professionally. He moved to Estonia in 1992, the first year after the country regained its independence. This historic period for democracy would shape his career, he explains: “The power of young people, not much older than myself, building their own democracy … those were really formative moments to understand the power that freedom and democracy provide for individuals to determine their own destiny, to maximize their own potential. It’s almost intoxicating to see the opportunity afforded to people who were not free as they become free, and what that begins to mean to them in their daily lives.” (Learn about NED’s work in Central and Eastern Europe.)
Mr. Wilson later worked for humanitarian efforts in the Balkans in the midst of war and in Rwanda in the wake of genocide. He said, “I witnessed first-hand that autocratic leaders could use their power to manipulate people, inflame tensions, and incite violence.”
These early experiences fueled Mr. Wilson’s pursuit of a career helping secure freedom for millions of people around the world. He joined the State Department, helping to enlarge NATO and avoid genocide in Kosovo. During his time working on the China desk and at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, he witnessed the beginning of the rise of communist China. At the National Security Council (NSC), he served as the director for Central, Eastern, and Northern European Affairs from 2004 to 2006, pushing to welcome more nations into NATO, strengthen relations with our allies, and to support a democratic Ukraine. As Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the NSC from 2007 to 2009, he worked to advance a Europe whole and free and to counter Russian aggression, especially in Georgia.
“There’s no more important cause than to help rally the NED, the United States, and our friends and allies around the world to support democrats globally, counter the authoritarians, and show that democracy is the best way to deliver dignity, prosperity, and security for humankind.”
As the Executive Secretary and Chief of Staff at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Mr. Wilson was integral in the management of one of the largest U.S. embassies during a time of conflict. He also has served as Deputy Director in the Private Office of former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. In Brussels, he helped to prevent the Balkan wars from extending to North Macedonia, organize the Alliance’s historic response to the 9/11 attacks against the United States, and pressed for a greater NATO role in support of the Afghan people.
Most recently, Mr. Wilson oversaw the strategy and growth of the Atlantic Council’s 14 programs and centers as executive vice president. “Damon will not only bring to NED his passion for democracy and freedom, but he will also bring what we have seen throughout his time at the Atlantic Council: his ability to inspire others and to deliver results,” Frederick Kempe, the Atlantic Council president and CEO said in a written statement.
Mr. Wilson succeeds founding president Carl Gershman, who led NED since its establishment in 1984. “Following in the wake of an iconic leader, Carl Gershman, someone who has inspired my own career, who’s been a great colleague, mentor, and friend, it’s the honor of my life to have the responsibility to join the NED family,” says Mr. Wilson about his appointment. “It’s an institution that embodies the idea that no matter what your political views, no matter whether you are from business or labor, or a Democrat, Republican, or independent, to understand that U.S. support for democracy and freedom is fundamentally a part of our DNA, if you will, and how we engage in the world.” (Read more about the legacy of Carl Gershman.)
NED’s leadership transition takes place at a time when China, Russia, and other authoritarian powers are increasingly using their influence against democracies and to thwart democratic progress. NED’s support for more than 2,000 projects in 100 countries has never been more critical. “Financial, moral, and psychological support for those on the frontlines of freedom, and standing with those civil society activists and organizations, human rights defenders, and ‘small d democrats’ at risk, are each in their own ways our heroes in a tough cause,” says Mr. Wilson, of NED’s partners around the world. “There’s no more important cause than to help rally the NED, the United States, and our friends and allies around the world to support democrats globally, counter the authoritarians, and show that democracy is the best way to deliver dignity, prosperity, and security for humankind.”
About the National Endowment for Democracy (NED):
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is an independent, nonprofit, grant-making foundation dedicated to the development and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. NED, along with four core institutes—the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Solidarity Center, and the Center for International Private Enterprise—provides assistance to strengthen democratic institutions and political processes; trade unions; free markets; and business associations, in addition to supporting a vibrant civil society that support human rights, an independent media, and the rule of law. With an annual appropriation from Congress, NED funds more than 2,000 grants in 100 countries. NED’s grants program is augmented by the International Forum for Democratic Studies, a research center that publishes the Journal of Democracy; the World Movement for Democracy; and the Center for International Media Assistance.