INTERVIEW: A Conversation With NED President Carl Gershman

Photo: J. Michael Cole / TNLI
Why you need to know

‘Accountability means elections, an independent media that can watch over, a judiciary, and an active, mobilized civil society, which is what you had with the Sunflower Movement. That’s the price of democracy. That’s what makes democracy work.’


The subject of various conspiracy theories among authoritarian regimes, the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is one of the most active agents promoting freedom around the world.

Carl Gershman has been president of the NED since its founding in 1984 and was in Taiwan this week to take part in the third Asia Young Leaders Democracy Program organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), which this year brought together 19 international participants from 17 countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, as well as three Taiwanese.

The News Lens International’s chief editor J. Michael Cole sat down with Gershman at TFD’s headquarters on Thursday to talk about the state of democracy.


The News Lens International (TNLI): What is, in your opinion, the state of democracy worldwide?

Carl Gershman
 (C.G.): Democracy is in real crisis today and we debate within the NED whether it’s just a recession or a reverse wave — the reverse wave comes from [Samuel] Huntington’s The Third Wave of Democratization. Reverse waves have followed great advances for democracy which we had in the 80s and 90s. The question is, is the period we’re in now really a full reverse wave or is it just a serious recession?

It’s probably the latter, and the reason for that is that with all the problems that democracy has today […] there has been some surprising resilience of democracy. For example, in the Freedom House numbers, which show a decline in democracy over the last 10 years, and every year there are more countries that have moved backwards than have moved forward, according to their survey.

Still, the number of liberal and electoral democracies — countries that have free and fair elections but are not liberal democracies — together is about 125. Maybe it has reduced a little (those are the number at the end of 2015) with what’s happened in Thailand and what’s happening in Turkey right now.

There are other factors as well, [such as] the resilience of civil society, but still you have a period today where the geopolitical assertiveness of certain countries — I’m thinking in particular now of China, Russia and Iran. There is a retreat now of what you might call democratic influence and power.

There’s also an increase in authoritarian assertiveness in the area of ‘soft power’ and in the information field […] trying to change international norms in the international system, affirming values of sovereignty over values of human rights.

There is [also] a crisis of democracy in the West. Certainly the global financial crisis in 2008 was not just a serious economic setback but also undermined the credibility and reputation of democracy in the world. You have issues of political dysfunction: the difficulty that we have in the U.S. in coming to decisions. We have a decline in democratic values. We have just published an article in our Journal of Democracy […] which traces attitudes on democracy by generation. People who are older in the U.S. have more commitment to democracy than younger people, who are more ready to see an alternative to democracy. It could be that people want strong leadership, because democracy appears to be indecisive.

There’s a crisis in governance — the Arab Spring certainly underlined this, with the failure of all the transitions except for Tunisia, and what’s happening in Syria and Egypt, where it’s more repressive now than it was under [Hosni] Mubarak, the continuing terrible violence in Libya [and] Yemen could disintegrate. Then there’s the rise of extremist movements, especially Islamist extremism but also extreme Buddhist nationalist movements in Burma [Myanmar] and Sri Lanka.

All those factors together show a serious setback for democracy and we’re at a point now where people in the U.S., Europe and other countries have to begin to think very, very hard about how to reaffirm the values of freedom and democracy, and also how to defend the liberal world order which is under attack today. There’s a lot of concern. We’re developing some thoughts and ideas on how to respond to this.

TNLI: Let’s move closer to this part of the world. This is your first time back in Taiwan in about 12 years. How has Taiwan changed since your last visit?

C.G.: Taiwan’s democracy is real and it’s increasingly consolidated and deepened. The recent transition [of power] is just another example of that. And with all the pressures that China is putting upon Taiwan I think Taiwan is showing enormous resilience. I have been very impressed with some of the things that the president [Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)] said in her inaugural address. I think it was just very creative — not just the reaching out a hand to the Indigenous minority, which has been marginalized and excluded, but also her talk about sharing Taiwan’s experience and economic development with other countries, especially Taiwan becoming a model global citizen in people-to-people relations at the level of civil society. I think this is a very imaginative way around the effort by the Chinese government to block bilateral relations between Taiwan and other countries.

Taiwan has a great message, it’s a great model and I think there are people around the world who admire this. Taiwan has many avenues through which it can re-establish direct people-to-people relations and showcase that model and share what that model represents at a time when democracy is in trouble.

Obviously it also represents an alternative model that shows, when the Chinese would say that Confucian culture is not democratic and more hierarchical […] what the Taiwan example shows is that people who have a Confucian culture and background are perfectly capable of having democracy. And in fact, as society becomes — and this is certainly true of China — as economic development takes place and societies become much much more complex, democracy becomes all the more necessary because there is no way to manage that kind of complexity without the decentralization of power, rule of law and all these things.

If you want to really become a modern society you cannot do it without the rule of law. And I think China is approaching this crisis because it was able to make some reforms to the economy to achieve the level of economic growth it did but it’s now reaching a moment of truth and they can’t go forward without following the East Asian model of having a more open, liberal, rule of law state, and right now they are going in the opposite direction because they feel this is the only way to hang on because if they go in the other direction it means really the end of centralized Communist Party rule — and they don’t want that. 

TNLI: Is there anything you think that Taiwan is not doing right or should be doing more of to promote its own democracy and democracy abroad?

C.G.: As you know, we’re sitting at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy [TFD]. This was the first Asian country that established this kind of institution. We have been encouraging this on the part of a lot of countries and I’m hoping this idea will grow in [South] Korea, India and Indonesia. We have these dialogues with countries in Asia constantly and we want to encourage democratic cooperation and unity in Asia.

I don’t think everyone here fully appreciates the role that TFD plays, and I think they should recognize that Taiwan has a very vital, cost-effective instrument here to spread its model, its message to the world. I would like to see a little more understanding of that here, and that’s one of the things I’m doing in some of the conversations I’m having.

TNLI: Let’s move back to China if you don’t mind. What do you make of Beijing’s constant accusations that NED was behind the different movements that have taken to the streets in Hong Kong in the past few years?

C.G.: Well, China is not the only authoritarian country that seeks to blame internal dissent on foreign institutions. Russia does this all the time; Cuba does it. There are loads of countries that do it. What is really interesting is that China is fearful of what they call a ‘color revolution.’ What happened in Ukraine in 2004, and then in 2013 and 2014? You had a corrupt, autocratic system which lost legitimacy among the people, and the people protested against that; they wanted freedom and human rights. That’s a universal phenomenon. You cannot avoid your problems and your own responsibilities by blaming it on foreigners.  

We live in a new world. We live in a world where there is, throughout the world, pressure for greater rights and democracy. I think the communications revolution just makes that much more pronounced because people have a much higher consciousness about these values than ever before. It’s clear which direction the world is going, and it’s going towards greater equality. Of course there will be forces that are trying to resist that, and the Chinese government is certainly trying to resist that and trying to offer an alternative model, but they’re reaching a crisis right now.

Our job is to connect with and promote democratic values in the world and we do that all over the world. We’re running up against some troubles today, but I’m quite confident that the movement for democracy in the world will continue to progress.

China has cracked down very hard on civil society organizations, lawyers, workers and others, but they haven’t been able to wipe this out. They try to control the Internet but still they have not been able to block access to information in China. We will see where this goes, but I’m quite confident that they’re not going to be able to repress the desire for a rule of law state forever.

Environmental problems in China are egregious and people and unhappy with that. Corruption is a source of tremendous unhappiness in China and they are struggling with how to maintain their own power. They would like to say that their hold on centralized power is the only alternative to chaos and division. I don’t think that’s true. I think that the only alternative to chaos and division is the decentralization of power and the rule of law and a system that can hold people together.

When I went to India for the first time in 1996 I had discussions with people. They said to me repeatedly, ‘we’re not democratic because you want us to be democratic; we’re democratic because our survival depends upon being democratic. We can’t keep this country together without this kind of system.’

As China becomes a more complex and developed society they won’t be able to keep it together without a system where the decisions are not all made by a small group in the center. These are issues that are coming for the future and we are beginning to think about these questions, brining scholars together to look at questions [such as] if there were change in China what might a system of asymmetrical federalism look like for this kind of complex system. Obviously we’re in discussions with Chinese scholars and intellectuals about that. These are important questions for China’s future.

Our only interest is in seeing China become a stable, modern, democratic country.

TNLI: The situation in China and Hong Kong is certainly getting worse, with the ongoing crackdown. Gou Hongguo (勾洪國) is now in jail for ‘subverting state power’ and attending a ‘NED-sponsored’ religious conference in Taiwan. Zhang Kai (張凱) has reportedly ‘confessed’ that the U.S.-based China Aid financed his defense of the Wenzhou churches. Also, China’s new laws regulating NGOs and foreign funding are making it increasingly difficult to fund local groups. How will this affect NED’s work in China?

C.G.: This phenomenon in China, this crackdown on civil society and the closing of civic space for NGOs and civic organizations is a global phenomenon. It happens in many countries today. This part of what I call the recession of democracy. You have it happening in Russia, in Azerbaijan, in Egypt and other countries. What I find really fascinating about this is that the people on the ground who are working for these rights are not being intimidated; they’re not turning back. They want to continue to do their work and as long [those] indigenous democratic forces want to continue to move forward, our obligation — our mission — is not to abandon them. We must not allow this kind of repression to stand in the way.

TNLI: Let us move toward something a little more ‘controversial,’ if we can call it that. In some circles, not just in China but certainly in Russia as well, there are people who will say that not unlike the CIA, the NED provides funding and gives advice to organizations with the intent of changing regimes that are unfriendly to U.S. interests. Those critics will even add that sometimes the NED even favors certain candidates during elections in foreign countries. How do respond to such assessments?

C.G.: That’s totally untrue. NED's work is very transparent. We have two party institutes. The NED doesn’t carry out programs; the NED is a funding agency. But they work with all parties. We have rules on assistance to political parties during periods of election and we’re prohibited from funding campaigns. We have to terminate any direct support with political parties 30 days before any election. Our only concern is a level playing field. The support by both our party institutes — the Democratic and Republican Party — is purely non-partisan.

As far as the charge against regime change goes, this is not our mission. You have had experiences in the world, if you think of the Cuban so-called revolution in 1959 or the Iranian Revolution in 1979, where an autocratic regime was overthrown and replaced by a regime that was much more autocratic. We have said over and over again that what this is all about is not changing a regime. It is about building democratic capacity and culture at the grassroots so that countries have the capacity, if there is a democratic opening, not to see that opening closed by another autocratic regime so that they can engage in a stable democratic transition.

The whole idea that this work is about regime change shows a failure to understand what it’s all about. Our interest is not in that. Our interest is in strengthening democratic capacity and culture so that people have the tools to govern themselves democratically. And it’s a long-term process. And we have just seen how difficult this is. When the third wave took place, especially the events of 1989 and our board member Francis Fukuyama wrote his essay about the End of History looked to some people like liberal democracy was the wave of the future. It almost seemed inevitable. [But] a lot of countries never made it that far. Democracy is very very difficult, and now we’re seeing how populist demagogues and others can try to reverse the process.

What we now know is that it is extremely difficult to build a successful liberal democracy, and that’s why I think what is happening in Taiwan is so absolutely remarkable, because this is a real democracy, and all the conflicts that people have and the partisan divides and all that, this is the reality of democracy and they’re making it work. I think that’s quite extraordinary. It’s really one of the brightest examples of the third wave of democratization. Taiwan is a third wave democracy because the transition occurred in the 1980s and the 1990s during the height of the third wave and it has not moved backward, as happened in so many countries, but it continued to move forward. I think there’s a model there, there are lessons there for other countries.

But it also says that it’s not easy here either. As the [slavery] abolitionist Wendell Phillips in the U.S. said in 1858, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” so you never can take it for granted.

TNLI: NED gets funding from the U.S. State Department, if I’m not mistaken…

C.G.: That’s a confusion, the way you stated that. It’s the way the money comes to the NED. But the National Endowment for Democracy Act, which was passed by Congress in 1983 and which governs the funding we receive, makes us completely independent. So the money from the State Department is a pass-through to the NED, and the NED board has complete control without any kind of government veto over how that money is spent. The only obligation of the State Department is to audit our funding to be sure that it follows all the regulations for how you spend public money. The Act of Congress builds a firewall between the NED and the Executive branch of government.

TNLI: So the notion that NED receives money from, and consults with, the State Department is…

C.G.: No, it’s not true. We’re governed by an independent board which is the decision-making body, and that board functions as a private board. We’re like an NGO. If someone retires from the board, it is the NED that chooses the new board member. There is no role whatsoever of the government in that. We’re an entirely private organization. It’s very hard for people to grasp, but what I recommend to people is to read the NED Act to see how it establishes and guarantees NED’s complete independence. We are an organization really of the Congress, not of the Executive branch.

It’s a complex organization. The fact is, when NED got started there were a lot of skeptics, who had all these concerns that we would be interfering in elections, that the money would not be spent well [or] wasted, and other concerns that people had. What’s happened is that over the years we were a transparent organization and established credibility.

It’s totally bi-partisan, which I think is extremely healthy. Democratic ideals and values is what I believe the U.S. is all about. That’s what is in our Declaration of Independence, it’s in our Constitution. That’s who we are, and what we do is unifying.

TNLI: To go back to what you said earlier about Taiwan being a successful liberal democracy. Some people a few years ago would have said that Taiwan’s democracy was in fact moving backwards, and ultimately that led to the Sunflower Movement and the occupation of the legislature in 2014. As someone who documented those events, I was quite surprised by the fact that there seemed to be much more resistance among academics and government officials in the U.S. to the kind of ‘drastic’ action than among similar people in, say, Europe? How do you explain this?

C.G.: Look, there are a lot of people who have looked at the 'China model' and Daniel Bell [a proponent of that model in academia] and believe that this is the future. I think maybe it’s possibly a result of the Arab Spring where people see protests and trying to achieve more democracy as something which is destabilizing. And you do have a tendency in the West today — and I think this is part of the decline in democratic values — that you need strongmen.

But I think quite the contrary. Looked what happened here. You had a protest movement, you had a vigorous election campaign and you had a transition in power. It affirms the idea that you cannot have real, good, democratic governance without accountability. Accountability means elections, an independent media that can watch over, a judiciary, and an active, mobilized civil society, which is what you had with the Sunflower Movement. That’s the price of democracy. That’s what makes democracy work. Frankly I think it’s the glory of democracy. And if there are a few cynics in the U.S. and in academia, well, let them preach on, but they’re irrelevant, they’re marginal, they mean nothing.


First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

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