The National Endowment for Democracy and US Public Diplomacy: Part 2May 17, 2013
Last week I posted on the tribal nature of American Cold War PD and John Brown commented that one of the reasons for the institutional instability in US PD was the desire of everyone involved to get as far away as they could from ‘propaganda’. I’m tempted to go further and suggest that you can see the attempt to get away from propaganda as part of the American discomfort with politics. Carl Schmitt complained that liberalism attempts to reduce politics to ethics and economics. These days we’re almost all liberals whether of a more left wing or right wing type. It’s pretty hard to find a proper Burkean conservative even in the UK.
I would argue that the swing towards a non-propagandist public diplomacy reaches a pinnacle during the 1970s. The anti-communist Cold war consensus had badly eroded under the shock of Vietnam, Watergate and revelations about the CIA, I get the impression that even the ‘informationalists’ of the late 1970s were presenting themselves more as librarians than propagandists. In doing this they were helped by the relative lack of interest in PD under Nixon and Ford and the softer side of the Carter Administration. It might be argued that the formation of the US International Communication Agency in April 1978 marked the high point of this trend. But however much Jimmy Carter supported two way communication as part of the US public diplomacy strategy he also embraced human rights and had Zbigniew Brzezinski as his National Security Adviser who was no fan of communism or the USSR. Human rights fitted very well with America’s liberal tradition, it was non-political since rights are about ethics or law, and non-partisan since both the right and the left agreed that rights were good even if they worried about different countries.
The foundation of the NED in 1983 made this non-partisan dynamic even more explicit in that it had centres representing Republican and Democratic parties and Labour and Capital. If anti-communism had been the ideological glue of US public diplomacy in the 1950s support for democracy was an even better fit as 99.99% of Americans agree democracy is a good thing. The result is an organization that does something eminently political (exporting a system of government) and whose projects have created numerous controversies in foreign countries, but since the 1990s has been largely non-controversial in the US. In a way the NED is the perfect solution for the US. In terms of funding the NED is not a big player in the democracy business compared with AID but it’s an interesting example of the way that countries structure their external engagement.
One additional point if you don’t read it check out Democracy Digest the NED’s blog. It may just be me but in terms of the countries that it pays attention to, the signals about threats, friends, enemies I get the impression that this is how Washington really thinks about world politics – it’s a much more ideological view of the world that you’ll get from the State Department.