Keywords: democracy; Iraq; Christian Peacemaker Teams; Red Cross; National Endowment for Democracy; Carl Gershman; Ron Paul; NGO; Orange Revolution; Belarus; Russia; civil society; Community of Democracies.
Almost every dictator these days feels obliged to pretend his country is democratic. The word has a nice ring to it. But despite the desire for respectability that motivates such democratic pretensions, activities directed toward spreading democracy meet strong, and growing, resistance. In Iraq today, for example, an American woman was killed for carrying out her mission: to assist the Iraqis in developing democracy. I’m not counting the 3,000 soldiers who have been killed for obediently trying impose democracy on Iraqis whether they like it or not. I see a big distinction between assisting democracy and imposing it with military force. The former sometimes works; the latter rarely does — unless, I guess, the unwilling recipient of this imposition is a totally defeated country, as in the case of Germany and Japan after World War II. Democracy took root there, apparently, whereas elsewhere the use of force generally provokes great opposition, as today in Iraq.
You don’t have to be a neoconservative to believe that democracy is generally a good thing. The defining trait of neoons is that they are willing to use violence to spread the glad tidings of democracy. Personally, I fully endorse the “assistance” approach, which supports and financial aids democratic opposition groups within authoritarian countries.
Not everyone agrees with me — not by a long shot. Even many peaceniks argue that “we wouldn’t want foreign assistance being given to revolutionaries within our own country, so we shouldn’t be giving it to dissident democrats in authoritarian countries.” Really? We shouldn’t have helped Germans stop Hitler? Or Russians stop Stalin? Or Chinese stop Mao? I can understand extreme pacifists who would refuse to help violent opposition against even dictatorships, but I don’t even know any pacifists who would object ethically to supporting nonviolent resistance to tyranny.
Some people distinguish between government-funded democratic assistance and the private, voluntary assistance provided by NGOs. People who would support the Red Cross or the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Lebanon or Palestine, for example, would not necessarily want any foreign government-supported organizations to operate there performing the same activities. Libertarians, for example, such as Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, oppose efforts to spread democracy around the world with the support of government. Myself, I’m in favor of nonviolent support for democracy from any government. Violence is where I draw the line — that and the subverting of democracy by interfering with the outcome of elections. It’s fine to help a dissident group make its voice heard where it would otherwise be repressed. It wouldn’t be fine to fund certain candidates or parties in a fair election. So there’s a fine line between assisting democracy rather than corrupting it, and it’s essential to be careful.
But besides these reasonable considerations, there are new obstacles to democracy assistance around the world. A while back, Carl Gershman (see photo), the head of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, wrote an article in a journal that his organization funds, The Journal of Democracy, describing these new problems. NED is an organization that operates at arms-length from the government, but cooperates with the democracy institutes of the two big US parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. As Gershman points out, there is a trend toward the incorporation of “a right to democracy” into international law,
“a growing consensus that democracy is the only system which confers legitimacy upon a government, and a widespread agreement that democracy promotes human rights, development, and peace.
“The practical manifestation of this trend has been a proliferation of democracy-assistance programs funded by governments, multilateral bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union, international financial institutions, and independent foundations. Such programs, which have gained broad international support, provide technical and material assistance to governments that are trying to consolidate democracy, as well as to nongovernmental groups that seek to monitor public institutions and processes, promote human rights and access to information, and encourage democratic participation.”
Naturally, not all governments welcome such “assistance.” After the recent “third wave of democratization,” in very few cases was there an overt return to dictatorship. Instead, the “reverse wave” backlash against democracy consisted of a weakening of actual democratic practices, coupled with a superficial liberalization. For example, these “hybrid regimes” usually retain free, but not fair, elections. Parliament is weak, the executive branch dominates, and there is no significant independent judiciary. The new organizations such as NED help opposition groups expand their political space in such constrained situations.
The Orange Revolution in Ukraine alarmed the heads of several formerly Communist countries such as Belarus and Russia, convincing them that this contagious movement might sweep them out of power. In reaction, they began a new crackdown against all pro-democracy organizations. Farther away, certain other countries, such as Chavez’s Venezuela, are equally notable for harassing NGOs. Everywhere, the most common approach has been to require all civil society organizations to register with the government and receive permission to function. They are generally not allowed to receive funds from foreign sources.
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) wrote that over twenty countries have introduced restrictive legislation aimed at weakening civil society. In some places, Gershman notes, the NGOs comply by publicly acknowledging the grants they have received from abroad, and even applying for permission to accept it. If they are denied permission, however, they must then begin finding circuitous methods, such as they previously used when their societies were closed: financing through third parties, running trainings in adjacent territories, and channeling support through exile groups.
Gershman rightly proposes that democratic governments should use political pressure on the governments that are blocking democracy assistance and persecuting activists. He also proposes linkage as a useful political response. “The idea,” he writes, “is to link a state’s treatment of independent civil society organizations to the political and economic dimensions of interstate relations.” In another instance, the repressive Russian NGO law was trimmed back because the Kremlin wanted to avoid embarrassment when it hosted the G-8 in St. Petersburg. Gershman proposes that the Community of Democracies should explicitly advance the cause of democracy worldwide, and elaborate the Warsaw Declaration. It can help discredit the new assault on democracy promotion.
I heartily agree — with one minor adaptation. If the Community of Democracies, or even the United Nations more broadly, offers this kind of support, it would do well to propose guidelines at the same time, defining the acceptable scope of activities for those offering democracy assistance, and stipulating what kinds of intervention should be regarded as improper. In this case, the legitimacy of the activity will actually be enhanced by having its limits spelled out.