- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
One of the nice things about being the world’s only superpower is that United States gets to do certain things that it would object to if anybody tried to do them to us. A nice illustration of that tendency is the flap over the Egyptian government’s recent decision to prevent employees of several global non-profits (including the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftuing) from leaving the country, amid a broader inquiry into their activities.
In the case of the NRI and IDI, these two groups are non-profit 501(c)3 organizations whose stated goal is to encourage democracy in other countries. They are supposedly "non-partisan"(even though one is labeled "Republican" and the other "Democratic"), and they get the bulk of their funding from the U.S. government (i.e., the State Department, AID, the National Endowment for Democracy, etc.).
IRI and NDI do a lot of fairly innocuous stuff, like teaching people in other countries the nuts and bolts of party organization, campaigning, election best practices, and the like. I don’t have a big problem with that, and I agree with Tom Friedman and Mohamed El Dashan that the Egyptian decision to detain these employees is a dangerous bit of diplomatic brinksmanship. Moreover, some of the accusations lodged against these organizations are ridiculous, most notably the claim that they were advancing Zionist or "Jewish" interests. Statements by the Egyptian minister of planning Fayaz Abul Naga, the driving force behind the campaign, have been especially offensive and ill-informed, and tell you that bizarre conspiracy theories remain far too common in that part of the world.
But before we let our outrage overwhelm our judgment, we ought to ask ourselves how these organizations and their activities might look to officials and even some average citizens of other countries. We think that encouraging democracy is an innocuous or even wholly beneficial activity, because we are convinced it is the best form of government and that all societies will be better off if they adopt democratic systems. And maybe we’re right. But if efforts to promote democracy destabilize an existing government, leading to political chaos and economic hardship, then you can understand why local authorities and some members of the population might look on this process rather differently.
This problem really shouldn’t be all that hard for us to understand. During the Cold War, we thought Soviet support for communist parties in other countries was a dangerous form of subversion that showed just how aggressive those nasty Marxist-Leninists were. Heck, we even went through "Red Scares" in the 1920s and 1950s, based on grossly exaggerated claims that Commies were lurking everywhere. If we can spawn a Joe McCarthy, it shouldn’t be hard to understand why ill-informed Egyptian officials might believe goofy conspiracy theories about the NGOs and their supposedly dangerous agenda?
Similarly, just imagine how we would react if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were openly funding a non-profit organization here in the United States, whose stated purpose was to spread the social welfare principles of the Brotherhood in under-served urban communities? If something like that were happening, I’ll bet Pamela Geller and her followers would have a collective aneurysm, and people like Representative Peter King (R-NY) would be holding hearings about it on Capitol Hill.
Or what if China began expanding the activities of its various Confucius Institutes beyond language training and cultural exchange, and added courses on "The Superiority of Asian Values," and "The Virtues of One-State Capitalism?" What if some of their employees started reaching out to the Occupy Movement here in the United States, to suggest practical steps that this movement could use to promote greater economic equality? My guess is that Americans might find this more than a little troubling.
Bottom line: if you think promoting democracy is both morally right and strategically desirable in any and all circumstances, then you probably support everything that IRI, NDI and Freedom House do and you’re willing to accept the fact that some governments won’t like it. But let’s at least be honest to admit that even the most innocuous forms of "democracy promotion" are intended to foster slow-motion regime change, and we shouldn’t be especially surprised when other governments object.