Huffpost WorldPost
John Sullivan Headshot

Building the Infrastructure of Democracy: Reagan's Legacy 30 Years Later

Posted: Updated:
Print
AP
AP

June 8, 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of one of President Ronald Reagan's hallmark foreign policy speeches, the Address at Westminster to members of the British Parliament. President Ronald Reagan is often called a visionary president, particularly with reference to his foreign policy. He did not waver from his belief in the superiority of democracy, or in his conviction that democracy should be possible for all. Now more than ever -- as the Arab World makes tentative steps toward representative democracy even while countries in Eurasia and Latin America take steps backward -- we must rededicate ourselves to the idea that every citizen in every country should have the right to self-determination.

In the Westminster address, President Reagan spoke eloquently about the need for the American people to support and help develop democratic systems around the world. "Democracy is not a fragile flower," he said. "Still, it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy." Recognizing that political change cannot be sustained without the civil society structure to support it, he said, "The objective I propose is simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy." He rejected the idea that democracy assistance is akin to cultural imperialism, stating that it "provid[es] the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity." President Reagan also draws a clear distinction between the Soviet sphere and the free world, calling on the universal and inherent desire in all men to be free. Finally, President Reagan cited the example of organizations like the well-established German political party foundation, the Stiftung, and pointed to the fact that the United States needed similar instruments to provide the kind of assistance essential to supporting people in their struggle for freedom and democracy. "It is time," he said, "that we committed ourselves as a nation -- in both the public and private sectors -- to assisting democratic development."

To that end, the American Political Foundation assembled The Democracy Program study group, charged with examining how the United States could help encourage democracy around the world. The group included, amongst others, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Congressman Dante Fascell (D-FL), Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles Manatt, Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce International Division Vice President Ambassador Michael Samuels, along with a range of internationally recognized experts from various walks of life.

The group's final report to the president called for the establishment of a National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED was officially founded in 1983, along with four core institutes: the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the Center for the International Private Enterprise, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute. The NED and its core institutes work in-country to promote the values of democracy enshrined in our own Bill of Rights: freedom of association, freedom of speech, and the freedom to vote and choose one's own leaders. Each is dedicated to fostering the growth of a wide range of democratic institutions abroad, including free markets and business organizations, trade unions, and political parties, as well as the many elements of a vibrant civil society that ensure human rights, an independent media, and the rule of law. In its statement of Principles and Objectives, the NED lays out its core tenet:

"Democracy involves the right of the people freely to determine their own destiny. The exercise of this right requires a system that guarantees freedom of expression, belief and association, free and competitive elections, respect for the inalienable rights of individuals and minorities, free communications media, and the rule of law."

During the last 30 years, totalitarian regimes have fallen and democracies have risen in all corners of the world, proving that people do strive, inexorably and eventually, toward freedom. At the end of his speech at Westminster, President Reagan harkened back to Sir Winston Churchill, who so masterfully led the British people through the Blitz, "So let us ask ourselves, 'What kind of people do we think we are?' And let us answer, 'Free people, worthy of freedom and determined not only to remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well.'" This is a generational task, one (as the president pointed out) that will not be accomplished in the span of a single generation. But it is a legacy not only for President Ronald Reagan but for all of those involved. It is a legacy well worth pursuing.