The world is a freer place thanks to Carl Gershman

The world is a freer place thanks to Carl Gershman
© Getty Images

This summer, Carl Gershman, the founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), will retire from his post after almost four decades of extraordinary leadership. Over the course of his service, he built the NED from the ground up and helped extend its influence in support of freedom to millions around the world.

Carl Gershman is not a household name, but in the world of democracy and governance everyone knows him.

Gershman’s work began in labor and progressive political circles, as a prolific scholar, activist, and later as a counselor to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. At a time when there was relatively little academic or political activity in democracy promotion, Gershman became the indispensable figure of this nascent field.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 1982, in a historic speech to the British Parliament, President Ronald Reagan launched a global initiative “to foster the infrastructure of democracy - the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities - which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” The following year, Congress authorized this initiative by creating the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

The NED is a unique institution, publicly funded, privately operated, and embracing a multisectoral approach to the advancement of democracy through four constituent institutions representing the Republican and Democratic parties, organized labor, and the business community. About half of the NED’s budget supports these four core organizations: the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the labor-focused Solidarity Center, and the Center for International Private Enterprise. The other half is granted to hundreds of non-profits and civil society groups around the world and is also used to support the NED’s own research and studies.

The NED has grown from a modest grant-making foundation to a major force in the world of democracy assistance. While there were once skeptics of the value of NED in Congress, today there is bipartisan support for democracy promotion and the work of the NED.

NED and its core institutions build on the experience of the Stiftungen, the political party foundations that helped Germany strengthen its democratic character after World War II. NED later inspired the creation of pro-democracy institutes in the United Kingdom, Australia, Taiwan, and the European Union. In 1999, the NED launched a multinational Movement for Democracy to promote positive engagement among political leaders, civil society, and the private sector and thereby strengthen inclusive democratic governance, expand freedom, and advance the rule of law.

During a visit to Guatemala in 1988, Gershman and his colleagues met with the national peace commission at the home of its members. Commission members had received death threats because of their work and were constrained because they refused to accept government funding, foreign or domestic. A small grant from NED, which was viewed as separate from the U.S. government, opened the door to further international funding and helped strengthen a fragile democracy at a time of dire need.

ADVERTISEMENT

Part of the motivation in creating the NED was to end the covert nature of American support for democratic institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, which often discredited the legitimate purpose of these efforts. While almost entirely funded by the U.S. State Department with congressional guidance, the NED’s governance and work is entirely independent of its policy guidance.

Aside from conducting its work in the public eye, the idea to run American democracy assistance out of an independent foundation also allowed it to pursue its stated goals regardless of the position of any given U.S. administration. In several cases, Gershman’s NED supported pro-democracy activism against regimes that enjoyed U.S. support.

Gershman’s promotion of democracy has not been without opposition, earning him the honor of being denounced by dictators and despots around the world. Most recently, Gershman last year was one of five leaders of U.S. organizations to be sanctioned by the Chinese government for NED’s support of Hong Kong activists and Uyghur organizations.

When the endowment was incorporated almost 40 years ago, a little over a third of the world’s population lived in a democracy. Today, that figure is well over half. The percentage of democratic governments around the world has doubled in that same period. Compared to the state of the world in 1980s, with the Iron Curtain still drawn over Europe and many more people living under undemocratic regimes than in democratic ones, there is no doubt that we live in a freer world today.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to draw a wholly positive conclusion from the work of the past four decades. Recent trends show the world moving in a worrying direction, with autocracies still outnumbering democracies and backsliding accelerating worldwide. The erosion of democracy is so widespread that scholars describe the current moment with terms such as “democratic recession” and “third wave of autocratization.”

Tools that were previously thought to be enablers of democratic values, such as technology and social media, have proven to be much more effective in their destruction. The use of mass surveillance, artificial intelligence, and other technologies is now a hallmark feature of modern non-democratic regimes, giving rise to the designation of “techno-authoritarianism.”

The NED has evolved with the times, conducting democracy promotion first through the fax machine and now through the internet and social media. To stay relevant in this age, it must continue to adopt cutting-edge tools that respond to present-day issues. The reality is that even established democracies are now suffering from the persistent erosion of public trust and the subsequent weakening of their institutions.

This troubling reality should serve as a call to action: The movement for democracy needs to be renewed and reinvigorated.

The Biden-Harris administration has rightly signaled that it will make the support for democracy and human rights a hallmark of its foreign policy.

Carl Gershman’s greatest legacy is not the NED itself, but the thousands of professionals who were trained at the NED’s four core institutions as well as the thousands of grassroots grantees who have gone on to leadership roles in strengthening democratic societies around the world. His efforts have expanded into a veritable industry of visible and practical support for democratic values and practices and a normative expectation for democratic government worldwide.

The end of Gershman’s tenure as NED president hardly signifies the end of the endowment’s work. The occasion does mark an opportunity for those of us who have been impacted by Gershman to come together and thank him. We owe him a true debt of gratitude.

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.