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Diplomacy and Democracy

Stability or Democratic Reform?
The Real World of NGOs and Diplomats in Democracy Promotion

Panel Discussion
Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minneapolis
April 28, 2008

Amidst the ongoing foreign policy challenges of extremism, weak or failing states, and regional instability, US efforts to encourage democratic reform abroad remain controversial, but little understood. Is it possible to balance both our strategic interests in stability with our national values? Are reform and stability fundamentally incompatible or can they be complementary?  What are the diplomatic tools, including work with the private sector and NGOs, we have at our disposal to balance reform and stability in the long term national interest? The American Academy of Diplomacy, in partnership with the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) held a well-attended panel discussion on April 28 at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs to discuss the valuable tool of diplomatic engagement with non-governmental organizations and civil society to promote effective democratic governance.

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Featured speakers were: Ambassador Edwin Corr, former ambassador to Peru, Bolivia and El Salvador, Ambassador Barbara Bodine, former ambassador to Yemen, currently diplomat-in-residence and lecturer at Princeton University, Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute (IRI). J. Brian Atwood, Dean of the Hubert Humphrey Institute, moderated the discussion.

Over a hundred people attended the panel discussion, which centered on the following main themes:

  • Cooperation and consultation between the embassies, NGOs, and the private sector is essential. Experience has varied in this regard, but in recent years a frank sense of common purpose has evolved in most countries;

  • Progress is normally slow and incremental, requiring persistence and patience;

  • There have been encouraging advances in Africa;

  • Ambassadors must often maintain a fine line between pursuing American policy objectives with authoritarian regimes and supporting the growth of democracy, which is far broader than only holding elections;​

  • Encouraging indigenous democratic efforts: “Promoting democracy” is an incorrect and misleading characterization: NGOs and ambassadors must stand behind and support indigenous efforts rather than endeavor to lead them. Democracy must arise from within; it will not be a copy of the American model when it does evolve, but will reflect local culture, social values, history and religion;

  • The US cannot impose democracy on other societies. Covert efforts to influence democratization and election outcomes have repeatedly failed. Such attempts are less common today given the opposition of domestic American political forces and of pro-democracy forces in developing countries. Military imposition is not effective, and is frequently counter-productive.

This panel discussion was the first in a series of Academy outreach events focused on encouraging a dialogue about the challenges and opportunities to promote sustainable democratic development abroad.

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Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute (NDI)

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