"Regime Change" Not a U.S. Focus, Democracy Group's Chief Says

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - In funding democracy programs overseas, the United States is more interested in the long-term "mobilization" of the spirit of liberty "intrinsic" to people everywhere rather than quick "regime change," says Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Gershman spoke at an October 6 luncheon at the headquarters of Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired Inc. (DACOR), located just blocks from the White House.

NED is a congressionally supported, but privately administered, grant-making nonprofit institution that since the early 1980s has funded democracy training worldwide.  Its programs range from training election officials to advising independent media and helping civic organizations organize politically.  The organization makes over 1,000 grants each year with an annual budget of $74 million, according to Gershman. Each grant averages between $40,000 and $50,000.

The U.S. government spends about $1.5 billion annually on democracy-related programs worldwide, he added.  

The important point to remember, Gershman told his audience of retired U.S. diplomats, is that "this [democracy-promotion] work is long-term.  We're not interested in regime change.” He added that there is always a risk that a government perceived as not democratic, if toppled, could be replaced with an even more repressive regime.

"We know what happened in Cuba in 1958-59 and what happened in Iran in 1978-79" when authoritarian rulers were replaced by even worse totalitarian regimes, Gershman said.

The goal of NED and ancillary democracy operations like the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, Gershman said, is to facilitate "peaceful political transitions to democracy that we saw in Ukraine in the 'Orange Revolution' or in Georgia in the 'Rose Revolution.'

"This cannot be a short-term objective of policy," the NED chief said. "What we are trying to do" over a span of time is "to open up the possibility of consolidating and expanding political space based on a system of rule of law and human rights so that a country can be integrated into the community of democratic nations."

Gershman added, "This is not social engineering.  We don't send people into countries saying: 'We're going to build for you a democracy.' Or build democratic institutions like you build a bridge.  It has to come from within" to take hold and be sustainable.

Actually, "democracy isn't going to happen in any country unless it comes from within," Gershman said.  "Unless there are indigenous, local forces that want it to happen.  We can help those forces but ultimately they have to be prepared to at times struggle, even put their lives on the line, because this is not just a bureaucratic process."

Gershman said NED was pleased to see that entrenched democracies like the Czech Republic and Poland, who were recipients of NED help during their post-communist transitions, now were sending their own democracy-promotion teams to other eastern European nations at their own expense.

"These two countries saw how critical it was to get help at their turning-point from Soviet domination to home-grown democracy and they want to share that knowledge now with others," Gershman concluded.

For additional information on U.S. efforts to foster self-governance around the world, see Democracy.