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Democracy Promotion Under the Next Administration

Carl Gershman at RFE/RL
Carl Gershman at RFE/RL
Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), spoke about the changing face of democracy promotion in the wake of Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States during a visit to RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters.

Gershman described the staying power of democracy promotion in general, stating that under President-elect Obama, “it’s not ‘if’ we continue democracy promotion, but ‘how.’” With swathes of new reports and studies surfacing about how to pursue or modify U.S. public diplomacy and democracy promotion efforts, Gershman emphasized his belief that grassroots democracy promotion is best kept at “arm’s length” from the federal government.

“The fact is that governments have to deal with other governments, and democracies are typically built from the ground up, not the from the top down,” Gershman explained, “thus the need for organizations like the NED.” He argued that the Bush Administration’s doctrine of “Transformational Diplomacy,” – or, democracy promotion as a centerpiece of foreign policy – while virtuous, puts an “enormous strain on the democratic process in fledgling democracies,” and can sometimes act as a counter measure to the gradualism that is so crucial to developing democracies.

Gradualism, Gershman noted, is exactly what is needed in a country like Iran, where “the regime is, rightly, feeling increasingly vulnerable.” With unprecedented public access to information technology, it is becoming increasingly difficult for autocratic regimes to maintain a firm grip on what the public sees and hears. But, Gershman argued, for democracy to truly take hold there must be a democratic alternative to authoritarianism, not simply a power vacuum left after the collapse of an autocratic regime. “Democracy is a tradition and a set of norms,” he added, “not solely the occurrence of elections.”