The National Endowment for (Meddling in) Democracy

The unwritten rule governing the NED’s activities is that the U.S. has an unqualified right to do unto others what others may not do unto the U.S., explains Daniel Lazare.

By Daniel Lazare

“They’re meddling in our politics!” That’s the war cry of outraged Clintonites and neocons, who seem to think election interference is something that Russians do to us and we never, ever do to them.

Logo for the National Endowment for Democracy

But meddling in other countries has been a favorite Washington pastime ever since William McKinley vowed to “Christianize” the Philippines in 1899, despite the fact that most Filipinos were already Catholic. Today, an alphabet soup of U.S. agencies engage in political interference virtually around the clock, everyone from USAID to the VOA, RFE/RL to the DHS—respectively the U.S. Agency for International Development, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Department of Homeland Security. The last maintains some 2,000 U.S. employees in 70 countries to ensure that no one even thinks of doing anything bad to anyone over here.

Then there is the National Endowment for Democracy, a $180-million-a-year government-funded outfit that is a byword for American intrusiveness. The NED is an example of what might be called “speckism,” the tendency to go on about the speck in your neighbor’s eye without ever considering the plank in your own (see Matthew 7 for further details). Prohibited by law from interfering in domestic politics, the endowment devotes endless energy to the democratic shortcomings of other countries, especially when they threaten American interests.

In 1984, the year after it was founded, it channeled secret funds to a military-backed presidential candidate in Panama, gave $575,000 to a right-wing French student group, and delivered nearly half a million dollars to right-wing opponents of Costa Rican president Oscar Arias—because Arias had refused to go along with our anti-communist policy in Central America.

A year later, it gave $400,000 to the anti-Sandinista opposition in Nicaragua and then another $2 million in 1988. It used its financial muscle in the mid-1990s to persuade a right-wing party to draw up a “Contract with Slovakia” modeled on Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America; persuaded free marketeers to do the same in Mongolia; gave nearly $1 million to Venezuelan rightists who went on to mount a short-lived putsch against populist leader Hugo Chavez in 2002; and then funded anti-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine in 2005, and the later anti-Russian coup there in 2014.

What all this had to do with democracy is unclear, although the NED’s role in advancing U.S. imperial interests is beyond doubt. Rather than “my country right or wrong,” its operating assumption is “my country right, full stop.” If Washington says Leader X is out of line, then the endowment will snap to attention and fund his opponents.

If it says he’s cooperative and well-behaved, meaning he supports free markets and financial deregulation and doesn’t dally with any of America’s military rivals, it will do the opposite. It doesn’t matter if, like Putin, the alleged dictator swept the last election with 63.6 percent of the vote and was declared the “clear” winner by the European Union and the U.S. State Department. If he’s “expanding [Russia’s] influence in the Middle East,” as NED President Carl Gershman puts it, then he’s a “strongman” and an “autocrat” and must go.

America’s own shortcomings meanwhile go unnoticed. Meanwhile, the NED, as it nears the quarter-century mark, is a bundle of contradictions: a group that claims to be private even though it is almost entirely publicly funded, a group that says democracy “must be indigenous” even though it backs U.S.-imposed regime change, a group that claims to be “bipartisan” but whose board is packed with ideologically homogeneous hawks like Elliott Abrams, Anne Applebaum, and Victoria Nuland, the latter of whom served as assistant secretary of state during the coup in Ukraine.

Historically speaking, the NED feels straight out of the early 1980s, when Washington was struggling to overcome “Vietnam Syndrome” in order to rev up the Cold War. The recovery process began with Ronald Reagan declaring at his first inaugural, “The crisis that we are facing today [requires] our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. After all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”

The U.S. was apparently not just a nation, but something like a religion as well. Additional input for the new NED in 1983 came from spymaster William Casey, CIA director from 1981 to 1987, who, after the intelligence scandals of the 70s, had swung around to the view that certain covert operations were better spun off into what the British call a “quango,” a quasi-non-government organization. “Obviously we here should not get out in front in the development of such an organization,” he cautioned, “nor do we wish to appear to be a sponsor or advocate.” It was a case of covert backing for an overt turn.

Others who helped lay the groundwork were:

  • Neoconservative ideologue Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, famous for her argument that “traditional authoritarian governments” should be supported against “revolutionary autocracies” because they are “less repressive” and whose UN aide
  • Carl Gershman would become NED president and serves to this day
  • Human rights Democrats who believe that America’s job is to enforce democratic standards throughout the world, however idiosyncratic and self-serving they may be
  • Old-fashioned pluralists who maintained that the power to succeed existed in different groups’ working separately toward a common goal, in this case, spreading democracy abroad

The result was an ideologically lethal package that assumed whatever Americans did was democratic because God is on our side, that old-fashioned CIA skullduggery was passé, and that the time had come to switch to more open means. “We should not have to do this kind of work covertly,” Gershman later explained. “We saw that in the 60s, and that’s why it has been discontinued. We have not had the capability of doing this, and that’s why the endowment was created.”

In the interests of pluralism, the NED adopted a quadripartite structure with separate wings for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the GOP, and the Democrats, each working separately yet somehow together.

Pluralism helped tamp down debate and also shore up support on Capitol Hill. Liberal Democrats were initially skeptical due to the NED’s neocon tilt. Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. tried to kill it in 1985, and The Nation magazine complained a few years later that the group served as little more than “a pork barrel for a small circle of Republican and Democratic party activists, conservative trade unionists, and free marketeers who use endowment money to run their own mini State Department.”

But when the House voted unexpectedly to defund the agency in 1993, beneficiaries sprang to its defense. Major-league pundits like George Will, David Broder, and Abe Rosenthal “went into overdrive,” according to The Nation, as did the heavy hitters of the Washington Post editorial page. Vice President Walter Mondale, a member of the NED board of directors, worked the phones along with Lane Kirkland, George Meany’s successor as head of the AFL-CIO.

Ronald Reagan wrote a letter, while Senators Richard Lugar, Orrin Hatch, and John McCain pitched in as well. So did prominent liberals like Paul Wellstone, John Kerry, Tom Harkin, Ted Kennedy, and Carol Moseley-Braun. These people normally couldn’t bear to be in the same with one another, but they were of one mind when it came to America’s divine right to intervene in other nations’ affairs.

The anti-NED forces didn’t stand a chance. Twenty-five years later, the endowment is again under attack, although this time from the right. Gershman started the ball rolling when, in October 2016, he interrupted his busy pro-democracy schedule to dash off a column in the Washington Post accusing Russia of using “email hackers, information trolls and open funding of political parties to sow discord” and of “even intervening in the U.S. presidential election.” Since there was no question whom Russia was intervening for, there was no doubt what the article amounted to: a thinly veiled swipe at a certain orange-haired candidate.

Never one to forget a slight, Trump got his revenge last month by proposing to slash the NED budget by 60 percent. The response was the same as in 1993, only more so. Uber-hawk Senator Lindsey Graham pronounced the cut “dead on arrival,” adding: “This budget destroys soft power, it puts our diplomats at risk, and it’s going nowhere.”

Gershman said it would mean “sending a signal far and wide that the United States is turning its back on supporting brave people who share our values,” while Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin moaned that the administration was guilty of an “assault on democracy promotion.” The ever-voluble Democratic Congresswoman Nita Lowey accused the administration of “dismantling an agency that advances critical goals.”

“The work our government does to promote democratic values abroad is at the heart of who we are as a country,” added Senator John McCain. America is democracy, democracy is America, and, as history’s first global empire, the U.S. has an unqualified right to do unto others what others may not do unto the U.S. Only a “Siberian candidate,” “a traitor,” or “a Russian stooge” could possibly disagree.

Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique, and his articles about the Middle East, terrorism, Eastern Europe, and other topics appear regularly on such websites as Jacobin and The American Conservative. [This article originally appeared on The American Conservative. Republished with permission.]


30 comments for “The National Endowment for (Meddling in) Democracy

  1. Joe Tedesky
    March 8, 2018 at 11:51 am

    Even if this group did spread democratic values, it’s goal is to interfere in other sovereign nations political affairs, and that in my mind is absolutely wrong.

  2. John Neal Spangler
    March 8, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    It does not spread “democratic Values” other than in an Orwellian sense, but just pushes authoritarian quislings onto countries. I don’t blame countries for keeping these NED fascists out of them.

    • DHFabian
      March 12, 2018 at 1:55 pm

      Agree. Americans tend to see themselves quite differently from the way the rest of the world sees us.

  3. irina
    March 8, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    A complementary article, posted today in WhatReallyHappened :

    We had a guest speaker in my contemporary Russian politics class at
    the peak of the Maidan chaos in Kiev in February of 2014. He had been
    working for the NED in Western Ukraine. With near-missionary zeal.

    And he was SHOCKED ! To see how things were all falling apart.
    How could that happen, when he had been Promoting Democracy ?

    That lecture was such a ‘woke’ moment for me. I had never thought
    about election meddling from the perspective of the NED before.
    (With such a virtuous-sounding name as NED, why would I ?)

  4. Martin - Swedish citizen
    March 8, 2018 at 1:31 pm

    The connections are many between the different entities and persons in the neocon swamp: Kagan, Nuland, Applebaum, Pomerantsev, Legatum institute, Polish former foreign minister Sikorsky, Swedish former foreign minister Bildt, NED, RFE, the coup in Ukraine, anti-Russian propaganda, the project for a new American century and its successor, The war on Iraq, Rumsfeld, etc. Drawing the connections, adding media etc is likely to be telling.

    • Martin - Swedish citizen
      March 8, 2018 at 5:58 pm

      With VOA and RFE/RL in this yarn, is it far fetched to think that anti-Russian propaganda and fake news are created and fomented from the same NED neocon network via these outlets (and probably the NYT et als) to other Western msm and the Western public?
      Applebaum and Pomerantsev certainly do their part.

  5. Deniz
    March 8, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    Here is another expose on NED, which does a good job of naming names:

  6. Jeff
    March 8, 2018 at 3:55 pm

    It’s funny. Back in the day, I opposed the evil empire because it had a history of trying to foist its communist economic system on everybody. I’ve come to understand that the US isn’t any better. I opposed Russian empire building and I oppose American empire building.

  7. Realist
    March 8, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    If you pick an individual American’s brain, you will find that most are philosophically inclined to isolationism. This has never really changed over the centuries. They think we should mind our own business (the motto on the first official US coin issued in 1787 was “Mind your business”) and not squander our resources and young lives “going abroad looking for monsters to destroy” (admonition of John Q. Adams). Of course, the American people are not the same as their government.

    • DHFabian
      March 12, 2018 at 2:05 pm

      How could anyone know what’s in the average, individual American’s brain? We don’t even know how to define “average American” today. We’re profoundly split by class, race, and political ideology. An entire portion of the population is effectively shut out of the public (online) discussion, disappeared by contemporary media — the low-income and poor.

      For many of us, the idea isn’t about isolationism as a sort of philosophical approach, but is a matter of recognizing of the need to focus on rebuilding this country/society.

  8. Annie
    March 8, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    It is interesting that US tax payer dollars fund an agency that executes foreign policy, with no controls, which is the responsibility of the federal government according to the US constitution. What irony that they are funded to spread democracy around the world.

  9. Lois Gagnon
    March 8, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    What the crafters of imperialist US policy mean and what most ordinary people mean when they use the word democracy are decidedly two very different things. That is by design.

  10. mike k
    March 8, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    The NED and all these other USA promoting agencies are a perfect reflection of the flawed, ignorant, egotistical American Character. “Exceptionalism” is just another word for delusions of an inflated ego. The result of this attitude and behavior is near universal resentment of America by the rest of the world, covered up lightly in those nations that pretend to be our allies in order to get some crumbs from our overflowing table. Donald Trump is the perfect realization of our crackpot image.

    • Anna
      March 8, 2018 at 7:35 pm

      “The NED and all these other USA promoting agencies are a perfect reflection of the flawed, ignorant, egotistical American Character.”
      Please check the ethnicity of the key players at the NED, starting with the despicable Gershman, to find out whose exactly character the NED represents. It is also educational to remember that Nuland-Kagan has been a very effective collaborator with Ukrainian neo-Nazis. The latter explains a lot about ziocons.

  11. March 8, 2018 at 8:29 pm

    All these subversive organizations like NED are given so many patriotic and noble sounding labels that they have rendered our vocabulary devoid of its basic meanings.Organizations that profess “democracy” “freedom” “heritage” “citizen” and the like in their titles can now often be defined with a less attractive label… “‘hypocrisy”.

    • Realist
      March 8, 2018 at 11:19 pm

      The Chinese used to have more colorful and accurate descriptions of our government interlocutors: paper tigers and running dogs of capitalism. Trouble is, they’ve caught the sickness too.

      • March 8, 2018 at 11:58 pm

        Realist: you may well be right, but I’m, hoping that this is not the case. There are some indications. Xi’s cracking down on oversea investments, for example.

  12. jose
    March 8, 2018 at 10:26 pm

    According to Tony Cartalucci, ” Using a front to hide illegal or immoral activities has been a feature of human criminality since the beginning of human civilization itself. Facades, both ideological and economical, have helped criminal enterprises conceal the true nature of their activities for centuries. There is no example of this more transparent than that of the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Mr Cartalucci asks the most fundamental questions of all ” who funds NED?” The answer should not take you by surprise: One of NED’s subsidiaries, Freedom House, is admittedly funded by multinational corporations including AT&T, defense contractors BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman, industrial equipment exporter Caterpillar, tech-giants Google and Facebook, and financiers including Goldman Sachs. NED itself is funded by among others, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Google, Microsoft, and the US Chamber of Commerce. What do these corporations have to do with “the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world?” If anybody finds out, please let me know.

    • Martin - Swedish citizen
      March 9, 2018 at 2:50 am

      Important facts!

  13. CitizenOne
    March 8, 2018 at 10:30 pm

    One could fill many books with the meddling both overt such as war and covert such as CIA coups around the World since the US Manifest Destiny first sailed off on the high seas to engage the World in its may forms of power plays to gain dominance. The author described the conquest of the Philippines during the Spanish American war which was a time where Gunboat Diplomacy and the Monroe Doctrine resulted in the first major expansion of American Imperialism across the planet not confined to the American Continent where Manifest Destiny had won much territory.

    The expansion of our early nation which was clearly successful expanded out across the World back in the 1800’s enabled by a military industrial complex that was created during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was gravely concerned about the development and wrote to Col. William F. Elkins on November 21st 1864:

    “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
    —U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864
    (letter to Col. William F. Elkins)
    Ref: The Lincoln Encyclopedia: The Spoken and Written Words of A. Lincoln
    Arranged for Ready Reference, Archer H. Shaw (NY, NY: Macmillan, 1950)

    This quote has been attacked by Snopes as false but Lincoln also wrote many similarly minded letters indicating that Snopes is engaged in Orwellian rewriting of history to serve the state.

    Another reference was found which included additional context:

    “We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end.
    It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood. . . .
    It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but
    I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes
    me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war,
    corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places
    will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong
    its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth
    is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.
    I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety
    of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war.
    God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”

    The passage appears in a letter from Lincoln to (Col.) William F. Elkins, Nov. 21, 1864.

    There is little doubt that the Empire would want to bury this with “fact check” organizations such as Snopes which claim to have debunked the quote as myth. The first problem with the Snopes “False Fact Checked” web article is that is is without attribution. Not a single source for the claim this quote is false or “fact checked” is provided. It might as well be speculation. It is just speculation that Lincolns psychological state would not have caused him to say the words attributed to him along with more speculation without attribution that many words have been stuffed into Lincoln’s mouth throughout history so it must be FALSE! It is more disturbing that this fact free fact check appears at the top of any web search with any browser or web crawler.

    On the contrary to the factless fact checking organization it seems entirely plausible that the origin of our military industrial complex was fully developed during the Civil War. Lincolns warning and nightmare vision was penned by his hand just months before he was assassinated.

    What followed were more wars for land across the World and an ever increasing view of American Exceptionalism as stemming from our democratic system of freedom and equality and the need to expand freedom across the World.

    We have not looked back ever since then. Over time the terms freedom and democracy have been used to start foreign interventions over and over again. This has continued to this day as we use these terms to attack nations or conduct covert operations to overthrow nations with the ostensible and publicly communicated goals of extending freedom and democracy over and over.

    In fact we are so ingrained in this ideology that we believe it is the overarching principle behind all of our overt and covert foreign meddling and we also believe that when we meddle in the affairs of other nations it is all for a just cause.

    We see it in the NY Times believing the lies about WMDs etc and the need to remove Saddam from power and publishing those lies just as William Randolph Hurst published lies about the Spanish sinking the USS Maine to get America to go to war in the Spanish American War.

    The Military Industrial Complex has been growing stronger ever since and the foreign interventions have never stopped as the military budget has kept increasing year after year.

    So what is the arc of history telling us? It is telling us that the US needs to continuously pursue its old and well oiled and funded war machine to keep cranking out guns and bombs and whatever technology is developed like space lasers and nuclear weapons in ever increasing quantities to fight our enemies which are the enemies of freedom and democracy every time.

    It would seem that such a confluence of military might, money and high ideals cultivated over centuries might eventually lead to a decreased need for military interventions due to successfully democratizing the planet but that is not the case. Our enemies have been busy building their own defensive weapons to shield them from the bomb dropping American Eagle of freedom and we are now facing more and more nations that oppose us.

    What is the end game? One can predict that the continuous rise in the power and lethal capacity of modern weapons being developed on each side that eventually there will be an intervention or a war that will result in catastrophe for humanity.

    So what does the MIC do? Devise a plan to go to war with Russia the second largest nuclear power in the World. The plan includes getting former doves to sign on to a theory they were robbed of the election by the Ruskies and using the rhetoric of freedom and democracy convince administrations that further wars and interventions are necessary to preserve and spread freedom.

    Today’s announcement that Trump has signed trade tariffs and is proposing military parades in Washington should give us some inclination of what is to come. We have seen it many times before in other countries as the leader usurps the control of government, installs himself as the permanent chief and begins to scapegoat foreigners and minorities as local law enforcement prepares for mass incarceration and detention of undesirables.

    I’m sure that all of this will be hailed as more freedom and democracy but 150 years of the Military Industrial Complex waging war around the World on the same claims does not give much comfort that the bombs of freedom and democracy will not fall on our heads this time.

    • Realist
      March 8, 2018 at 11:57 pm

      “War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.” The SOP that replaced the constitution in a nutshell. The transition went so smoothly that very few even noticed, and most would disagree bitterly if you brought this fact to their attention.

      Our forebears were under the illusion that they fought for God, frequently and with gusto, whenever God made his wishes known through our leaders. For us, the buzzword is “peace.” You can’t argue that it isn’t peaceful being dead, becoming one with nature as the earthworms munch your brains.

      We have all become free to slave away working to support a police state, a military industrial complex and a world hegemon. Frankly, all this freedom is killing us… to say nothing of the poor unexceptional saps in its gunsights.

      We have clearly become the strongest nation on earth as our educational system has systematically been rendered mediocre and unaffordable, raising ignorance to new heights. Errant authority will never be challenged if no one remains to formulate the right questions.

      The only thing that could make the people even more giddy with delight must be marching bands, parades and flags, ever more flags. Any fool knows Trump won the election because he used more American flags on his media sets. People forget the important stuff.

      • CitizenOne
        March 9, 2018 at 1:23 am

        I have to know if George Orwell colluded with the police state or whether the police state colluded with Orwell? Whom colluded with whom? In either event a strange form has become reality for the inhabitants of Earth.

        How is it that 1984 has become a reality as we fear our phones are listening to us and fear our TV sets are equipped with cameras to spy on us ?

        I’m fairly certain that the multitudinous media streams never ever ask a question about why we are being tracked by satellites circling the Earth. Why do we not care?

        Why do we acquiesce to power? Why are we so divided? Why do we ask why if we do it at all?

        I can’t watch the news any more. It is apparent we have a uniform system of propaganda in our media.

        This telecommunication system of equality will end unfortunately and we will be left alone to grapple with our failure to turn the ship around.

        Lost are we on a sea which is about to change everything. How to change this unfortunate event, It seems that the Congress cannot or will not change it even if it could. It seems there is no real recourse to the law anymore.

        From Pink Floyd I offer an abandoned hope:

        Brezhnev took Afghanistan.
        Begin took Beirut.
        Galtieri took the Union Jack.
        And Maggie, over lunch one day,
        Took a cruiser with all hands.
        Apparently, to make him give it back

        • Gregory Herr
          March 10, 2018 at 5:27 am

          A Requiem to the Post-War Dream

    • Martin - Swedish citizen
      March 9, 2018 at 2:58 am

      Thanks for this explanation of the development of the culture of meddling and exceptionalism. Crucial.

    • Beard681
      March 12, 2018 at 8:16 am

      Really? Lincoln was so concerned that he had interests in several military contractors including FMC. He also transferred stolen Indian Lands to the railroads which paved the way for the Plains Indians genocide (often led by his civil war generals including “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” Sheridan).

      I also don’t see a “Military Industrial Complex so much as a Military – Industrial -Media complex. The government need the media to sell the wars as much as they need companies to the sell them arms.

  14. Skeptigal
    March 9, 2018 at 12:21 am

    Is there any nation, that calls itself a democracy, truly a democracy? Or is it an ideal political system that has yet to be attained and perhaps impossible to attain? When a Criminal Intelligence Agency works against the citizens of a country; when special interest groups hold more power than the elected representatives of a government; when campaign donors’ order lists are filled because of the millions they have given their chosen candidate; when money and power of a few supersede the interests of the masses; can this be called a democracy? In my opinion, we live behind the facade of a democracy and therefore should not be forcing our “democratic values” on other nations.

  15. Guest
    March 9, 2018 at 11:44 am

    How many of Reagan’s fans realize that he put a socialist (Carl Gershman) in charge of the NED?

  16. Sylvia1
    March 9, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    It’s not just the National Endowment for Democracy–there’s also the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) plus all the “privately funded” NGO’s who work closely with the US regime change architecture. I have been complaining about all this for years–it’ good to finally see more exposure in the media.

  17. Pandas4peace
    March 13, 2018 at 8:44 am

    The link to the Nation article doesn’t work. I wonder if you could fix that. Thank you.

Comments are closed.