The Thankless Task of Promoting Democracy

KIEV, Ukraine -- In democracy promotion, nothing fails like success. No sooner did the Orange Revolution give Ukraine a second chance at democracy last November than criticism began that America had improperly meddled in Ukraine's internal affairs. The apparent transition in another former Soviet republic, Kyrgyzstan, has begun that misguided debate again.

Meanwhile, when America's efforts at promoting democracy do not replace a dictator in a matter of months or years, Congress demands some ill-chosen proof of success - the number of newspapers printed, say, or civil society groups founded, or candidates on the ballot - that themselves are not the same as meaningful political change.

Attitudes like this have made democracy promotion a lose-lose proposition in American politics. To be sure, the Bush administration has greatly increased financing for efforts to nurture democracy in the Middle East. But it has left the rest of the democratizing world behind. The National Endowment for Democracy, for example, recently saw its budget double to $80 million, but all the increase was earmarked for Middle East democracy efforts. At the same time, democracy-building programs in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union by different agencies have been slashed under Bush's watch.

Part of the problem is that whenever a democracy promotion program does what it is supposed to - that is, help strengthen local forces to have a voice against a repressive government - accusations of improper meddling immediately fly. Critics on both the left and the right - from the conservative Patrick Buchanan to left-leaning writers in The Guardian in Britain - assert that the United States is rigging elections and engineering coups, à la Latin America in the cold war, and accuse the U.S. Agency for International Development of unseemly interference.

The National Endowment for Democracy is constantly being accused of serving as a CIA front rather than being recognized for what it does: doling out fairly small grants to television stations that show debates over public policy and groups that monitor election returns. Consequently, U.S. programs are straitjacketed, and the government disingenuously cloaks its policy as "neutral" or "technical assistance."

In fact, little about "democracy" or democracy promotion is value-neutral, nor should it be. Promoting democracy is not about imposing a president or political system in America's image. But democracy involves representative government, and that directly challenges the power of the autocratic leaders who try to fix elections, close newspapers and jail opposition leaders. As a result, democracy promotion meets loud criticism from those whose power is threatened.

Some forms of U.S. democracy promotion are inappropriate - and we've seen enough of that over the past half-century to make many of us deeply suspicious of any American fingerprints on revolution abroad. But as I saw in researching Western democracy promotion efforts in the former Soviet Union in 2002 and 2003, such inappropriate programs are not what led to the resignation of Kyrgyzstan's president, Askar Akayev.

Western governments offered seed money to nongovernmental organizations and newspapers, which understandably could not rely on capital from the Kyrgyz, half of whom live below the poverty line. Western dollars enabled courageous local journalists to write what they wanted, including criticisms of American policy, and allowed groups to organize as they were inspired. Indeed, many of the nongovernmental leaders with whom I met throughout the former Soviet Union wanted more open support from the United States to defend them from their own government's harassment.

It's important to remember that none of the changes under way - in Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Lebanon and beyond - could happen without the courage and dedication of local activists. The U.S. government is not implanting democracy; it is helping seeds grow that must already be there. In Kyrgyzstan, that came in the form of providing the only independent printing press, rather than telling journalists what they should print. It entailed funds for computers and meeting spaces for nationwide coalitions of civic groups, not writing their speeches.

More important, none of the activities that the United States supports - like independent newspapers, free elections or active civic groups - are illegal in the countries where America provides democracy assistance. The U.S. government must even obtain permission from the local government to provide any specific assistance program at all. That is hardly the stuff of subversion. The primary democracy promotion efforts that the United States undertakes in most of the world - not the military brand that receives the most attention in Iraq and Afghanistan - simply asks fledgling democracies to make good on their word to their people, and enforce the democratic laws on their books.

The best lesson we can learn from the last decade is to have realistic expectations about how long it takes for democracy to develop. And when Western support produces some good, it shouldn't be a cause for retreat.

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