Supporting Democracy in Challenging Times

Remarks by Carl Gershman at CSIS ForumJuly 17, 2018

It’s important to put the difficulties of the current period in context.  The NED was founded in 1983/84, which was when the third wave of democratization was just beginning to gain momentum.  The NED’s first decade was a very hopeful period for democracy, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the greatest expansion of democracy in human history.  But it was also very unusual.  Huntington’s book on the third wave was published in 1991, and in it he predicted some tough times ahead; and his theory of democratic waves also included the idea that waves, or periods of democratic expansion, are followed by reverse waves.  But in the 1990s, which Charles Krauthammer called a vacation from history, many people just assumed that the expansion of democracy was inevitable and would continue forever,  Some even felt that because the Cold War was over, the work of aiding democracy was no longer politically sensitive and that an independent, arms-length institution like the NED was no longer needed.  Government agencies like USAID could do the job.  So it was not a very good period for NED.

The current period is very different, and we know its core features very well: 12 consecutive years of democratic decline, according to Freedom House; resurgent authoritarianism – the growing power and assertiveness of dictatorships like China, Russia, and Iran; democratic backsliding in countries like Turkey, Venezuela, the Philippines, Thailand, Poland, and Hungary; and growing illiberal populist and nationalist movements and parties in the established democracies.

Autocratic regimes have tried to repress independent groups working to promote greater freedom and to cut them off from the kinds of assistance that we provide by expelling our institutes and passing harsh NGO laws that make it illegal to receive foreign assistance.

But the work goes on and has even been expanding, which is a testament to the determination and courage of indigenous groups who want to continue to work and receive needed aid despite the risks.  And it’s also an example of the NED’s commitment to navigate the obstacles and to continue to provide such aid while taking care to protect the safety of our grantees.

So there’s some good news, which should be emphasized so that we don’t get too pessimistic.  There’s other good news as well.  The NED family of institutions remains united, and our work enjoys stronger bipartisan support in the Congress than ever.  An example is the 3-hour hearing on NED and democracy that Ken, Dan, and I testified at on June 14.  32 Members turned out not just to ask questions but to show their support for our work and mission.  That’s unprecedented, and it is not unrelated to the challenges facing democracy.  I think the Members wanted to make a statement about their support for democracy at a time when U.S. policy is not clear on the issue.  In other words, the vacation from history is over and people think the work we do is more important than ever.

NED is an institution that was built to take on tough challenges. We thrive on that, so the crisis of democracy has actually made us a stronger institution.

Nothing illustrates this better than the strategic plan we’ve developed with special funding from the Congress to respond to resurgent authoritarianism.  As part of this plan, we now fund programs that address 6 strategic priorities: helping civil society respond to the crackdown, defending the integrity of the information space, countering extremism, reversing the failure of governance in many transitional democracies, countering kleptocracy that’s a pillar of modern authoritarianism, and strengthening international democratic cooperation in meeting the threat to democracy.

By pursuing common strategic objectives, the entire NED effort has become stronger and more integrated, with greater cooperation taking place across the different regions and among the 5 institutions represented here that comprise the NED family.

I think it’s also important to recognize that despite all the difficulties, democracy has made some important gains recently – among them the remarkable democratic transition in The Gambia, the fall of the corrupt Zuma government in South Africa, the stunning victory of democracy in Malaysia and the freeing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the equally stunning triumph in Armenia of the democratic opposition, and the successful local elections in Tunisia that were a decisive step forward in the Arab world’s first democracy.  Gains have also been made very recently in Slovakia and Ethiopia, and the acquittal of Rafael Marques in Angola was a victory for press freedom that reverberated in Africa and beyond. We’ll see what happens in Zimbabwe later this month, but the fall of Robert Mugabe was itself another positive development.

These changes show that we should never underestimate the desire of ordinary people for freedom and dignity, or the extent of popular anger at corrupt and unresponsive government officials.

Nor should we assume that strongmen always win.  The Islamic Republic of Iran is a failed system, which was shown by the protests that swept over the country less than six months ago and that are recurring today.  The Bolivarian dictatorship in Venezuela is also a failed system, as is the Ortega regime in Nicaragua, which is using massive violence to suppress a popular uprising, even attacking the Church.  Other regimes that are not as stable as they appear include the dictatorships in Cuba and North Korea, the stagnant Russian kleptocracy, and the Xi regime in China that felt so threatened by a peaceful dissident like Liu Xiaobo that, in  effect, it killed him, and has had to stoke nationalism to fill the void left by the death of communist ideology.

Let me close with a few other quick observations.  I think the NED can’t take anything for granted and has to constantly find new ways to raise morale and build democratic momentum.  Our development of the concept of Sharp Power is an example of such innovation, as is the creation of the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal, a network of leading writers and activists to fight the battle for democracy at the level of ideas and values.

In the current environment, we also need to explain how aiding democracy strengthens American security.  While it’s not our job to try to influence U.S. foreign policy, we nonetheless have to be alert to broader international developments that influence our work and the state of democracy in the world.  We don’t operate in a geopolitical vacuum.  A couple of decades ago, during that famous vacation from history, Sam Huntington warned that a world without U.S. leadership “will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs.”

Finally, we also need to spread the word about the brave activists around the world who are leading from the front in the global struggle for democracy.  I don’t know if their example can help revive the spirit and confidence of the established democracies, but we need to do whatever we can to raise their profile and explain what they do and why our freedom is linked to theirs.  Giving them our solidarity is not only consistent with our values, but in our interest as well.  They haven’t given up, and neither should we.