The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration wants to dismantle Ronald Reagan’s ‘infrastructure of democracy’

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 9.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 9. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Speaking to the British Parliament in 1982, President Ronald Reagan called on the United States “to foster the infrastructure of democracy” to help ensure that people around the world were empowered to determine their own fates. Now, at this increasingly fraught moment for freedom around the world, the Trump administration wants to dismantle that infrastructure.

Buried in the State Department’s fiscal 2019 budget request is a proposal not only to slash the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy but also to disassemble its relationships with its core institutes, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. For the NED and those institutes, the proposal is an assault not only on their organizations but also on the pro- ­democracy mission they are dedicated to.

“If implemented, the proposal would gut the program, force crippling layoffs and the symbolic meaning would also be shattering, sending a signal far and wide that the United States is turning its back on supporting brave people who share our values,” said NED President Carl Gershman.

The Trump administration proposal would allow the NED to continue issuing small grants but move funding of its core institutes to the State Department, where the IRI and NDI would have to compete with private contractors. The organizations involved argue that keeping funding decisions at arm’s length from the State Department allows the NED network to do things on the edges of the pro-democracy movement that the U.S. government can’t or won’t, such as supporting Chinese dissidents in ways that upset Beijing.

“USAID, the State Department and the endowment are a three-legged stool,” said NDI President Kenneth Wollack. “Dismantling one of those legs would undermine a fundamental pillar of U.S. foreign policy — a policy that represents a convergence of our interests and values.”

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The proposal initially came out of the Office of Management and Budget, even though the State Department did not formally ask for it. A senior OMB official told me the administration supports the NED’s mission but wants to consolidate the funding streams to improve oversight and accountability. But the White House didn’t provide any evidence that the current model is inefficient.

In December, five U.S. senators wrote to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney to warn that the proposal would run afoul of the 1983 law setting up the funding structure and would “undermine the will of its founders, including President Reagan and a supportive Congress.” Lawmakers simply don’t believe the Trump administration’s assertion that it is pro-democracy.

“This is just another example of the Trump administration using ‘restructuring’ or ‘realignment’ as a euphemism for dismantling an agency that advances critical goals,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat of the House Appropriations subcommittee on State, foreign operations and related programs.

Trump officials often affirm the need to support democracy, but the administration’s actions tell a different story. The State Department considered removing the reference to democracy from its mission statement. It downgraded U.S. participation in the Community of Democracies. Nobody has been nominated to be undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights or assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor. And so on.

It’s likely that Congress will reject the White House proposal to dismantle the NED. But the Trump administration’s assault on democracy promotion can be expected to continue. The effects of it are already evident: Dictatorships are presenting their model as preferable for the developing world. Human rights abuses are rising. Basic freedoms are under attack. The signals that the U.S. government sends have real effects for millions of ­people struggling for dignity and self- ­determination.

It’s not that Trump’s people don’t believe democracy is the best system; they just don’t believe it’s America’s business to push democracy abroad. Trump’s otherwise hawkish National Security Strategy acknowledges that America’s rivals are attacking the idea of democracy, but it says the United States simply “serves as an inspiration” in resisting those attacks.

The struggle to support democracy is being fought at home as well. Last week, the plaza outside the Russian Embassy was renamed for Boris Nemtsov, the Russian dissident murdered in Moscow three years ago. Congress couldn’t pass the bill authorizing the change because of opposition from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). But the D.C. Council stepped in and got it done.

More broadly, the battle over the NED grants is a small but important piece of the ongoing struggle over America’s mission. “The work our government does to promote democratic values abroad is at the heart of who we are as a country,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the IRI’s board of directors, told me.

Are we a country that looks out for ourselves only, or one that will advocate for the oppressed in the nations our families escaped to come here? If we are the latter, then undermining infrastructure that Reagan established to execute that mission amounts to abandoning not only our interests and our values but also our very identity.

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