Preserve programs that promote democracy abroad
In recent years, we have seen citizens and activists calling for change, for increased freedoms, for democratic institutions to supplant autocratic political systems around the world. But even as new constitutions are written and some governments work to increase transparency, U.S. financial and political support for promoting democracy and accountable institutions is increasingly beleaguered at home.
Every aspect of federal spending is under tight scrutiny in Congress. And in the wake of the Iraq war, some politicians and policymakers on both sides of the aisle have assumed falsely that the small amount of money we devote to democracy promotion abroad is synonymous with armed interventions and “regime change” imposed by Washington.
But our country’s modest investments in supporting democracy reflect our moral and strategic imperatives. This isn’t the time to roll back these successful programs. Instead, we should take this opportunity to further integrate the themes of democracy and good governance into our international development dialogue.
That is why we have come together, as a bipartisan group, to make the case that any budget resolution must preserve our longstanding commitment to nurturing democracy around the globe. These initiatives and efforts are good for international development, critically important for our national security, and have historically enjoyed strong bipartisan support.
Economic and political freedoms are mutually reinforcing, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and other researchers have noted. This means democratic advances can have a powerful effect in making overall development efforts more effective. A wealth of academic research further substantiates the central importance of political freedom and sound governance in promoting long-term economic prosperity in the developing world.
Beyond the obvious economic benefits of a freer and more democratic world, working with fellow democracies has always been a cornerstone of our approach to strategic alliances. Democracy helps to create a virtuous circle of improved security, stronger economic growth, and more durable international alliances.
These and other reasons are why democracy promotion activities have always enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Ronald Reagan and a Democratic-led Congress established the National Endowment for Democracy and its core institutes, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Solidarity Center, and Center for International Private Enterprise. Reagan argued that America was obligated to “take actions to assist the campaign for democracy” and that these actions were necessary and vital to combat the spread of communism abroad. Every president since Reagan, Republican or Democrat, has shared that view.
Certainly, the work of promoting democracy and accountable governance is often long, difficult and more prosaic than the stirring media images of protestors taking to the streets might suggest. But efforts to improve the oversight capacity of parliaments, encourage greater budget transparency, help political parties and civil society groups organize, and promote vibrant and open media are among the things our investments in democracy support.
For evidence of the results that modest, long-term, concerted democracy and governance investments can achieve, one need only look at Burma. In recent years, the government has embarked on a path of reform, releasing Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and hundreds of political prisoners from jail, and establishing a National Human Rights Commission. In 2011, Suu Kyi ran for and was elected to parliament.
There is still considerable work to be done in Burma. Corruption and the relationship between the central government and ethnic minorities remain serious problems, and hundreds of political prisoners are still in jail. This is not the time to reduce democracy funding, which has aided the people of Burma, among so many other countries, in achieving new freedom.
As we know from our own history, democratic progress is untidy and uneven, but vastly superior to any alternative because it reflects the hopes and aspirations of the people. Democratic transitions are in process, but vulnerable, in the Middle East, large parts of Africa, and Southeast Asia.
That is why today, a bipartisan group will contact the White House and Congress to voice support for funding the programs and organizations that foster democracy and accountable governance as part of America’s international development agenda.
Washington will grapple with the budget for weeks and months to come, but we must not ignore our responsibilities to those pressing for greater freedom for themselves and for their countrymen. In this era of contention and strife, we must neither reduce our modest but indispensable investments in democracy abroad, nor walk away from our enduring commitment to government of the people, by the people, and for the people across the globe.
Madeleine Albright is chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group and the former U.S. Secretary of State. John Podesta is chair of the Center for American Progress and a former White House chief of staff. Vin Weber is co-chair and partner at Mercury/Clark & Weinstock and former U.S. congressman (R-Minn.). Daniel F. Runde is the William A. Schreyer chair and director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.