(animated sunrise)Foundation for Democracy in Iran

"The Political Foundations

in the Western Democracies:

What Role and What Future?

A presentation by Carl Gershman, President of the NationalEndowment for Democracy, at the French Senate, Paris, June 6, 1996

Copyright© Carl Gershman, 1996

I am delighted to participate in this colloquium on the role and futureof political foundations. I can remember that when the National Endowmentfor Democracy was just getting underway, our friends at the Konrad AdenaeurStiftung organized a seminar in Washington to help us think through thetasks ahead. It's therefore especially gratifying to be here with our friendsfrom Konrad Adenaeur, as well as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the WestminsterFoundation for Democracy, and to join with our French colleagues who areconsidering the establishment of political foundations in this country.

It was just a few weeks ago that we had the opportunity to welcome inWashington Senator Jacques Oudin [who has been tasked by Prime MinisterJuppe with preparing a report and draft law on political foundations] andThierry Besancon. Somehow we were able to compress a short course on theEndowment into the day-and-a-half they had available. And now Thierry hasgiven me all of 10 minutes to answer a series of questions he has posedconcerning our philosophy, procedures, program selection criteria and content,our relationship to the U.S. Government and to the diplomatic network,the impact of our programs and our influence in the U.S., and not leastour "legitimacy."

It was on this last point that I was a bit confused. Was he interestedin the legitimacy of our work in the context of international law, an issuewe addressed in our founding Statement of Principles and Objectives? Internationallegitimacy, after all, is hardly a marginal issue for an organization devotedto assisting the process of democratic change in other countries. Or perhapshe was interested in our legitimacy with foreign partners, not a trivialmatter considering the sensitivities of some countries (Arab countries,for example, or our neighbor Mexico) about "intervention" fromthe United States.

But no, when I asked for a clarification, he told me he had in mindour legitimacy with our own public. "How," he asked, "afterthe Cold War and with budgets being cut, do you convince the media andgeneral public that this expense is useful, that it's a good investment?"Now this, I thought, was a challenging question, one that we have had toface throughout our existence, and especially in the current period forthe reasons he suggests.

It may be my nature, but I'd like to answer this question by posingsome others: Why are we meeting today to discuss the establishment of politicalfoundations in France? Why are there people here from other Western democracies-- Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States -- to join in this discussion?Indeed, why have other democracies such as Canada, Sweden and the Netherlandsalso established such foundations? Would we have been having such a discussionten years ago?

I think the obvious answer to this last question is no. The subjectof political foundations has become an issue today because the world haschanged. We're all trying to adjust to a new world reality, and the establishmentof political foundations seems to be a practical step to take.

For one thing, we're all still trying to absorb the changes unleashedby what Samuel Huntington has called "the third wave" of democratization.Political assistance is needed to help consolidate the new democracies,especially in Central and Eastern Europe: hence, political foundations.

But there is an even more fundamental factor. We are all familiar withthe characteristics of this new world: globalization, the global village,instant communications and rising political consciousness -- what the Britishphilosopher Isaiah Berlin has called the "hunger for recognition"among peoples that are awakening and insisting on the right to participate,"to count for something among the cultures of the world." Thesepeoples want to succeed in a more competitive, rapidly changing internationalenvironment. But here they face a conflict. Some realize that to succeed,they must modernize, politically as well as economically. They must moveforward. But there are others who oppose this course because of the effectmodernization will have on their traditional culture and community. Sothis is a difficult process, made all the more so by poverty, populationpressures, and a clash of cultures.

We must find a way to address this problem, if only because the consequencesof failure are dangerous for the peoples involved and for the whole world.Failure will lead to growing resentment against the affluent countries,to greater flows of refugees, and perhaps even to terrorism. But the traditionalmethods of response available to the democracies -- diplomacy, economicand humanitarian assistance, military force -- are not sufficient. Theywon't work. These tools can be used to adjust to problems, to put out fires,or to play the game of balance of power between states. But the principalsource of conflict in the modern world derives not from interstate rivalriesbut from internal problems of states -- from ethnic hatred, social breakdown,and national or religious extremism.

How, then, can we help other countries make the transition to modernity,to successful, participatory systems within the context of their own individualhistories, cultures and traditions? I suggest that political foundationsare one means to address this new reality. It offers a way to assist politicaldevelopment within other countries. It gives us a way to relate directlyto people, to work with them -- cooperatively -- towards the establishmentof stable political institutions; institutions that are flexible and openenough to accommodate the rising political pressures and clamor for participationin the modern world.

This suggests a broad strategic priority for the advanced democracies,which constitute only a small portion of humanity. It is to help the othernations, which constitute the majority, make the transition from one erato another. It is to help transform a zone of conflict and chaos, overtime, into a zone of peace and stability. This is obviously a very long-termgoal which will be achieved incrementally at best. But it is a worthy goalthat is best pursued cooperatively through a combined effort of the world'sdemocracies.

As the democracies establish political foundations to pursue this work,it is inevitable that these new institutions will reflect the unique politicalculture of each country. When President Reagan called for the establishmentof the National Endowment for Democracy, he had in mind the model of theGerman stiftungen. Today there are other models, including our own foundationand the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

Our own institution has assumed a distinctly American form: consensual,pluralistic, global in scope, idealistic and pragmatic at the same timeand, above all, able to represent and appeal to the idea of democracy whichis the American national creed. The NED is bipartisan, with an independentBoard representing liberals and conservatives, leaders of labor and business,and different racial and ethnic groups. It funds the work of four coreinstitutes associated with our two major parties, the labor movement andthe business community. It also maintains a robust discretionary programof small grants to nongovernmental groups in some 80 countries.

It funds programs that promote institutional pluralism (such as civicgroups, business associations and trade unions), democratic governance(including the conduct of fair elections and the development of politicalparty systems, the rule of law and democratic policy institutes), and democraticeducation, culture and free communications media. Many of the programs,especially those carried out by the four core institutes, involve training,but a substantial part of NED resources, particularly the discretionaryprograms, goes for direct material help to democratic activist groups.

The program is global, in keeping with the American belief that peoplesthroughout the world are capable of self-government, as well as with thecomposition of the American population, which is drawn from the entireworld. It includes programs with our neighbors in Latin America, in CentralEurope and the former Soviet Union, in Asia (especially China), in Africa,and in the Middle East where we try to help those seeking the reconciliationof Islam and democracy.

When we got underway a dozen years ago, we faced considerable skepticismin the U.S. Some on the Right thought we would just support social democrats,while some on the Left thought we were only interested in anti-communism.To them all, we had to prove that our sole interest was the promotion ofdemocracy, and that we would pursue that goal in a consistent manner --in Chile and Nicaragua, in Poland and South Africa, in China and the Philippines.To those who feared that we would meddle in others' elections, we had toprove that our only purpose was to support the establishment of a democraticprocess, not to influence its result. In response to suspicions that wewere somehow tied to the CIA, we established a policy of complete opennessand transparency in everything we did.

These were only some of the premonitions that we had to dispel. We alsohad to demonstrate that we were not an instrument of cultural imperialism,marketing programs made in Washington, but would in all cases be responsiveto the needs and priorities of our local partners. Our party institutes(the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute),responding to the charge that they would be mere junket-sponsoring "boondoggles"on behalf of their respective parties, had to demonstrate their capacityfor serious political work on behalf of democracy -- which they quicklydid. And of course there were charges of unaccountability, to which ourresponse was the implementation of more financial control procedures thananyone here could imagine.

Today, democracy-promotion has become an important priority for ourgovernment. This has made it incumbent upon us to demonstrate the continuingrelevance of the NED as an independent, cost-effective, efficient, non-bureaucraticmeans to deliver vitally-needed aid to activists at the cutting- edge ofdemocratic change. The Endowment has become a focal point for the internationaldemocracy movement, and with the development of our International Forumfor Democratic Studies, also a center for the scholarly study of democracyand a meeting point for academics and practitioners. Above all, the NEDhas become a symbol of the enduring American commitment to democracy inthe world.

All of us face a challenge which can be expressed in the form of anapparent paradox. We have to show that our work can promote the nationalinterest, but only if it is not tied directly to government policies. Theargument is compelling if not self-evident: The advance of democracy isin our national interest (because it promotes peace, stability and goodwill), yet democracy can only be advanced by respecting the aspirationsof those we seek to help. We are, after all, trying to influence developmentsin other societies. That's a delicate process. If our goal is to supportdemocracy, we cannot have other agendas. Otherwise our efforts might bemet with cynicism and even provoke a backlash. In a word, we can best serveour own higher interest by supporting others' legitimate aspirations forfreedom and democracy.

This leads to a second apparent paradox. Political foundations deservepublic funding because they serve a public purpose. Yet they can only beeffective if they are independent of government. Government prioritiesare inevitably tied to short-term policy considerations, while politicalfoundations must develop long-term relationships with private partners.It should certainly be possible to develop appropriate means of consultationwith government, but government needs to respect the independence of thefoundations. As democratic governments themselves get more involved indemocracy- promotion programs, such consultation becomes more important.We have found that government programs often build upon initiatives startedwith our grants, often using much greater resources than we have available.This suggests a relationship of complementarily between the programs ofgovernments and political foundations. It also highlights the need forthe foundations to be innovative and bold, to take risks. The foundationsmust demonstrate to their publics and legislatures that they can do whatgovernments can't and shouldn't do, that they serve a necessary functionthat can be performed only by independent entities.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize the importance of modesty in settinggoals. Democracy is a long-term process. It can't be imposed from withoutor exported. It must develop from within, according to the circumstancesand capabilities of the peoples involved. We can help this process. Weshould help it, for moral reasons and also because it is our interest todo so. You will have to find your own way into this new area of work, andif you do, we look forward to working with you.