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Reagan and the National Endowment for Democracy

As we remember President Ronald Reagan’s Westminster Speech on its 34th anniversary, IRI took a moment to honor the address to which we credit our establishment.

We were privileged to hear John Sullivan, the retired executive director of Center for International Personal Enterprise (CIPE), offer his insight on the history of the speech, the history of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and how the two intersected.

Sullivan was integral to the establishment of the Westminster-inspired NED, which created IRI and continues to fund our work today.  His account of the endowment’s early days reminded us all of the resilience, the necessity and the diversity of democratic institutions everywhere. Heeding the advice of Reagan, NED set out to support democracy’s worldwide advancement—irrespective of region, race or religion. NED’s mission was met with doubt, but its success in spite of that doubt proves how much the world needs democracy, and how natural democracy fits in the world.

The emergence of NED generated many questions in Washington. Central among them was the question of NED’s efficacy. Will political parties spend their endowment on causes other than democracy-building and only under the guise of it? Will NED really work? The endowment’s early success such as its involvement in the 1988 Chile National Plebiscite quieted many of these questions. Fifty-six percent of the electorate voted against the 8 year extension of Pinochet’s term in the October 5 referendum—a narrow victory that NED helped to achieve. The endowment funded organizations like IRI, who worked with Chileans to ensure their voices were heard.

NED distinguished itself after the 1988 Chilean referendum, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Congress again called its necessity into question. After a seven-hour debate in the Senate, a clear answer to this question still did not emerge, and it wouldn’t emerge until nearly twelve years later. September 11, 2011, however, proved the positive events in Berlin did not mark the end of political turmoil, of authoritarianism, of human rights violations and instability so blatant that extremism seems like a reasonable alternative.

There is still a great need for NED, IRI and our friends at NDI, CIPE and Solidarity Center. But as Sullivan stressed, it is not the need that some might falsely attribute to it. NED does not exist because Washington perceives a need to impose Westernized democracy in the countries where it is absent. Reagan said it best, “There’s no simple cookbook recipe for political development that is right for all people, and there’s no timetable. While democratic principles and basic institutions are universal, democratic development must take into account historic, cultural and social conditions.” Democracy is diverse, and while Sullivan’s speech confirmed the necessity of our work, it also reminded us of how we ought to conduct it.

As Sullivan so aptly put it, NED exists to enable organizations such as IRI to support democracy, not through lectures but through local champions instead.  Our success is in our partners and in our ability to convince them that freedom shouldn’t be a right only enjoyed by few.