Statement by Kenneth Wollack
President, National Democratic Institute
Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transitional Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women's Issues
of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
February 16, 2017
Chairman Rubio, Ranking member Menendez and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity on behalf of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to present our views on the importance and efficacy of U.S. efforts to support the global development of democratic institutions and practices.
Democracy promotion, long a pillar of America's foreign policy framework, has, in recent years and in certain circles, become an issue of some debate. Paradoxically, and wrongly in my view, democracy assistance is viewed either as too soft or idealistic as a response to serious security threats facing the nation; or it is seen as too bellicose -- conflated with regime change and the use of military force. The real issue, however, is not whether democracy promotion is "hard" or "soft" or whether it fits neatly into the "realism" or "idealism" paradigms. The issue, rather, is whether advancing democracy is an important means of advancing America's interests and protecting our national security in a turbulent and often violent world. I think the answer is clearly "yes."
The notion that there should be a dichotomy between our moral preferences and our strategic interests is a false one. Our ultimate foreign policy goal is a world that is secure, stable, humane, and safe, where the risk of war is minimal. Yet, the reality is that hotspots most likely to erupt into violence are found, for the most part, in areas of the world that are nondemocratic -- places that have been defined by the Defense Department as the "arc of instability." These are places that experience ethnic conflict and civil war; they generate refugee flows across borders; they are places where terrorists are harbored and illegal drugs are produced. The international community has rightly worked to restore order by helping to establish a democratic framework for governance in a number of these countries. The response has not always been entirely successful, but on the whole, the introduction of democratic processes and citizen engagement have made these countries less dangerous than they had been. The cost for the United States in this effort has been relatively inexpensive. Foreign assistance is only about 1 percent of the total U.S. budget; and democracy assistance represents just 4 percent of our foreign aid.
As Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment points out, "In most of the dozens of countries where the United States is employing diplomatic, economic, and assistance measures to support potential or struggling democratic transitions -- from Cambodia, Indonesia, and Mongolia to El Salvador, Kenya, Nigeria, and Venezuela -- such efforts align closely with and serve a critical array of unquestionably hard interests. These include limiting the strategic reach of the United States' autocratic rivals, fighting terrorism, reducing international drug trafficking, and undercutting drivers of massive refugee flows."
There are those who have argued that the Arab Spring unleashed a new area of instability in the Middle East by toppling repressive, but so-called "stable" regimes. However, this idea that autocracy equals stability collapses under scrutiny as the remaining supposedly stable regimes are increasingly the locus of conflict; while those places that are going through democratic transition, such as Tunisia, or are engaged in either political reforms or liberalization -- as is the case in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and Algeria -- are better able to address economic challenges, and threats from extremist ideologies and groups. As President Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Even from the traditional foreign aid perspective, economic assistance alone can not achieve sustained economic growth and social stability. Political systems that lack accountability mechanisms or sufficient political and social inclusion are usually plagued by corruption or conflict, both of which undermine the objectives of economic development aid to achieve self-sustaining growth and poverty reduction. Deforestation, rural dislocation, environmental degradation, and agricultural policies that lead to famine all trace to political systems in which the victims have no political voice; in which government institutions feel no obligation to answer to the people; and in which special interests feel free to exploit the resources, land and people without fear of oversight or the need to account. The respected diplomat, Princeton Lyman, reminded his colleagues in a 1998 cable that the problem with even an enlightened authoritarian leader is that "blinded by economic success, hubris takes over along with greed: his or her rule is perpetuated, and corruption grows." He urged policymakers at that time to judge trends, rather than the snapshot of the day.
During the 1980s, an important lesson was learned about political transformations in countries like the Philippines and Chile: that forces on the political fringes enjoy a mutually reinforcing relationship, drawing strength from each other and, in the process, marginalizing a democratic center. Prospects for peace and stability only emerged once democratic political parties and civil society were able to offer a viable alternative to the extremes. These democratic forces benefitted from the solidarity and support they received from the international community and, in the United States, Republicans and Democrats joined together to champion their cause. Today, these conditions find their parallel in other countries around the world.
When World War II ended, fewer than a dozen democracies stood as the Iron Curtain rose, military dictatorships proliferated, and colonialism sought to regain its footing. Major breakthroughs against those trends began with the so-called third wave of democratization which, since the 1970s, impacted more than 100 countries where people in every region of the world struggled against oppression and for government based on popular will.
Freedom House, the Economist, and others, however, have now chronicled a decade of democratic recession, with a decline of political rights globally, along with a decreasing number of democracies. Autocrats have become more aggressive and sophisticated in stifling the voices of civil society and political opponents, undercutting independent media and judicial independence and manipulating elections.
Authoritarian regimes are also using a broader and more aggressive set of tools to advance their interests, including various forms of electoral espionage, the hacking of politicians and political parties, and the dissemination of misinformation and fake news -- all designed to skew electoral outcomes and to discredit democratic systems. Repressive regimes are using what we call "distributed denial of democracy" (DDoD) attacks to pollute new media channels with disinformation, making new media less useful as a mechanism for legitimate democratic discourse. These misinformation campaigns use troll farms and botnets to amplify certain stories on new media. Such efforts also aim to create a false equivalency between legitimate international democracy assistance and foreign interference that disrupts democratic dialogue, practices, and elections.
At the same time, new, fragile democracies are struggling to meet rising expectations of their citizens, particularly with regard to efforts that would combat corruption and improve standards of living. Democratic transitions have been stymied or reversed by violence and terrorism by non-state actors, or by the inability of democratic movements to move from "protest to politics" and to challenge the resiliency of the so-called "deep state" -- the elites and institutions that benefited from years of corruption and impunity afforded by entrenched autocracy. And even established democracies have been beset by political polarization and growing citizen discontent with the performance of democratic institutions and elected leaders.
Yet there is another, more positive story -- a story that should remind us about the universal demand for democracy and progress being made, sometimes in the most challenging of environments. Public opinion polls from countries in every region of the world have shown that vast majorities agree that democracy, despite its problems, is the best political system. One recent study of more than 800 protest movements around the world show that they are not driven primarily by a desire for better economic conditions, but rather by demands for a better democracy, which the protesters believe can better address economic issues. This shows that the desire for improved economic opportunities often coexists with the demand for a political voice. And in today's interdependent world, citizens will not indefinitely postpone the latter for the former. Admittedly, there have been times when many citizens seemingly abandoned democratic aspirations because of instability, insecurity, or the performance of government. This was the case in Pakistan, Venezuela, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, and Chile; but broad support for authoritarian rule in these places has been short lived.
Then there are countries where active civil societies and reform-minded political leadership have maintained positive democratic trajectories. In Africa, for example, only three heads of state between 1960 and 1990 relinquished power voluntarily or after losing an election; since 1990, that figure stands at more than 40. Nascent African democracies of Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone are among the world's fastest growing economies, while many countries -- including Indonesia, Mongolia, Chile, Colombia, Georgia, South Korea and Mexico -- have continued to make strides in both consolidating their democracies and maintaining steady economic growth. There are also places where democratic setbacks have been reversed, either by the demands of citizen movements, as was the case in Burkina Faso, or through the intervention of regional organizations as recently occurred in The Gambia. And in Myanmar/Burma, Ukraine, and Tunisia, active U.S. support for the democratic transitions underway have reflected the convergence of our values and strategic interests.
Since the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the four core institutes of the Endowment were established, we have learned a great deal about democratic change, along with appropriate and effective ways to nurture and support democracy. I would like to share some fundamental lessons.
First, in this interconnected and interdependent world, what happens for good or for bad within the borders of nations haves regional and, sometimes, global impact. Contrary to that famous tagline in tourism marketing, what happens, let's say, in Kyiv or Cairo doesn't stay there. Therefore, at a basic level, we have a direct interest in how people live and how they are treated by their governments.
Second, the credibility of a democracy ultimately depends on how it works in practice and on what it delivers. Democracies must be able to hold credible elections so that the institutions that emerge from those polls enjoy legitimacy. But those institutions must be built and strengthened between elections, and citizen engagement must be developed and sustained. Nascent democratic regimes often inherit the legacies of their nondemocratic predecessors -- poverty, corruption and political exclusion. And when those institutions fail to meet public expectations, opportunities are created for populist, often nondemocratic leaders who will roll back hard-won democratic gains.
The once rapid pace of democratic change had led many in the democracy community to hope, if not expect, that progress toward fuller democracy would be more linear than has been the case. As the late Polish historian and politician Bronislaw Geremek warned, "Democracy is by no means a process that goes from triumph to triumph nor is it exempt from creating the very conditions that undermine it." This means long-term commitments are necessary to support a culture of transparency, participation, and accountability.
Sustaining socioeconomic development over the long term requires a political system whose incentive structures make it more likely that responsive, reform-minded, and accountable politicians will emerge at all levels of government. It requires governments that have the popular support and legitimacy to sustain development policies. It also requires mechanisms for orderly alternation of power in order to reduce the incentives for corruption that inevitably affect governments with no fear of losing office. It requires strengthened policy development and capacity within political parties in order to help raise the level of political discourse. It requires effective legislatures -- with significant roles for opposition voices and the means to build broader consensus on public policy issues -- in order to avoid policy reversals when governments turn over. It requires greater voice and power for citizens, particularly women and young people, along with historically marginalized communities, in order to complement increased economic empowerment with increased political participation.
Third, while citizens around the world have begun to harness the benefits of information and communication technology to amplify their voices, their political institutions have often been slower to respond. As one tech leader explained via Twitter, "Citizens using 21st cent tools to talk, gov't using 20th cent tools to listen, and 19th cent processes to respond." As technology innovation amplifies the voices of desegregated citizen interests, fledgling democratic institutions -- governments, parliaments, and political parties -- must harness innovation to strengthen deliberative discourse, broker compromise, and respond in a timely and effective manner.
New responses are also needed as authoritarian regimes have become more aggressive in utilizing technology to subvert democracy and to project their interests internationally. These include: cyber security support; media literacy training with respect to disinformation spread through new media; assistance to civic, media, and political groups that can expose and combat misinformation; and policy advocacy with technology firms to help them understand the impact of their policies on democratic discourse and to help them them prevent their platforms from being used in DDoD attacks.
Fourth, for those of us in this country who are engaged in assisting democratic development overseas, we have been most successful when we have joined with others in the international community, including governments, intergovernmental organizations, other nongovernmental groups, along with individual practitioners. As a practical matter, people making a democratic transition require diverse experiences and expertise, along with broad peer support. Cooperative approaches also convey a deeper truth: that democrats are joining a community of nations which have traversed the same course, that they can count on natural allies and an active support structure because other nations are concerned and are watching.
Fifth, the U.S. government -- including the White House, State Department, Congress, and overseas embassies -- can set the tone and foreign aid can provide needed resources. Yet, much of the day-to-day democratic development work should be carried out, with proper oversight, by nongovernmental organizations, which operate in the realm of people-to-people relations. Such mission-driven groups often have pre-existing, global relationships and are not constrained by the stringent rules of formal diplomacy. Most important, in countries where a primary issue is the paucity of autonomous civic and political institutions, the very idea that government ought not control all aspects of society can be undermined by a too visible and too direct donor government hand.
Ultimately, it is the nature of relationships with local partners that matter the most. In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks asked a veteran youth activist in this country about which programs "turn around" the lives of kids living in poverty. "I still haven't seen one program change one kid's life," he replied. "What changes people is relationships." The same can be said about successful democracy efforts overseas. How positive relationships with local partners are established, developed, and evolve will ultimately determine the success or failure of any and all interventions.
Sixth, pluralism in democracy assistance has served the United States well, allowing for diverse yet complementary programming that, over the long term, could not be sustained by a highly static and centralized system. Funding by the NED has allowed the Endowment and its four core institutes to plan strategically, yet respond quickly and flexibly to emerging opportunities and sudden problems in rapidly shifting political environments. In addition, the NED has been able to operate effectively in closed societies where direct government engagement is more difficult. USAID has provided the basis for longer-term commitments in helping to develop a country's democratic institutions. The State Department's Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and other programs within the Department, such as the Middle East Partnership, have given the U.S. government the capacity to support -- without cumbersome regulations -- cutting edge and highly focused democracy initiatives for individual countries, as well for regional and global initiatives.
Seventh, and finally, democracy assistance can best be delivered in four ways: 1) through direct, in-country presence where long term, day-to-day relationships can be established and nurtured. (In nondemocratic places that prohibit such engagement, long distance learning using information technology and offshore programs can maintain solidarity and provide more limited but critical outside support to groups and individuals); 2) through targeted financial support to governments, election commissions, civil society groups, and parliaments; 3) through international and regional networks that can offer peer support; and 4) through the development and application of international norms and standards. The latter two approaches are designed to provide external incentives for reform, particularly in places where local organizations, leaders, and institutions seek to become members of a global community -- whether a community of civic groups, political parties, parliaments, or governments. Examples of these communities include the Open Government Partnership, the four major international groupings of political parties, the Community of Democracies, the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors, and the World Movement for Democracy. In this regard, the House Democracy Partnership, led by Representatives Peter Roskam and David Price, has contributed measurably to parliamentary strengthening efforts in 19 countries to date.
My colleague, Mark Green, at the International Republican Institute will speak on the progress being made in the transition process in Burma/Myanmar and Tunisia. I would like to point to democracy support efforts in two other challenging environments: in Ukraine and in Syria, which is seemingly one of the most unlikely places on earth to find good news on this front. These efforts have been supported by the NED, USAID, the Department of State, the Canadian and British governments, and others.
Ukraine undoubtedly continues to face grave challenges, including severe economic problems, deeply-rooted corruption, public impatience with the pace of reform -- not to mention occupation in the South and a war in the East. Purveyors of false news would have us believe that the country is deeply divided and that a large portion of the population is desperate to be rescued by Russia. The truth, however, is exactly the opposite.
NDI's research shows that Ukrainians expect that the next generation will be better off than their own with 86 percent saying it is “important” or “very important” that their country become a democracy. This is true whether respondents live in the East or the West and regardless of political affiliations. Moreover, the research and our observations on the ground show that Ukrainians are not particularly susceptible to populist appeals or to conspiracy theories, particularly those seen as emanating from outside the country. Ukrainians feel strongly that they will not give up their right to determine their own future -- even if doing so would bring peace.
As these findings show, Ukrainians are virtually united in their view that democracy is the best guarantor of their independence and sovereignty. To the extent that their country succeeds, it will be because ordinary Ukrainians have embraced these goals as their own and are taking responsibility for reaching them.
This positive outlook is not based solely on public attitudes. With outside encouragement and support, Ukrainians can point to concrete achievements in recent years. These include the emergence of new political parties that have national reach and are focused on citizens they represent rather than on oligarchs who would finance them. Brought together by NDI, in partnership with European institutions, party factions in the parliament are overcoming deep fragmentation to agree on procedures that will make it easier to build consensus around reforms. Local civil society groups are partnering with larger national organizations to push for economic and political change, and Ukrainians are advocating and voting for more women in elected office.
At the local level, citizens without prior experience in any kind of activism are participating in decision-making in large numbers. One quarter has attended community meetings and an additional 29 percent are willing to do so. In NDI programs alone, more than 45,000 citizens have engaged directly in the national reform process in the past two years and more than 1.3 million have been reached by television. A decentralization process will ultimately give Ukrainians more opportunities to influence decisions that affect their lives. These are the kinds of bottom-up changes that, given time and continued support, can put down deep democratic roots.
In the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis and refugee flight, another story of democratic resilience is unfolding in Syria. As the Syrian government has lost control of large parts of the country, and the war has expanded over the past six years, millions of citizens have been left bereft of services and governing institutions to maintain order and to meet their basic needs. But in liberated territories across northern Syria, citizen groups are identifying and prioritizing community needs, and local administrative councils, some democratically elected, are responding by providing critical services. These democratic subcultures can become a powerful model for the country's future once the conflict subsides.
More than two dozen NDI governance advisers are working each day in 34 of these locations within Syria, helping to advise local citizen groups and administrative councils, and bringing them together to solve problems. Already, thousands of consultations and training sessions have been conducted. More than 500 council members and staff and 7,000 civic activists, including many young people and women, have been engaged in the program. Courageously, these civic groups and councils have challenged extremist groups which have sought to establish parallel governing structures. "You may think Syrians are condemned to an unpleasant choice between Bashar Al Assad and the jihadists," noted one regional news outlet. "But the real choice being fought out by Syrians is between violent authoritarianism on the one hand and grassroots democracy on the other."
Mr. Chairman, the citizens of our country -- from its very founding -- have held the conviction that to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our country," we must establish government that derives legitimacy and power from the consent of the people. We received the help of others in our founding, and from that point onward have embraced the ethic of assisting those around the world who step forward -- sometimes at great risk in their own countries -- to promote, establish, and sustain democracy. We as a nation have benefited from the peace that global democratic development produces and from the economic opportunities that it creates.
Assisting the advance of democracy has helped war-torn and violence-prone states achieve more "domestic tranquility," preventing humanitarian disasters, refugee flows and violent extremist recruitment. Across the globe, it has helped establish more stable and honest frameworks for economic life, opening markets to trade and investment. Democratic development has also helped cultivate a community of nations that refrain from war with each other and often ally themselves with the U.S. on geostrategic concerns. It is our hope that this mission remains a priority for both the Congress and the Administration.