Special Reports / What’s that thing called democracy?

Democracy as a learning process

Carl Gershman in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 27 December 2011
An interview with Carl Gershman, the President of the National Endowment for Democracy

Łukasz Pawłowski: The National Endowment for Democracy has an annual budget of almost 140 million dollars. How big does it make it among other democracy promoting institutions?

Carl Gershman: Although we are an independent and private institution, our budget comes primarily from an annual appropriation made by the U.S. Congress. Compared to the amount of money United States spends on democracy promotion through such agencies as the USAID and the State Department, the NED budget is not that large. It represents about 5 or 6 percent of the total amount spent by the U.S. on democracy assistance. There are also other public and private institutions like George Soros’ Open Society Institute that is rather large as well. The NED is thus only one of a number of players. The European Union also spends a great deal of money on democracy promotion and is actively considering the creation of an institution parallel to our own, called European Endowment for Democracy. This is a Polish initiative, by the way.

ŁP: What means of support do you usually provide for countries you are assisting? For example in what ways were you involved in the Arab countries during the Arab Spring?

CG: Obviously you should not start getting involved only during “the spring.” You have to be present during “the winter” as well. We were very active in supporting many groups in Egypt and other Arab countries: independent labor unions, election monitors, nongovernmental organizations advancing women rights or protecting human rights in general, and especially independent media and groups using new communications technologies. In the countries that were relatively open like Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen, we were able to do more than we could in closed societies like Libya, Tunisia, or Syria. But we were even able to be active in these dictatorships, supporting some human rights organizations and groups working from exile. You cannot just enter when things open up – you have to be there before that. That’s certainly the way it was in Central Europe in the 1980s when the NED got started. We didn’t wait for Solidarity and other independent groups to succeed. We supported them when they were underground organizations.

ŁP: In what particular activities do you engage?

CG: There are three forms of help we can offer. One is grant support to NGOs. Second is training and technical assistance, largely provided by NED’s four core institutes, which are international democracy support organizations associated with the Democratic and Republican Parties, the AFL-CIO, and the Chamber of Commerce. They provide aid to their counterparts abroad, whether it is organizing political parties, training election monitors, helping parliaments o develop their committee structures and oversight procedures, helping business associations develop and promote more open and transparent economic processes, helping workers organize – all those things are done under this second category of training and technical assistance. The third aspect, which is especially important in dictatorial countries, is what I would call moral support and solidarity for people who must operate in very difficult situations. These people often face arrest, and of course their lives are threatened as well.

ŁP: What do you mean by “moral support”?

 CG: We defend human rights, we help give people in closed societies political recognition and visibility, we put out alerts when they are in trouble, we let them know that they are not alone. Václav Havel, who just passed away, did a great deal of work providing what I have called moral and political solidarity with dissidents in danger – the very same solidarity he received from the West during communist times.

ŁP: How do you choose countries and initiatives in which to engage?

CG: All of our work is demand driven. We are responding to particular situations on the ground. They differ from one country to another, depending on the political circumstances, the amount of political space that activists have to work in, and many other factors. For example, in a very dictatorial country like North Korea, there is not much work that can be done on the inside. We can support human rights organizations working from the outside to try to protect people and increase political space, or groups that are trying get information into and out of the country, thereby helping to open it up. Burma is a little more open then North Korea, so there we can engage in more activities inside the country. Eventually we hope we will be able to support directly some nongovernmental organizations there. Once we move from dictatorial countries to countries that I would characterize as hybrid or semi-authoritarian, like Russia or Venezuela, we have much more space in which to work with indigenous groups fighting for human rights, or for free and fair elections – though I must emphasize that democracy work in such countries is always very difficult. Still, international organizations can provide a great deal of support in trying to level the playing field for different political and social actors. Finally, there are countries that I describe as emerging democracies – countries that are undergoing an extended transition, that are having problems with developing the rule of law, reducing corruption, or strengthening political pluralism. In such countries we work with civil society, local organizations and independent media, trying to create conditions of respect for the rule of law, human rights, political freedoms or other aspects of democracy that are weak.

ŁP: Do you wait for organizations in those countries to come to you or do you engage on your own and actively look for potential partners you could cooperate with?

CG: It works both ways, but more the first than the second, since there is a huge demand for our work. Obviously, if our institutes go into a country they are going to look for appropriate partners that want support. But the institutes don’t act unilaterally. They try to respond to indigenous needs and desires. You need to remember that although there are institutions like NED that can provide significant moral, technical and even financial support, at the end of the day democratic progress in a country is the responsibility of indigenous movements. We exist simply to support those local forces.

ŁP: You differentiated between many different types of regimes: very dictatorial as the one in North Korea, semi-authoritarian as in Russia, and those which seemed to be stuck on their way to democracy. What standards do you apply to assess which kind of regime you are dealing with?

CG: This is a matter of common sense and good judgment. We take into account a whole range of issues. Is there a free press? Are there political prisoners? Is there some degree of freedom of association? Can NGOs exist and carry out their work free from government harassment and control? How dominant is the central government? These are some of the questions we ask when analyzing a country. Obviously the more dictatorial a country is, the less those freedoms and rights are protected. The annual survey produced by Freedom House, “Freedom in the World,” is also useful. It assessed countries on two dimensions – political rights and civil rights. Freedom House uses a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 signifies highest degree of freedom and 7 the least amount of freedom. The countries given the numbers from 1 to 2.5 are essentially considered to be free or democratic; those graded from 2.5 to 5 are considered partly free; and below that are dictatorial countries with the most serious deficiencies.

ŁP: It is sometimes said that this measure is unfair because it does not account for local differences and applies Western standards to the countries which due to their religious, social and cultural background should be governed in a different manner.

CG: In my view, this argument is most often used by authoritarian dictators to justify or legitimize their rule. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew used it to defend “Asian values.” Hugo Chávez uses it now to defend his “Bolivarian democracy.” The Islamic dictatorship in Iran extols its “Islamic democracy,” and of course there is Putin’s “managed democracy,” and so forth. I think that the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen stated it well when he said that the issue is not whether a country or a people is fit for democracy, but rather how they can become fit through democracy, because democracy is a learning process by which people grow and learn how to solve their problems. Any country, any society in the world has the capacity to do that. The question is what are the next steps they need to take to get there. These steps will differ depending on the starting point – North Korea has a much longer route to democracy than Russia or Venezuela, though frankly, with a successful Korean democracy right across the border, it might progress with surprising speed if North Korea ever opens up.

ŁP: You mentioned Amartya Sen, who once wrote the famous article “Democracy as a Universal Value,” published in the Journal of Democracy which you as NED sponsor. In this article Sen argued for democracy promotion all around the world and he opposed cultural relativism in this regard. I understand you share his view that democracy is a political system that can be implemented everywhere.

CG: Indeed, it is a universal value in the sense that all people can aspire to democracy by virtue of their humanity, their human dignity. While their circumstances may differ, they all have the capacity to strive for it. When you hear people claiming the opposite, you should look closely at who they are because usually these are the people who have a great stake at maintaining an undemocratic system – Putin, Chávez, Ahmadinejad or their apologists.

ŁP: All of them, however, claim they are running democratic countries. It is merely a different kind of democracy from the Western one, better suited to local conditions.

CG: Well, it only shows how powerful the democratic idea is when even dictators and autocrats want to be regarded as democratic leaders. Nevertheless I’m very suspicious of their “hyphenated” versions of democracy. I prefer not to have an “Islamic democracy”, a “managed democracy”, a “Bolivarian democracy” or “socialist democracy,” as they call it in China. I prefer the real thing. What we strive for as NED is democracy itself, a system that respects and helps protect certain fundamental values like human rights, the rule of law, freedom of association and expression, an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, and so forth. It is pretty straightforward, and you know it when you see it.

ŁP: Are you active only in the countries you recognize as undemocratic or would you be willing to support an organization claiming to fight for improving the quality of democracy in a seemingly democratic country? Let’s assume, for example, that representatives of the Occupy Wall Street movement came to you asking for help in fixing democracy in the United States. Would you cooperate with them?

CG: No, we wouldn’t. First of all the U.S. Congress does not want us to use public funds to operate in the United States or other well established democracies but only in undemocratic countries. When you have limited funds you have to work where the needs are greatest. In a country like the United States, if people have a problem they can organize themselves politically to try to solve it. They don’t need us. We exist to help develop democratic processes and institutions where they don’t exist, so that people can have the opportunity to fight for their rights. If these institutions are already securely in place, there is no need for our assistance. It is one thing to occupy Tahrir Square in Egypt where people don’t have democratic ways of exercising their rights. It’s an entirely different thing to occupy Wall Street in the United States where you can pursue your political goals in a legal manner. Where people have the opportunity to use democratic processes to improve the system, they should do so. Of course there are occasions when nonviolent civil disobedience is appropriate to the situation. The Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960’s used civil disobedience to change unfair laws that gave legal protection to racial segregation and denial of voting rights to black people in seven southern states. But such tactics don’t work when you’re trying to change an economic system. There you need organization, politics, and coherent policy ideas.

 ŁP: The protesters from the Occupy movement would disagree with you by claiming the system itself is corrupt to the extent that makes equal and transparent influence on political decisions impossible.

CG: I disagree with that. We have a democracy, and one has to appreciate its advantages and make use of them. There was a time during the Cold War when some people were contemptuous of American democracy and believed there was a higher form of democracy in the Soviet Union. In the end, it became clear that communism was not a higher form of democracy but simply a form of totalitarianism. Therefore, one should not treat with disdain or take for granted the “bourgeois” democratic freedoms we have at our disposal. They should be cherished and used to strengthen and improve democracy.

ŁP: You said that NED operates only outside United States in countries considered to be undemocratic. The problem is that your activities are sometimes described not as democracy promotion but rather as illegitimate interferences in other countries’ politics. You often support very small groups of dissidents, while the majority of people might be perfectly happy with the undemocratic regime they live under.

CG: It’s true that dissidents may not always have broad popular support. Did Andrei Sakharov speak for the entire population of the Soviet Union? Probably not. Was it a mistake to support him and other anticommunist dissidents? Well, I don’t think it was. The question we ask before helping anybody is: Are they fighting for genuinely democratic rights? If they are, they deserve support form an organization like ours. We are not interfering with people’s choices, we are not favoring one party over another. We are simply helping people create an open and fair political process so that people can have the opportunity to choose, so that the people’s will can be fairly determined and exercised freely. There is a difference between supporting the establishment of democratic political processes and trying to influence the outcome of these processes. I hope you understand the distinction.

ŁP: I do, but as you know the National Endowment for Democracy is sometimes accused of being an instrument of American foreign policy, not a neutral organization promoting democracy.

CG: Although NED funding is authorized by the NED Act that Congress passed and the President signed in 1983, it was clearly stated from the very beginning that we are an independent and private organization. We are not part of the U.S. government, and the State Department exercises no control over our decisions. I believe people all over the world with whom we work, or who are familiar with NED programs, realize that NED is not a branch of the U.S. government and does not carry out U.S. policy – we are a private organization using public funds to advance U.S. democratic values and broad national purposes.

ŁP: Are there any specific means by which you maintain your independence?

CG: It is inscribed in our by-laws. NED decisions on grants and policies are taken by an independent and nonpartisan Board of Directors made up of very distinguished people. They are not appointed by our government, which has no role in determining the kinds of programs we will support. It is always the decision of the Board, which is the way the Congress wanted it. Therefore, although the grants we make and our various activities – for example, the World Movement for Democracy, which is a global network of activists – are financed by public funds that are appropriated annually by the U.S. Congress (we can and do also raise private funds), we are overseen by an independent governing body. Of course, we are also publicly accountable and entirely transparent, so that if we do something wrong, it cannot be hidden. Congress, for example, made us subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The independent and non-partisan nature of this process is essential to NED’s effectiveness, because we could not support democracy consistently over the long run if we got entangled in U.S. policy decisions or diplomatic initiatives.

ŁP: Speaking purely theoretically, however, could the U.S. Congress shut down the National Endowment for Democracy if they didn’t like the policies you were pursuing?

 CG: Not so much shut us down as to deny our appropriation. As a private institution we can accept money from individual donors, but the Congress wanted us to use public funds to support democratic groups around the world. It’s an expression of America’s support for democratic values. Certainly Congress can change its mind, but for the past quarter of a century they have seemed to like what we do and think we’re doing an honest job in a manner consistent with the NED Act.