Nearly 33 years ago, President Ronald Reagan stood before the British Parliament and urged America’s closest allies to join in a global “crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation.”
As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher listened from the front row, Reagan quoted the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings,” the American president said.
The 1982 speech to the British Parliament — a first for a sitting U.S. president — was the catalyst for Congress’s creation of the National Endowment for Democracy a year later. The nonprofit established four organizations to carry out this work: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.
Today, all four are still going strong, with the International Republican Institute (IRI) and its sister organization NDI working overseas to fulfill their missions. For the past year, IRI has operated under the leadership of Mark Green, a former U.S. congressman and ambassador to Tanzania, who is working to expand the organization’s reach using 21st-century tools.
“[The goal] is to make the organization aggressive in the promotion of democracy and citizen-responsive government,” Green said during a Diplomat interview in his downtown office. “The challenges we face today require new skills, new ideas and new energy.”
IRI’s board of directors is chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and includes former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Green said McCain and the rest of the board view IRI as one of the world’s best hopes for seeding democracy.
“Every time I see him [McCain], he says the world has never been in greater disarray than it is today,” Green said. “For a guy who spent six years in a prisoner of war camp, it’s a remarkable thing to say. I think he looks to IRI and the community of democracies to help provide some semblance of a path forward for freedom and liberty. We know that our tools are modest. Our funding is modest, but we plant seeds because we help provide training and assistance to young democrats — small D democrats — who will, knock on wood, some day lead their country.”
The son of a British mother and a South African father, Green was born in Boston and moved frequently as a child. After graduating from law school at the University of Wisconsin, Green moved to Kenya with his wife to teach school. He returned home and won election to Congress in 1999 as a Republican representing Wisconsin’s 8th congressional district.
As a four-term member of Congress, Green stayed busy in international affairs, helping to craft key policy initiatives including the Millennium Challenge Act and President George W. Bush’s history-making AIDS program. In 2007, Bush appointed Green as the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, a position he held from August 2007 until January 2009. Before arriving at IRI, Green was president and CEO of the Initiative for Global Development and senior director at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.
Green said his work in Congress and as an ambassador was rewarding but leading an on-the-ground democracy-building organization such as IRI provides a more visceral, hands-on degree of satisfaction.
“The reason I moved into the democracy and government space is that you can’t get over the finish line on any of the broad goals we have on poverty relief, tackling hunger or tackling the great afflictions of our time if you don’t have responsible, citizen-oriented and responsive government,” he said. “That’s what was enticing to me, to be able to work with the team here at IRI. Victory in our programming is victory for a lot of people on a lot of levels.”
IRI’s annual budget totals about $61 million, with the U.S. Agency for International Development, National Endowment for Democracy and State Department contributing more than 90 percent of that amount. Slightly less than 10 percent comes from foreign governments and private donations. Although the word “Republican” figures prominently in IRI’s name, Green said it is not a partisan organization and that IRI and NDI work very closely together.
“We talk to our counterparts every day, all the time,” he said. “It’s a constant information sharing. We go to the Hill together, we talk to members together and we share experiences.
“It’s a conflict-free zone,” he added with a laugh. “I think there is something particularly persuasive in the countries where we work when they see that this is not a Republican thing or a Democratic thing. This is actually an American thing or a Western thing or a democracy thing.”
But critics of America’s democracy-promotion endeavors call them a regime-change thing, or at the very least foreign meddling. IRI and its brethren have become the subject of conspiracy theories that their real intent is to destabilize governments unfriendly to Washington’s interests.
IRI felt this backlash acutely in Egypt. In 2013, shortly before the ouster of the country’s democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, an Egyptian criminal court found more than a dozen Americans guilty of receiving illegal funds from abroad without a license. Foreign NGOs had long been harassed under the former autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak, but the case against the U.S.-based nonprofits, which Secretary of State John Kerry called politically motivated, marked a new low in already-tense U.S.-Egypt relations. The convictions were largely moot because most of the American workers had already fled the country, while the Egyptian staff members were given suspended sentences.
Among those singled out was the Egypt country director of NDI, a top official with Freedom House and IRI’s Sam LaHood, son of former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The U.S. reportedly paid nearly $5 million in “forfeited bail” to get its workers out. Some even had to hide in the U.S. Embassy for weeks until they could be ferreted out of Egypt.
In House testimony last summer, Sam LaHood said that even though he was able to escape, the conviction continues to haunt him: “Under Egyptian law, I am a felon; it is unclear whether that applies in the United States, so I need to read the fine print when I apply for a loan or sign a rental agreement, visa or job application,” he said.
“I know that my personal hardship pales in comparison to the hardship of others,” LaHood added. “I never faced the full humiliation of standing in a cage as is the custom for defendants in an Egyptian courtroom, nor did I spend even one day in an overcrowded Egyptian jail cell…. It seems ludicrous to think that for working to advance democracy in Egypt, I would be rewarded with a jail term, but look no further than the three journalists from Al Jazeera who are currently serving seven- and 10-year jail terms for doing their jobs.”
Thousands of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters have also been rounded up, and hundreds killed, by a military regime that has fought to eradicate all traces of the Islamist political group from power. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has signaled that he’ll continue to make life difficult for outside groups by appointing a national security advisor who led the crackdown on NGOs and was a top official under Mubarak.
Green disputes the notion that IRI is playing favorites in Egypt’s ongoing power struggles. He said IRI is selective in whom it works with and does not associate itself with extremes on either end of the political spectrum. Instead, it works with political parties that are committed to a peaceful, inclusive, democratic process and this includes both secular and some Islamist political parties in the Middle East.
In fact, even though some Egyptians accused IRI of siding with Morsi, the former president himself often accused foreign NGOs of trying to stir domestic unrest. Green’s predecessor at IRI, Lorne Craner, didn’t have kind words for Morsi’s government either. In June 2013 congressional testimony, he called the democratic transition in Egypt a “mess.” Craner accused the now-jailed Muslim Brotherhood leader of “taking the same narrow, restrictive approach to civil society as the former regime” and said it was headed in the wrong direction, contrary to the path taken by Tunisia, which “we should be modestly optimistic about.”
Indeed, Tunisia stands out as one of the rare, if fragile, successes of the Arab Spring. IRI was directly involved in monitoring Tunisia’s elections late last year and found them legitimate, although lacking in youth participation.
“A country like Tunisia wants its elections to be recognized as credible,” Green told us. “It’s very important to the people but also because they are seeking assistance from the global community. They know if we say the elections are, in the case of Tunisia, credible and genuinely competitive it enhances their credibility.”
It also enhances a country’s ability to attract foreign direct investment, which will be critical to addressing the bread-and-butter issues that drove many Arab protesters to overthrow their sclerotic governments in the first place.
“Almost every country in the world is looking for investment; they’re looking for investment from the West,” Green said. “People say entrepreneurs are risk-takers; well, they’re not. They want to know that certain things are there before they are willing to go in. For American investors part of it is elections that meet the smell test — some sense of responsible, transparent government. It is part of what they see as the fruits of a relationship with the West.”
Green said he was gratified to see Tunisia’s smooth transition of power.
“One of the things that was rewarding about the Tunisian elections was how the principal Islamist party congratulated the victors and conceded defeat fairly quickly, and the winning party, the secular party, was gracious in defeat.”
With a staff of about 300 people, roughly half of whom work in far-flung corners of the globe and the other half working stateside (mostly in Washington), IRI has conducted its democracy support operations in more than 100 countries — many of them outside the headline-grabbing realm of the Arab Spring.
For example, IRI is one of the only nongovernmental organizations to have worked in Mongolia since the country embarked on its transition to democracy in 1989. IRI has provided parliamentary development assistance, supported the creation of a multiparty political system and helped strengthen the country’s election infrastructure. The institute is now working alongside Mongolia’s leaders and civil society groups to combat corruption, a top priority for Ulaanbaatar’s mayor.
In Syria, IRI’s Women’s Democracy Network is teaching women skills that will hopefully help them win a seat at the bargaining table to end that country’s four-year civil war. IRI has recruited women from around the world who have played a leading role in their country’s peace efforts, most notably Monica McWilliams, who was a top peace negotiator during the conflict in Northern Ireland.
“We do a lot of work in helping marginalized communities be a part of democracy,” Green said. “In a lot of places women are left out; many times they are not given the legal right to participate, but in other cases they just don’t know what to do. They don’t have the experience or the training. Through our Women’s Democracy Network we link up aspiring democracy participants who are women with their counterparts from other parts of the world.”
Sonia Rivera, the dynamic young mayor of San Benito Petén, Guatemala, recently traveled with IRI to Tunisia, where she met young, politically interested women and taught them what she had learned from IRI about hosting town hall meetings.
“When Sonia says, ‘I didn’t think I could be involved in politics, but this is what I learned and this is what I did,’ that means a lot and that’s part of the network we create,” Green explained. “An American white guy can stand up and go all over the world telling women they need to participate in government. They’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ then wait until he’s gone and laugh at him.
“We don’t impose anything,” he added. “It’s essential that we’re not preaching.”
To accomplish its objectives, IRI recruits people from a wide range of backgrounds to travel to various countries and carry out training missions.
“Depending on what we think is called for, we will take trainers from countries that we think have a democratic experience that may be most applicable,” Green said. “The Westminster model may be more applicable depending on where we are working, or in the case of Canada — very much a case of a country that has a federal model — that may be more applicable. We use whatever we think is needed and helpful to advance the causes where we are working.”
Another part of what IRI does for emerging democracies is put leaders in touch with rank-and-file citizens through the use of polling.
“We do a lot of polling to help parties and leaders understand what their citizens want,” Green explained. “We try to help them go from parties that may be ethnic-based, or religious-based or geographic-based to being issue-based and in the marketplace of ideas.
“We really do help foster the next generation of democracy leaders,” he added. “We very much believe in the grassroots, and in this idea of a rising tide of people demanding the right to craft their own future. So much of what takes place in democracy occurs a long way from the capitols; it’s in the local communities.”
Green is very familiar with a common refrain from leaders in emerging democracies — that establishing a democracy takes time. And he sympathizes with it.
“Sometimes people forget where a country is coming from,” Green said. “We work in difficult environments. The idea that we’d have Jeffersonian democracies popping up in a week is unrealistic.”
Much of that impatience emanates from Capitol Hill. Green said he constantly has to remind his former colleagues that the process of establishing democracies with strong roots doesn’t happen in one election, or even two.
“All too often, my brothers and sisters on the Hill will get to an election and they’ll say, ‘OK, democracy is taken care of,’” Green lamented.
“Of course, democracy is more than just elections. An election is a signpost on the path to democracy,” he said. “I do worry that we sometimes see a premature cessation of support. You see training support stop too early. The really tough thing — and it happens every week here — countries say, ‘Why are you leaving? We’re just getting going,’ and I have to say I’m sorry. As Americans we are very impatient. We’ve always been impatient and it is unfortunate.”
But sometimes the patience pays off. Democratic successes in Tunisia or Mongolia or Sri Lanka or wherever IRI has established a footprint are “baby steps” but rewarding nonetheless.
“It’s halting but we really do try to plant seeds and try to watch them sprout to help foster a generation that will participate when, knock on wood, the day after comes and there are openings for true democracy,” Green said. “If we can do that and give people a stake in their future then I think we’ve really accomplished something.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.