The idea that the United States ought to help fellow democrats abroad, for reasons both practical and altruistic, did not, of course, originate with the National Endowment for Democracy. A commitment to democracy-building in the horrid aftermath of Nazism and as an instrument of U.S. national security policy helped shape the Marshall Plan. Similar concerns drove the covert funding that the United States provided, often through the CIA, for democratic political parties in western Europe in the late 1940s and beyond. (Those whose fastidiousness is offended by this bit of history might remember that during this period the Soviet Union was pouring huge financial resources into Communist parties and front organizations in western Europe—resources aimed at doing there what the Red Army had done in eastern Europe in 1944-45: bring it under the Soviet heel in what Moscow always understood as a struggle for global supremacy.)
It became clear over time, though, that covert funding in support of democrats abroad had considerable drawbacks. It made hostile propaganda, by both Communists and right wing extremists, more plausible; it got our friends into trouble with their own country men; it made for messy relations between Congress and the executive branch; and it tainted democratic solidarity with the whiff of impropriety that always attends under-the-table deals in free societies.
Thus, in the 1970s, a number of thinkers and activists began considering how the United States might openly assist human-rights activists and democrats living under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. This “new thinking” about encouraging democracy abroad was, to be sure, done in the context of the Cold War. Beneath it lay a concern that the West was too flaccid in defending its own political values and institutions, and that this weakness was causing the West to lag behind Communism in the global struggle for hearts and minds. But it was also shaped by a concern for peace: since democracy is the world’s most successful system of nonviolent conflict resolution, the cause of peaceful international relations would presumably be enhanced by a dramatic increase in the number of genuine democracies in the world.
William A. Douglas’s 1972 book Developing Democracy was a pioneering effort to stimulate this new thinking and to propose ways in which America might aid its democratic compatriots abroad. Douglas drew extensively on the experience of the American labor movement, which had for many years conducted an extensive pro gram of support for free-trade unionists in Latin America and Asia. Similarly, George Agree and the American Political Foundation brought the democracy-building work carried on by West German party foundations to the attention of American lawmakers and strategists.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.