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Editors' Picks Interviews National

An Interview With Carl Gershman ’65, President of the National Endowment for Democracy

Carl Gershman ’65 is President of the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit funded by an allocation from Congress with the goal of promoting democracy worldwide. He has been the president of the organization since it began operations in 1984 and graduated as a member of the Yale class of 1965. Prior to assuming the position with the Endowment, Mr. Gershman was Senior Counselor to the United States Representative to the United Nations, in which capacity he served as the U.S. Representative to the UN’s Third Committee, which deals with human rights issues, and also as Alternate Representative of the U.S. to the UN Security Council.

The Politic: Although the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is surely well-known in political spheres here and abroad, it is not necessarily a household name for many Americans. Could you explain, in brief terms, what the NED does?

Carl Gershman: The creation of the National Endowment for Democracy was proposed in 1982 by Ronald Reagan in his Westminster Address, which set forth the goal of promoting democracy abroad. The NED was originally supported through the United States Information Agency (USIA) by funds appropriated by the U.S. Congress. The NED is an unusual institution in that it is publicly funded yet privately operated.  The legislation that authorized the public funding of NED explicitly kept it separate from government operations.

We are primarily a grant-making institution that supports NGOs in about 90 countries that are on the frontlines of the struggle for democracy.  We also make grants to four “core institutes” that are associated with the Democratic and Republican parties, the AFL-CIO, and the Chamber of Commerce. We have a research center that conducts meetings and conferences on critical issues, and we have created the World Movement for Democracy, which is a global network of democracy activists. In addition, the NED has a quarterly academic journal, the Journal of Democracy, several fellowship programs, and we organize public events to show solidarity with democracy activists worldwide. For instance, on the 35th-anniversary of the Westminster Address last June, we honored in the U.S. Congress five anti-corruption activists from around the world to rally support for their cause.

How did you get to where you are today? In other words, what’s your story in your words?

I was a member of the [Yale] class of 1965, and for our reunion a couple of years ago, we were asked to write a short summary of our lives and careers, so my story is there.  Also, I spoke at a panel at the reunion about the civil rights movement and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “dream.”  I was touched by those events while at Yale: I went to Mississippi over Thanksgiving in 1964, and to Selma, Alabama, to participate in the march in 1965 for voting rights.  I worked on a Dwight Hall program in the inner city of New Haven, and then became a Vista Volunteer, working in poor neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

After I spent a year in graduate school at Harvard, I went to work for Bayard Rustin, a civil rights leader who had organized the March on Washington in 1963.  Even though I started by focusing on domestic issues having to do with civil rights and poverty, in the 1970s I got more involved in international human rights work and democracy, rallying support for dissidents in the communist world and elsewhere. I was the Executive Director of a group called Social Democrats, USA, which was both social democratic and anti-communist, and which had a close relationship with the American labor movement.

When Reagan was elected, he appointed as his Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick, a woman who had been a Humphrey Democrat, and she asked me to join her at the U.S. Mission to the UN. I was working there in the early 1980s when Reagan gave his Westminster Address.  Because my labor background and work for Kirkpatrick gave me a bipartisan identity, I was chosen as the first president of the NED and have been there ever since.

We had a very rocky beginning because the NED, as a new organization, was controversial in Congress. There was bipartisan support but also people on both sides of the aisle who opposed the NED, so we had to fight for our budget every year. We survived, but NED remained an issue of some controversy throughout the 1990s. It was really only after 9/11 that the controversy died away. Since then, we’ve greatly strengthened our bipartisan support. There have also been momentous political changes in the international environment, such as the fall of communism, the third wave of democratization, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Arab Spring, and most recently the resurgence of authoritarianism.  The crisis of democracy has now even extended to Europe and the United States with the rise of illiberal movements in the established democracies.

Even though the NED is largely funded by Congress, it is still a private, non-governmental organization, which, as the website claims, “allows it to work where there are no government-to-government relations and in other environments where it would be too complicated for the U.S. Government to work.” Could you give an example of when this fact has proved useful and what exactly prevented the U.S. government from being involved?

The fact that we’re private and non-governmental allows us to pursue democracy in a focused and consistent way. The idea behind making the NED private was to remove it from all the entangling diplomatic obligations of the United States. For example, the fact that the U.S. is engaged with an authoritarian country like Egypt doesn’t prevent NED from supporting democracy programs there. In other words, because we operate outside of the framework of government, we can and support democracy in difficult countries with which the United States has to work diplomatically.

Our transparency and independence are important in working with non-governmental organizations. We empower people in these countries to achieve their own vision and do not require them to support a particular policy of ours or any government. We’re also flexible and non-bureaucratic, meaning we can get things done quickly and nimbly. In addition, we don’t have offices abroad, so it’s more difficult for foreign governments to control or pressure us.

In your article “Ten Years Later,” you describe how the NED came about in the Reagan era and served to promote democracy specifically in Eastern Europe and Latin America, but that abruptly changed once the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet empire collapsed. Can you describe what that transition period was like? Did the goals of the NED change at all, seeing as there was no immediate threat to our national interests during this period up until 9/11?

The NED was always a pro-democracy, not an anti-communist, organization.  We have defined ourselves by what we are for, not what we are against.  The NED’s founding Board was very conscious of that. We came into existence at tail end of Cold War, a period that coincided with the third wave of democratization.  We put half of our resources into Latin America, where many transitions were taking place at the time. We also supported Solidarity in Poland and other dissident and democracy movements in Central Europe. During this initial period of the NED, we had global aspirations, but we were not yet a truly global organization.  We didn’t have the resources, and we were just getting started and making our first contacts.

Actually, the period following the fall of communism was rather difficult for us, since we had to make a lot of adjustments and other players entered the field. One writer called the ’90s a “vacation of history,” because people thought all the international challenges had been solved and that democracy was now the only game in town. It was a time of complacency, and we had to fight hard in Congress to persuade people that our work was still necessary. It was also a time when Congress started funding USAID to do the work of post-authoritarian democratic consolidation, and some people wondered, “Who needs the NED if the government can do this work?” So, it was a difficult period for this unique institution. If the whole world was going to be like Poland in the 1990s – friendly and welcoming – you didn’t really need a non-governmental organization like NED that had the capacity to work in hostile environments.

But of course, all of that changed, especially after 9/11. The “vacation” was over, and we woke up to the fact that we lived in a conflicted international environment. Also, our government now has largely withdrawn from this kind of work, so more people are turning to the NED to aid democracy, especially in difficult countries that are beyond the reach of official development institutions. So we managed to get through the transition in the ’90s, and today I think people in Congress have a greater understanding of why this institution is needed and is consistent with American values and interests. However, we can never be complacent, and we work hard to educate people in Congress about our work and connect them with the activists we support, thereby letting them know what we do. Members of Congress really welcome meeting frontline democracy activists from countries like China, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Cuba.  Our Democracy Award event honoring the five anti-corruption activists was a good example of that. We continue to work very hard to retain that support and to make sure that it’s bipartisan, especially in today’s polarized political climate. I’m happy to say that in addition to support in Congress, we’re in the budget of the Trump Administration.

How do you reconcile the “controversies of war in Iraq” that you reference in the aforementioned article and Bush’s “freedom agenda” that promoted democratic practices in the Middle East? Do the events of the Arab Spring fully justify these “controversies of war”?

The war was a very divisive issue, and it did become associated with the Freedom Agenda which was very problematic.  Supporting democracy was not why the U.S. went into Iraq—but that’s another story. We continually had to make the case during that period that democracy must come from within, that it cannot be imposed, that it must be indigenous. You can help provide a system for those who are fighting for democracy, but you can’t impose it through military force.

The real significance of the Arab Spring, which erupted in late 2010 and 2011, was that it happened in the Middle East, the one region of the world that had been bypassed by the third wave of democratization. What was shown by the uprisings in Tunisia, then Egypt and other Arab countries was that the people in the Middle East wanted democracy just as much as other people around the world did. There was no such as thing as “Arab exceptionalism,” since democracy is a universal aspiration. It also showed that democracy is very difficult to achieve, and that there are forces in many countries that are very much against the rule of law, such as the military in Egypt and the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, as well as extremist movements.

When you have governments that have closed off the possibility of building civil society and learning about democracy, it makes it much harder to achieve a peaceful democratic transition.  If democracy activists are repressed and extremists continue to operate underground, it makes it almost impossible to build a stable democracy when an opening comes. In the end, it was possible to succeed in Tunisia, which had a more robust civil society.  But the Arab Spring failed in many other countries and became horrendously violent and destructive in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. That doesn’t mean people don’t want democracy and won’t eventually achieve it. The struggle for democracy in the West took place over more than century. Look at the history of countries like Germany and Spain.  It took a long, long time to build a consensus about the rule of law and human rights. I feel like this process will eventually succeed in the Middle East, but we have to take it one step at a time.

In the case of a country like Egypt, there will be other opportunities to build democracy, and hopefully people will have learned some lessons as a result of initial failures. The Egyptian organizations that we supported before the Tahrir Square uprising weren’t ready for the post-transition consolidation, and they were working against a lot of anti-democratic forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. But you have to keep working at it, and eventually people will grow and learn enough to be more effective in the future.  Since our own revolution at the end of the 18th century, democracy has evolved slowly and often in waves, and sometimes progress is reversed.  Right now we’re in a difficult period following the third wave of democratization a quarter of a century ago.  Political scientists are debating whether we’re now in a reverse wave or a “democratic recession.” But at some point, this period will pass, and I believe we’ll enter into another period of democratic progress and expansion.

Given your less-than-favorable opinion of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, as exemplified by your Washington Post piece on the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, what actions do you think the U.S. government should take regarding the possibility of Russian interference in our election and the allegedly close ties between President Trump and Putin?

The NED does not get involved in domestic politics.  Our job is to support people in different countries abroad who are fighting for freedom and democracy. The good news is that there are people in Russia like Anna Politkovskaya, an incredibly brave journalist who wrote about the war in Chechnya and the horrible things that were happening there. And even though a number of Russians like Politkovskaya have been killed, it’s an ongoing fight.

There are thousands of young people in Russia today who are part of that fight and are leading a movement for a democratic opening.  The Russian government has lost these young people, since they want a system that respects their rights and that is not deeply corrupt, even kleptocratic – meaning that Russia is a country ruled by thieves, without anything like the rule of law. The U.S. has a great interest in Russia becoming more democratic and in protecting ourselves against the misuse of information, especially in the cyberspace.  The U.S. will need to develop a realistic policy that can contain Russia, especially in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine.  That’s something we’ll have to contend with.

In a perfect world, what does the future of NED look like? Where do you plan on focusing your work next?

The NED is now a genuinely global organization. We have a substantial grants programs in all major regions of the world where democracy needs to be strengthened, including East Asia, with a priority on China and North Korea; Europe and Eurasia, with a priority on Russia and the Balkans; and South Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. At the request of Congress, we have developed a strategic plan to press back against democratic backsliding and resurgent authoritarianism.

There are six strategic priorities, which include the need to strengthen civil society and to protect the integrity of the information space, especially in the area of social media and the attack on independent journalism.  We’re also focused on countering religious and ethnic extremism, not just Islamic extremism but also Buddhist nationalism that is a very worrisome problem in countries like Burma and Sri Lanka. In connection with the problem of nationalism and extremism, we’re wrestling with the question of how democracy movements committed to universal values can reach grassroots populations more wedded to traditional religion and culture.

In addition, we’ve prioritized the importance of democratic governance, so that democratic movements in countries like Egypt will have a better chance to successfully build a democracy that respects the rule of law when the next opportunity comes for such an effort. We’re also focusing on the problem of kleptocracy, or rule by theft, which is an important feature of modern authoritarianism.  Kleptocratic governments use their stolen resources not only to suppress democracy in their own countries but also to penetrate and undermine established democracies. We have to devise ways to respond to this new problem.

Finally, we have to encourage greater cooperation among democratic countries. We are in contact with activists and policy leaders in countries like India, South Korea and Japan to try to find a way they can work together and with the West to support democracy.  Also, to strengthen support for liberal values, we’ve helped organize a new coalition of public intellectuals and democracy advocates. They have agreed upon a common statement called The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal.  We’ve also published a number of articles in our journal pertaining to the present crisis of liberal democracy.

And now some Rapid Fire questions…Where do you get your news?

Newspapers (actually in print!), The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, [The New York] Times, as well as online sources.

What place would you most like to visit?

Cuba, after it’s free. I won’t go there for a lot of reasons while it’s still controlled by an authoritarian government, but I look forward to visiting when it’s democratic.

If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

I’d probably be writing a history of this institution with commentary on the struggle for democracy.

Which living person do you most admire?

I want to mention two people, if I may. The first is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I’ve had the pleasure to get to know him through our work on Tibet.  He’s won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and we gave him our Democracy Service Medal in 2010. I find his career remarkable because he understood from the very beginning, when he was still in China, that without modernizing and becoming democratic, Tibet would be much less able to fight the threat of Chinese communism. It’s amazing what he’s done in exile. He’s built a community of exiled Tibetans who are governed by democratic institutions, including an elected parliament and prime minister. Even more than that, while he calls himself a “simple Buddhist monk” who comes from a country and a culture that are far-removed from the democratic West, he’s nonetheless become a leading exponent of non-violence and religious freedom throughout the world even as he has defended the rights and culture of the Tibetan people.

The second person is a Russian woman, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who just celebrated her 90th birthday. She was a founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) in 1976 and was one of the leading dissidents and human rights activists in the Soviet Union. She wrote an important 500-page history of the Soviet dissident movement.  She had to leave Russia in the 1970s, but she returned to Russia in the 1990s and has given the MHG new life. She represents a bridge between the two historical periods of Soviet dissent and the contemporary defense of human rights, and also between two generations or Russians fighting for democracy. She’s a revered symbol of a different Russia that is more tolerant and free.

What keeps you up at night?

I run a big organization, and I sometimes worry about some of the issues related to managing a complex institution.

What is your advice for college students?

In addition to getting an education and trying to understand the world around them, I think they need to follow their passion to make the world a better and more decent place. We can never let up or become complacent and selfish.  The world is a very dangerous place, and it’s more important than ever to defend democratic values. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”  Young people in the affluent and established democracies will need to remain vigilant and find ways of connecting with people who don’t have their advantages and who aspire to live freely.

Favorite memory at Yale?

My experience with Link, the Dwight Hall program I worked in, was one of the favorite memories I have of my undergraduate experience. I would meet every week with four kids from a nearby neighborhood and take them someplace fun or educational. It certainly broadened them, but it also broadened me. When I was later in Pittsburgh as a Vista Volunteer, I started the same program and recruited 200 Link Leaders to work with kids in poorer neighborhoods all over the city. In my senior year, I also got involved with civil rights work. It set me on my path. That’s what I remember most from Yale, and I think it was very, very valuable.