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Diplomacy in Action

Twenty Years of Democracy and Governance Programs in Europe and Eurasia

Daniel Rosenblum
Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe and Eurasia, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
The Elliot School of International Affairs at the George Washington University
Washington, DC
December 12, 2011


First of all, thanks very much to USAID's Europe and Eurasia Bureau, and to the Elliot School for hosting this event. It was a great initiative to give us all a chance to reflect on the experience of the past 20 years, to study that experience and then, hopefully, learn from it going forward.

There have already been, and there will be more, 20th anniversary events connected with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Next year, in 2012, we will be marking the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Support Act, which formed the basis for all the programs we have carried out in the former Soviet Union. The SEED Act of course, which covered Central and Eastern Europe, preceded that by 3 years, but it is a time for reflection on the U.S. role throughout the post-Communist region. And it is appropriate, I think, that this conference, which is essentially kicking off this period of reflection on our assistance, is focusing on Democracy and Governance. Because in many ways, this is where it all started. I mean, that is certainly what inspired those who were watching what was happening in Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990. It was the scenes of masses of people rising up and asserting their freedoms. That was what gave inspiration to many of us - myself included - who came of age at that time and were inspired to get into this line of work.

I was planning to present two versions, two narratives, to describe the relationship between U.S. democracy assistance and what has happened in the region, but Tom Carothers beat me to it. He basically said exactly what I was going to say but I’ll say it in a slightly different way.

Version Number One, Narrative Number One is as follows: by any standard, our Democracy and Governance Programs, in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, have been wildly successful. We can point to the graduates of our assistance, especially in Central Europe, as evidence of that success. Ten of these countries have joined the European Union. Croatia is about to be Number 11. Twelve have now joined NATO, and these countries are among the staunchest U.S. allies in the world. They support U.S. foreign policy, by and large; they participate in our military operations abroad; and they share, in the deepest sense, our values. In those countries, we can point to a number of specific examples of the impact of our assistance. In fact, I think as Tom said, there are probably hundreds or thousands of examples, where our assistance did one of three big-picture things. First of all, it opened minds by exposing political leaders and a much wider group of citizens to democratic ideas, free-market ideas – to our values – through thousands and thousands of exchange programs, information programs and even some work at universities, although I take Tom Carothers’ point that we maybe did not focus on the education as much as we should have. Secondly, by providing more targeted expertise through technical assistance and through training, our assistance was really key to getting the right laws passed, to getting the right institutions established, to getting governing norms in place in these countries. The training and technical assistance was key also to building the capacity of NGOs, independent media outlets, and political parties. Thirdly, in several key examples, we were able to provide money when it was needed to stabilize economies or to prime the pump of the private sector to make these countries successful. The key to those successes – according to Narrative Number One – was consistent investments in people and institutions, sustained over time. I think Sarah Mendelson used the term, "strategic patience." That is a term that we have come back to, again and again, over the years. We have to stick with these investments because, eventually, the water will wear away the stone. Eventually, things will happen if only we can continue to do this. And if you carry that forward into the future then – the narrative would say – if we can just stick with it, in the Eurasian countries that are the harder cases or in the Balkan countries that are the harder cases, eventually, democracy will blossom, countries will join the EU or, if that is not an option, in any event they will join the community of nations as full democracies.

The second narrative, the second variant, is: That's all well and good. It’s nice. We did have some nice exchanges, we made friends. Maybe we did change a few minds but, ultimately, factors external to the programs the U.S. government carried out really had the decisive impact for any successes that we have seen. Our programs really played a role on the margins. We might have helped make things better in a situation that was going to be good anyway. Maybe we hastened transitions a bit. We smoothed things out. But the really important factors were, first of all, the pull of Europe and NATO, of those Euro-Atlantic institutions and the huge incentives associated with membership in those institutions. Those were motivations that permitted countries to overcome deeply entrenched anti-reform attitudes and interest groups, deeply entrenched enmities, hatreds towards neighbors or towards ethnic minorities, to overcome that and implement reform. The second factor, playing out in different ways in different countries, was the presence of "political will". This idea of the importance of political will – admittedly sometimes driven by the EU and NATO motivation – is that if you do not have well-intended political leadership that is really committed to reform and has some fundamental commitment to democratic values, you will never succeed no matter how many dollars you pour in, no matter how many NGOs you train. As I believe Paige Alexander noted in her opening, there have been more limited successes we can point to in this large group of post-Communist countries that remain "partly free" or "not free" – she placed them under the assistance category of "Preserving Islands of Democratic Practice". This second narrative acknowledges that those exist, too, that there have been cases where we might have helped to preserve those little islands here and there, which, maybe someday, will amount to something – but so what? I mean what does that really accomplish? If we look across the region, we are seeing things go in the reverse direction in too many cases. All the work that was done in Ukraine, for example, all those years after the Orange Revolution, when we trumpeted our success at having sown the seeds of a democratic breakthrough – where is that today? That is all evaporating into the ether, so, ultimately, none of this makes a lot of difference. So goes Narrative Number Two.

Now the second narrative is alive and well, and I encountered it very recently – and, somewhat to my surprise – in a conversation with a Capitol Hill staffer who I will not name. I will not even tell you whether it was the House or the Senate. It was just somebody on Capitol Hill, reacting to a new initiative that we were putting forward to support civil society in Russia. Their first question to me was, “20 years and $1 billion later, what have we got to show for what we have done in Russia and what can you tell me to convince me that another couple million is gonna make any difference at all?” And it was not asked in a hostile way, frankly, it really was not. There was no hostility. It was simply just curiosity, like, “What can you tell me that’s actually gonna prove this is worth it?” And of course I trotted out the familiar arguments about "Strategic Patience" and we need to stick with this and we have to work over time and plant seeds, as someone said earlier, and the seeds will blossom. It was not an argument. They did not come back and debate me on that point but I have to admit that after having been at this for almost 20 years myself, after a while, you start getting tired of making those arguments and wondering if they are going to come true.

So the question is: which of these narratives is true or is more correct, and/or is it possible to answer that question? Earlier, I think that Tom Carothers answered it by saying, “It’s impossible. We’ll never know what effect our assistance really had”.

We have these hundreds of individual cases we can point to that many of us are familiar with, but we cannot really prove cause-and-effect. Sarah Mendelson took exception to that and believed that it was in fact possible to do some quantitative measurement and so on, but the fact is that we may never know.

This question is not just an academic one. It is not just an academic debate. It is actually a real political issue for us today and it is a budgetary issue that I’m dealing with on a constant basis. I’ve used the first narrative over and over again, for many years now, in front of skeptical questioners from our Office of Management and Budget or from people on Capitol Hill, and the examples that I’ve used repeatedly are Ukraine and Georgia. I talk about Georgia and Ukraine and how I remember well, in the late 1990s and the early 2000’s, the internal U.S. government discussions about what we were going do there and should we continue to spend the sums of money that we were spending in programs at the time. There were a lot of people who were ready to throw up their hands and give up, and not necessarily go to zero activity but really severely cut it back, or just focus on the long-term on, you know, student exchanges. Let’s just do student exchanges. Why bother with the rest of this? And we didn’t, of course, pull back at that time. And in 2004 and 2005 and 2006, me and many others were able to point to what happened and say, “You see? We told you so. We stuck with it and these seeds that we planted started blossoming and so it was worth it.” I’ve carried forward that same line of reasoning, in the years since, in many arguments.

But the difference today is that, unlike in the early 2000’s and the late 1990s, we do not have anything like the same level of resources. We do not necessarily have the luxury anymore of continuing to do things in situations where it seems we are treading water. So the question is, what should be our approach going forward?

This is where I move from reflections on the past into what I think we ought to be doing in the future. I’m just planting some ideas here and I’m hoping that maybe a few of you will have questions or comments of your own to add to this.

I think it’s fair to say that, over the years, we have had two basic – very broadly-speaking – kinds of tactics that we have followed in our democracy programming. There is the saturation approach, or "saturation bombing," which has essentially exposed a lot of people to the kinds of ideas that we think will help democratize their societies. Do a lot of exchanges, bring a lot of Americans over to these countries, do a lot of technical assistance. Do high quantity activities, and, through that engagement and that exposure, it will tell, over time. The other is the targeted approach where you pick a particular sector, and a particular problem, and you say, “This is what is going to make a decisive difference to this country's development, and this is where we can make a difference." I’m thinking there are lots of examples of this, but one would be energy in Georgia, where it is not a democracy program per se, but, in Georgia, with energy, it was very clear that was critical to the country’s survival and it was an area we could make a difference so we targeted a lot of technical assistance just in that area. The fact of the matter is that today the saturation approach is not possible or it is increasingly not feasible, and so we have to move, more and more, to this targeting approach.

We need to target our democracy and governance resources and pinpoint the areas where we can make the most difference – where either the U.S. has a particular comparative advantage, or where we can leverage the work of other donors or of local organizations. I know this was something Paige talked about too, about partnering with local organizations and having that become a bigger and bigger part of what we do. Partnering with Europe was mentioned earlier. I think Tom Carothers said something to the effect that we are not very present in Europeans’ discussions about what they have done over the past 20 years and vice versa. We do not talk much about Europe's role, he said. Well, that is changing, too. I personally have spent far more time in the past three years than I did in the preceding 10 or 15 years talking to Europeans about what they are doing and talking to them about what we are doing and trying to coordinate our efforts. I believe we have just recognized we have to do that, and it is beginning to work. This idea of Europe as the draw and the incentive is also very powerful and again, I think there is some debate about this, which was reflected in our discussion this afternoon. I noticed it was not a direct debate set up by speakers but, again, Tom Carothers emphasized that the EU does not work automatically as a reforming force. It is not on autopilot. Just because a country gets into the EU does not mean that everything follows. On the other hand, Daniel Serwer used the metaphor of gravity. I think he said, “The EU is like gravity. Even when we can’t see it, it’s working in countries.” I tend to actually believe that analysis more, from what I’ve observed myself. But the point is that we do not know for sure what the effect of European integration will be. Still, I would rather see any of these countries, who are outside the EU now, in it than not. So I think, given the alternative, whether or not it is an "automatic" democratizer, that it should be a driving force of U.S. assistance policy in the region. And increasingly, it is. We are linking what we are doing to the requirements countries have to meet to get into the European Union.

So as we move forward in this resource-scarce environment, needing to target, not saturate, I would just point to one big challenge and one big opportunity that we have that relates very much to our democracy and governance programming. These are things that we need to, in my view, focus on. The big challenge – the huge challenge – I see is corruption. Having traveled around the region for years, talked to thousands of people, and observed change, over time, I've concluded that corruption eats away, more than anything else, at the lifeblood of these countries. Of course that is true in economic terms but I think it is very much true in political terms, too. Corruption leads to political apathy. It compromises otherwise viable political opposition. I think this has been highlighted in Ukraine during the current prosecution of Ms. Tymoshenko. While she's clearly the victim of a selective, politicized judicial process, the Ukrainian public, by and large, is not very sympathetic. And there is clearly a kind of cynicism there, a kind of public exhaustion with all political parties due to real and perceived corruption. In terms of having a credible, viable opposition in Ukraine, and in other countries, we have seen this trend. And this is, in many ways, the hardest thing for us to tackle through our programming so it is a big challenge for us. Nevertheless I believe we have to focus on this more than almost anything else and try to incorporate an attack on corruption in just about everything we do because, without that, I do not see political progress happening, let alone economic growth.

The big opportunity that I see in the region relates to the new information technologies. This may sound trite by now, and I’m not an expert on social media and IT, et cetera, but it is clearly a game-changer, and it is already serving as a game-changer throughout the region and throughout the world. It is creating a new set of expectations among the populations and the elites and mobilizing a whole new set of actors and I think it is an area where the U.S. has a “comparative advantage.” We invented a lot of this stuff, we know about it, we have people who know and who are very active promoters of it. So I believe this to be a clear area where we can and should focus, in our DG programming going forward.

Let me close on a somewhat more hopeful note. Hopefully, this has not been too depressing a presentation. I would just close by saying that I personally am still a believer in the first narrative of the two that I presented. Unfortunately, I must admit it is sort of a “faith-based policy”. Notwithstanding Sarah’s [Mendelson] confidence that there are ways of doing this – and I am sure there are better ways of measuring impact than we have been using up until now – I have to base my belief in that first narrative on a certain level of faith, as well as on personal observation, just what I’ve seen in the region, over time. A lot of it is anecdotal. Nevertheless, I do think that the United States needs to continue being involved and continue being engaged and that we can make a difference. Even if it is a difference on the margins, that margin can be the difference between successful democratization and retrenchment. It is a struggle worth continuing, and I think lots of people in the region are counting on us to continue being supportive, even as we recognize that the struggle is theirs to win or lose.

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