What is NDI's impact on the trajectory of democratic development? (w/ Brian Atwood & Ken Wollack)

Former NDI Presidents Ken Wollack and Brian Atwood

NDI President Derek Mitchell continues his conversation with his predecessors, Brian Atwood and Ken Wollack about NDIs history since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In this episode they discuss NDIs impact on the trajectory of democratic development, and where they see the greatest potential for dramatic democratic change.

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Derek Mitchell: Hi, this is Derek Mitchell, President of NDI and welcome to the second half of this podcast featuring my predecessors Brian Atwood and Ken Wollack.


When we looked at Poland or Hungary, we talked about Anne Applebaum podcasts… they did deliver, they delivered the economic goods. But as Brian, you say, it's the change after the Cold War unleashed other forces. So maybe at first they thought, well, this is this is what we want, we want to become powerful, rich like the West and, you know, communism is dead, we'll take this democracy thing and be close to the West. Then they realize there are other things that motivate at least a segment of the population which is identity, questions, or politicians play on the lack of strong institutions or on concepts of what it is to be Polish, what it is to be Hungarian or such. And then you, you get populism which goes a bit too far with a democratic process so there are all kinds of ways that, you know, the complex dynamics and context of every country has to be understood.


I imagine back then we didn't really have those things in mind, it was impossible to know what was being unleashed except the obvious one which was a desire to, to, sort of, throw off the yoke of communism and oppression and take what they thought wouldn't bring them good.


Ken Wollack: Unfortunately, because of the economic success, generally speaking, and, and the hope or the expectation of European integration, the United States sort of graduated these countries.


DM: Yeah.


KM: And sort of said it's time to leave the playing field and was way too early, I think, for, for the funders and sub-donors and supporters of democratic change to use economic indicators as a means to determine a country graduating, in a sense. These were still fragile places and so with all the challenges that you talked about -


Brian Atwood: There was a lot of paranoia in those countries and if you think about their history, a country like Poland has been dominated by the Nazi Germany, they were dominated then by the Soviet Union, and so a lot of their own foreign policy and considerations related more to their relationship with neighbors than anything. So there was obviously a great desire to be part of the European Union and I still think to this day that the European Union could have done a lot more. We did as much as we could and we had AID missions in all of those countries initially, as Ken mentioned, we didn't stay that long, but I think we were more effective in some ways than was the European Union even though they had a lot more money that they invested in those countries.


DM: Well I’m going to come back to that. Just one final thing, when I was in Burma, was ambassador, yeah, I certainly saw that. Frozen in amber the dynamics of the country because everyone was against the Hunta. It’s easy to be against the hunter whether you're ethnic nationality or you are the democratic opposition but once things opened up you can kind of see where the divisions were… people had different agendas. You can see the real dynamics in the prejudices or the other conflicts that were buried because it was buried beneath a common adversary or one big sort of challenge. So you can freeze these things but once you unfreeze them you may not know what you're unleashing. What's anti-communist or what is anti-military does not necessarily mean pro-democracy or pro equal justice under law could be something different and you have to be, you have to see those things.


KW: When you look at outside influences there was a time when sort of Soviet propaganda was all about saying that our tractor is better than your tractor.


DM: Yeah.


KW: But the Russian disinformation effort is somewhat different and that is that if you think our system is bad look at your system. Your system is corrupt and -


DM: Chinese do this.


KW: And in a sense they build on the perceptions that some people have of their own political systems and so some of the disinformation campaign resonated in these countries. You know, when people sort of lose faith in the political system and the ability of democracy to deliver on some of those issues one of two things will happen. Either they will go to the streets or they will vote for an ultra-nationalist or a populace who provides easy answers for very complex questions. I think many of these autographs through technology has, have been able to master the message better than, sort of, the democratic forces and play upon people's fears and that resonates in some of these regimes. But… it's not inevitable and so we have to talk a little bit about, not about a snapshot ,but a longer view of history and some of the demands that people have and some of the challenges that these regimes are having today.


BA: We didn't have to contend with social media in those days either and if in fact we lived in the world we live in today one wonders whether the transitions would have turned out the way they did.


DM: Or the headwinds of China and the resources they're putting out pushes another narrative or to shape the environments of these countries against democracy. Or as you say, Russia, another liberal forces. That’s the new development, I think. In those days we had the field of ourselves, in essence, and the winds at our back. And now there's headwinds.


BA: One very important thing - Viktor Orban.


DM: Yes, of course.


BA: You mentioned a liberal democracy.


DM: Yes… tell the story of Viktor Orban.


BA: He and foetus were NDI’s friends. They pretended to be - maybe some of them were sincere about this - real liberal minded people who wanted to integrate with the rest of Europe and, and all of the rest, including Orban, was a liberal back in those days. So power does corrupt as well. I mean over, over time, he's obviously changed his mind and power has changed his approach to government and he's also undermining democratic institutions in the process. But in those days they were trying very hard not only to impress us with their credentials - their democratic credentials - but also the Europeans. Today they don’t, obviously they're not impressing anyone except in a negative way.


DM: Right.


KW: But just a point of optimism here. There are headwinds, there have been headwinds, but there, there are definitely chips in the authoritarian armor of some of these movements and parties and leaders. You look at what took place in Slovakia with the election of Zuzana Čaputová, and you look at some of the local elections that have taken place in Hungary. Even in Poland -


DM: Turkey.


KW: Even in Poland, the Law Justice party, did not fare as well as they had hoped, I think, in the parliamentary elections. They were unable to garner a majority in the Parliament. And so it’s, you know, that ultimately speaking that, when you have one-party rule or dominant political party over time I think what happens is ultimately Huber's takes over and corruption takes over and I think that there is a reaction. So, you know, the, the story isn't over.


DM: Well and the implication of all this is that elections are happening on a regular basis which is something we didn't have 30 years ago. So as long as people have the chance to - not say correct - but change course over time and that's the expectation now around the world, is that they do so and they do it in a way where it is somewhat credible. Clearly they’re, they're chipping away at some of the free and fair aspects of the election but, but at least the election themselves is credible, then you have a chance of leveraging that for a real democratic change.


KW: But I think people have to be very careful of not blaming everything on outside factors as well.


DM: Yeah.


KW: Cause it’s easy to blame just the Russians or the Chinese. Because unless these democratic political parties and democratic leaders in civil society begin to support real reform, genuine reform in these countries and to develop messages that resonate with the public that support patriotism and nationalism in a, in a, in a benign way, but an important way. Čaputová did in, in her campaign for President in Slovakia. That, that they have a responsibility and sort of the traditional parties and the, and the political institutions in these countries have to change and there has to be stronger connections between citizens and, and these governing institutions.


DM: I mean Tom Carothers wrote a book recently. He was just here today talking about polarization and how it's in part certainly social media and outside, but it's, it's within as well. There are political figures and the weak institutions that are allowing for this wave of polarization become - the United States as well as India, and Poland, and Colombia, and elsewhere.


BA: You can also think about the international context. I mean the notion that there is a rule of international law or at least standards that have to be met and that means, obviously, the United Nations is the most important, but in the case of Central Eastern Europe, that's the, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that set standards now. There's no, there's no way of actually enforcing them except through, you know, moral persuasion and, and public meetings. I attended one that representing the United States a couple of years ago and that the, oh dear, the democracy, human rights, human dimensions meeting, and we did everything we could to embarrass the Russians for what they had done, you know, in Ukraine. I think the Russians did everything they could to bring in Russian minority so-called NGOs that were in other countries in the Baltics and other places to sort of make their case as well. But I think those forums are very important, I mean, and they're being undercut and unfortunately being underfunded by some populist leaders in the world, including our own leader.


KW: And I think in particular that this is true with other intergovernmental organizations that are founded on democratic principles as the [Organization of Maerican States] OAS was, and, and others. If there are no consequences for Member States when they do not uphold those fundamental principles, there's no consequences for them, then it becomes somewhat of a paper tiger and I think the challenge for the OSCE is to demand adherence to those fundamental principles.


DM: That's true about all the countries that believe it's not time to be on the sidelines because the other side is marshalling its forces and pushing. So if you believe in these principles you have to go out of there and promote them. 


KW: But the difference and what makes me optimistic - the difference between today and what existed 35 years ago, 36 years ago, is there is this democrat - international democratic architecture that didn't exist. There are these internet intergovernmental organizations that are dedicated to democratic principles. Their arm is not just the German Party foundations and, and NDI and the Republican Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy. There are now international networks of civil society organizations, networks of parties and Parliament's, there are other governments that are engaged in this work too. Now they all don't work as effectively sometimes as you would like, but the OAS dropped its non-intervention clause in its Charter, the African Union adopted a Democratic Charter based on the OAS. So... that you have these institutions that exist and these networks that exist today that didn't exist 20, 35 years ago and the question is how do you harness all of that in a way that can push back at these, on these negative trends?


DM: That is a challenge.


How do you make this case? We’re going to be making the case to, we’re the fourth “d” in a U.S. foreign policy and mission in addition to diplomacy, development, defense. Democracy is essential for international stability, for US national interests.


I mean, how do the two of you make the case as to why what NDI does in the mission of democracy support, if not promotion, which is a more assertive way of active, why does it matter?


BA: First of all, I think, that you can't have a successful foreign policy unless it reflects the values of our country and I think that's the most fundamental aspect of it. That a foreign policy that is purely realism and pragmatism without regard for the kinds of people who are dealing with. We mentioned earlier, Chile, when you're dealing with Pinochet, all these anti-communist were with him all the way. You can't sustain that kind of foreign policy with the American people, in my opinion. I mean, again, it depends on leadership to a large extent but it really has to be an element and it has to be a very - there is also a practical argument as well. If you're dealing with other democracies, you, you find it much more easy to deal with them on other issues that relate to their national interest and our national interest. In other words you're negotiating with another country. If they practice democracy at home they're going to be able see the need for compromise when they're dealing with another country as well. It seems to me a very practical aspect of it.


KW: I would argue that democracy support overseas represents a convergence of American values in this growing, interdependent, and interconnected world, in reference to that famous tagline in U.S. advertising. What happens in places like Syria, don't stay in Syria. And so what happens inside countries not only affect the region that where they're located but it affects global, global events, whether it's migration, whether it's disease, and whether, whether it's terrorism. So the United States ultimately has an interest in seeing a more peaceful and democratic world and that serves our interests because those that are willing to resolve disputes the region in which they're operating and which requires many more resources by the United States and, and the international community. So today in this world, all of these interests, I think, converge and they go hand in hand.


DM: Yeah, I certainly agree with that. Let me ask a couple more questions if I may.


One is the - and this takes us much closer to our own times, though it’s still now - 15 years ago, Iraq. If you look at the continuum of democracy support we have the Cold War, we have the end of history, we have, you know, so called the moment of great euphoria, and the winds that are back. And then Iraq, I imagine, I wasn't here then, but I was outside thinking it must be very difficult for an NDI during those days because it made democracy support seem aggressive and violent and done at the point of a gun, in essence. Can you speak to the Iraq factor in the work and the complicating ways that that affected works globally? Which is how it complicated the ability to do our work.


KW: I think people were confused by it. I think the American people were confused by it and I think the, the view was that somehow democracy building was seen as a coming out of the, the barrel of a gun, that we were trying to impose democracy through military means. That was not the reason why we went into Iraq. We went into Iraq for many other reasons. It wasn't to promote, support democracy in the country. The irony is... the irony is that all - most - of the money that was provided for democracy assistance in Iraq was initiated by your former boss, Senator Kennedy, one of the most vocal critics of the war in Iraq. And, he did so over the opposition of the, of the administration at that time, and provided some two hundred million dollars for democracy assistance in the country - with strong backing from his Republican colleagues, but it was a strong critic of the war that supported, supported that effort. So it just goes to show it, but it did harm this whole enterprise and it distorted it. We felt, NDI at the time, that it was, while many, most people involved in this organization were against the war, at the same time we had a responsibility to respond to the hopes and aspirations of democrats on the ground in Iraq. And, so we began programming and support for those efforts very early after after the invasion. I would say that this is not a flourishing democracy in Iraq but it functions to some degree a lot better than many of its Arab neighbors, that you do have some functioning institutions that exist in the country andIraq today is probably a better place than it was, you know, a number of years ago because of this.


So I think while the, the invasion itself was probably a huge mistake, I don't think it was a mistake to go in and try to respond to realities and to help those who were struggling against tremendous odds to bring peace and democratic processes to the country. 


DM: I’ve actually seen, I've looked at this and I'm hoping to get there myself next year depending on conditions on the ground, but the parliamentary work, the work bringing together the different components, ethnicities of the country to, to build networks of collaboration in court - it's actually some remarkable things happening. Even though at a macro level there are street demonstrations because of corruption and lack of jobs and all the delivery parts that are just very difficult in that part -


KW: And that is very usual, in other places of the world. But one of the participants in NDI's work in Iraq is now the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, who was an active participant of NDI's programs in the country.


BA: One of the things that Iraq represents is another one of the dilemmas of democracy which is why I think NDIS approach is more, much more sophisticated, but majority rule is very controversial. I think that in the end, not only the invasion, but the fact that you had an election where the Shia were going to dominate, just exacerbated the, the whole policy in the first place, going in and creating a Shia Sunni divided in the Arab world. Now, NDI is sophisticated enough to be able to explain how the Sunnis can feel represented in a democratic environment but it didn't happen because of the history and the fact that Shia wanted their own, finally, in that country.


KW: And we have to be careful too and what one advocates because sometimes the United States and the international community view decentralization as the answer in these situations. But for many Iraqis, they oppose the notion of decentralization because the Sunni community, in particular, feel that decentralization will marginalize them, that they want to be part of a strong central government. So we have to understand the, the abused history and context decentralization has never been a big part in the Arab world and so one has to view this with a great deal of humility to understand what the concerns are of those on the ground. This was the result of focus groups and and polling that NDI did in the Sunni communities in Iraq that are very fearful of decentralization, the return of warlords, the marginalization of the communities, so someone has to take that -


DM: As you said, that's an answer to the notion that what we do is cookie-cutter or simply exporting a symbol of a single model everywhere we go. It is learning and great depth and with working with folks on the ground to educate us.


What is the context? What are the dynamics? What is the history? What will work, what will not work so we do no harm which is fundamental in what we do. What we do, if we do it wrong, certainly that can create harm. But if we're being thoughtful and humble about it, we can certainly give countries more of a chance to come together than not.


Can I ask one final question? It's more of a softball question, I guess, compared to some harder ones. What makes you optimistic about this work?


It is not simple, there will be steps forward and back and we hear now a lot of talk of the democracy regression from Freedom House.


BA: It goes back to the issues we're talking about 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down. Totalitarianism or authoritarianism is not a natural state for the human being and eventually people will, will rise up and will want something better. As Churchill, it's a messy system but it's the best system we have. There are many variations of how one puts together democratic institutions to actually fulfill the will of the people and I think that's why, I mean, you've seen changes, Ken has mentioned, Slovakia. You've seen changes recently just the elections and local elections in Hungary. There will be a revulsion against authoritarianism over time and sometimes it'll, it depends on how clever the authoritarians are. I do think NDI has a contribution to make in this whole arena and that we shouldn't be at all discouraged when you see some of the changes that have been made in places like Armenia, and others.


There is change and it’s happening all the time. We're in this for the long run.


KW: Yeah I think it would be a mistake to view this as a ledger in terms of, you know, how many autocrats have come to power and, you know, every time you, you look at the rise of authoritarianism in one country, you see places like Ethiopia, and Armenia, and Hong Kong, and Sudan and Algeria, places where people are demanding, not only to put food on their table, but demanding a political voice.


The question is how does the international community respond to that and how does the United States respond to that sort of universal demand and those hopes and aspirations. I've always, I believe this serves the interests of the United States, but I'm reminded of a very wise gentleman who was at a dinner that I attended at Brookings Institution some 23 years ago and this was Lane Kirkland, the then president of the AFL-CIO, and it was mostly an academic discussion about transitions to democracy and there were a lot of academics arguing that a country had to go through certain economic changes - the development of middle class, development liberal institutions and then people could enjoy the benefits of democracy. Lane Kirkland, in his South Carolina drawl and his soft voice, leaned forward, and after about 45 minutes of this Discussion, said that those who stood in front of tanks in Hungary in 1956 did not do so so General Electric could open up a lightbulb factory in Budapest. They did so because they were demanding their political freedom and we support those people because it's the right thing to do. So I think what has always motivated, I think, this organization is a strong belief that this work is the right thing to do. I think at the same time we can argue that it serves the best interest of this country and it serves as the best interest of the international community and humankind in general.


DM: We affirm the dignity of all, equally, everywhere, and not to say that we have it right in the United States, but that we're all learning, we're all sharing, and we're all a work in progress when it comes to democracy.


So Brian, Ken, I succeeded my expectations and my expectations were extremely high. I always say I stand on the shoulders of giants and both of you created this institution that I'm so proud to be part of. I was 20 years ago and now leading and we have to go that next step. We gotta take it from here during difficult times. So thank you for your contributions over the last thirty five, six years as well as your continuing guidance and support to me and to this institute.


And let me just say to all listeners, thank you for joining us. To learn more about NDI or to sign up for our monthly newsletter visit Please invite others to join the conversation about democracy by sharing the DemWorks podcasts.


I'm Derek Mitchell and this has been DemWorks. Thank you for listening.