Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute. Kenneth Wollack is president of the National Democratic Institute.
With continued revelations of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a specious narrative has come back into circulation: that Moscow’s campaign of political warfare is no different from U.S.-supported democracy assistance.
This narrative is churned out by propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik . Closer to home, it is deployed by isolationists who propound a U.S. retreat from global leadership. And then there are the authoritarian apologists, who are as forgiving of repugnant regimes as they are hostile to America’s historic approach to the world.
The bogeymen usually fingered as moral equivalents of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political warfare are democracy-assistance organizations, including the International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and National Endowment for Democracy .
So what is it that our nonpartisan, nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations actually do — and how is it different from the meddling of authoritarian powers such as Russia? Here are a few telling examples.
Democracy-assistance groups have worked in the Balkans since the end of the Yugoslav wars to bridge interethnic divides and foster reconciliation and democratic cooperation. In contrast, Russia has escalated its efforts to exacerbate intercommunal tensions and undermine social cohesion in these young and fragile democracies by backing separatist movements and ultra-nationalist politicians who incite ethnic hatred.
In post-Soviet states such as Ukraine, IRI and NDI work in support of efforts by local governments, civic organizations, parliaments and political parties across the spectrum to advance reforms and combat corruption. Russia, on the other hand, invades and occupies territory and instigates violence. Its hybrid warfare incites and exploits ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions, demonizes marginalized communities and corrodes trust in democratic institutions.
NDI and IRI are working with civic groups across the Middle East, including in war-ravaged nations such as Syria and fragile states such as Libya, to stand up local governing councils that can create oases of stability in places that otherwise risk exporting violent extremism. Compare that with Russia’s battlefield support for the Assad regime in Syria, whose “barrel-bomb” and chemical weapons attacks on its own citizens have produced the greatest refugee crisis in a generation.
And whereas Russia brazenly attempts to influence election outcomes across Europe, organizations such as NDI and IRI support a global network of nonpartisan citizen monitors who care about the integrity, not the results, of elections in their countries.
In short, while democracy-assistance organizations help partners strengthen their capacity for self-determination, the Kremlin’s political warfare operates as a zero-sum game: using tactics such as disinformation, cyberwarfare and even direct acts of aggression — such as invasion or assassination — to subvert open societies and increase Russia’s strategic advantage.
The false equivalency almost always relies on insinuations that U.S. organizations operate at the directive of the CIA and other U.S. agencies. This is an outlandish — and for those of us who work in the sector, a laughable — falsehood.
Moreover, the inability to distinguish nongovernmental organizations from governmental action is characteristic of an authoritarian mind-set, which sees no space for action outside the state. While both IRI and NDI receive generous support from U.S. government agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department, we work without the control of government and in accordance with the public-private partnership that President Ronald Reagan and Congress envisioned when our institutes were established 35 years ago.
This is not to suggest that our work is not grounded in American values and interests: We are driven by the principles of liberal democracy and self-determination. Fundamentally, we seek to help foreign countries strengthen their sovereign autonomy to govern themselves. Rather than imposing our will on others, we aim to equip our partners with the tools to build political systems that reflect their own needs. That is what democracy is all about.
Arguments equating democracy assistance with nefarious meddling almost always imply a presumption that the countries in which democracy and governance organizations operate are puppets lacking free will. In fact, NDI and IRI work openly with a range of stakeholders in countries at various stages of development in response to specific requests for assistance. Nor is this solely an American effort. We work with, and alongside, other democratic governments, intergovernmental and nongovernmental groups, parliaments and political parties — all part of an international democratic architecture.
The historical record is clear. The world is safer and more prosperous when people are free to choose their leaders and fundamental political rights are respected. Violent extremism is far less likely to incubate in societies that enjoy responsive and inclusive governance. Citizens who live in democratic societies do not flee them as desperate migrants.
In short, a more democratic world is a more humane, prosperous and peaceful place. Democracy-assistance organizations work with our partners on the ground to help realize that goal. Can authoritarian powers say the same?