In the 1980s and 1990s, when I used to observe Americans engaged in the then-new field of democracy aid giving training sessions to foreign officials and activists, the trainers often paused at the start of their presentations and acknowledged with a rueful smile that the United States was itself not a perfect democracy. For a moment, they seemed well aware of the implicit hubris of holding themselves and the United States out as political exemplars. But then they would treat that comment as a throwaway line and proceed with their remarks, confident in their status as representatives of a successful democracy who are helping the less politically fortunate.

Thomas Carothers
Thomas Carothers is a senior fellow and co-director of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program. He is a leading authority on international support for democracy, human rights, governance, the rule of law, and civil society.
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It is a throwaway line no longer. Giving advice to people in another country about how to organize their political life is always a sensitive endeavor. But in those earlier decades, the United States was emerging victorious from its long ideological rivalry with the Soviet Union and exuding political confidence at home and abroad. The health of its own democracy seemed almost beyond question. In the ensuing decades, that has greatly changed.

Cracks in the triumphant post-Cold War image of U.S. democracy began to appear as early as the mid-1990s. The harsh polarization that emerged after the 1994 congressional elections culminated in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which was viewed with incredulity around the world. The disputed presidential election of 2000 hit America’s image even harder. In its democracy work abroad, the United States had been putting enormous emphasis on the importance of free and fair elections. Yet suddenly America’s capability to competently administer its own presidential ballot was thrown into grave doubt. More damagingly, doubts about the ability of the U.S. legal system to fairly apply the rule of law to resolve the mess became a topic of national dispute and global puzzlement.

Since then, the deficiencies of democratic governance in the United States have snowballed in number and intensity, from the inability of the two main political parties to work productively together to the capture of the legislative process by elite interest groups to glaring shortcomings in the criminal justice system. Much more than many Americans seem to realize or admit, the image of the United States as a global beacon of effective democracy is greatly out of date.

As a result, many people on the receiving end of U.S. democracy aid are questioning why Americans believe they have the answers to others’ democratic shortcomings. What solutions, they rightfully ask, does the United States have to offer for overcoming, for example, a dysfunctional national legislature that commands little public respect, intolerant political populism, crippling polarization, problematic campaign financing, voter registration disputes, low voter turnout, or rights violations by security forces? (The same questions are also raised about Europe’s credibility as a democracy aid provider, given the continent’s own democratic woes.)

In my own experience, most recipients of democracy aid are struck by how similar our problems are to their own. Americans still tend to talk about many countries outside North America and Europe as “new” democracies that are grappling with basic political building blocks.

But many countries, like Chile, Estonia, Ghana, Indonesia, Mongolia, and Romania, have moved past the initial post-authoritarian phase of setting up democratic institutions. They now have democratic constitutions, regular elections, alternation of power, elected parliaments, active civil societies, and a good amount of political openness. They are fighting to make their political institutions and processes work well. They are trying to improve the quality of political representation, lessen state capture by vested interests, avoid intolerance from surging populists, and engage politically alienated citizens. In short, their political challenges are often very much like those of the United States.

Moreover, there are examples of these new democracies undertaking more vigorous reform initiatives than the United States has done — and doing better at reaching solutions. A recent report by the Electoral Integrity Project, a multinational research group that assessed the integrity of elections in many countries between 2012 and 2014, ranked U.S. elections in the “moderate” integrity range, below elections in Mongolia, Rwanda, and South Africa.

There are many success stories. In Romania, thanks to an innovative citizen movement and energetic independent investigators, many corrupt mayors, national legislators, and ex-ministers have been prosecuted and jailed. The success of Latvia’s Corruption Preventing and Combating Bureau in monitoring dubious party financing and holding powerful business figures to public account compares favorably to the performance of U.S. institutions responsible for addressing such issues. The ability of some Philippine civic groups to challenge wrongdoing by national politicians exceeds that of many of their U.S. counterparts. As the Asian Development Bank notes, “Philippine civil society organizations are widely seen as some of the most vibrant and advanced in the world.… and many believe that if civil society has contributed to democratization anywhere, it is in the Philippines.”

Gerrymandering, that bane of reformers, is a more significant problem at the state level in the United States than in various large federal democracies in the developing world, such as in Argentina, Brazil, and India. The United States ranks in the bottom half of the world in terms of the representation of women in its politics, while legislatures in various developing country democracies like Bolivia, Mexico, Namibia, and Senegal have more than double the representation of women than the U.S. Congress.

Of course, some newer democracies are beset with far more severe political problems than the United States. Many are struggling to get beyond terrible authoritarian legacies or are mired in civil conflict. Nevertheless, a fundamental assumption on which 30 years of Western democracy aid has been based — that there is a basic divide between the established democracies and the non-Western countries who are struggling to become democratic — no longer holds.The similarities of democratic challenges across all regions of the world are much greater than the differences.

This new situation compounds the problem of credibility that U.S. democracy promotion has long faced. Credibility questions have traditionally arisen from negative perceptions of U.S. foreign policy, especially concerning the inconsistency of the United States’ commitment to its stated goal of advancing democracy. Why, doubters ask, has the United States spent millions of dollars a year on democracy promotion directed at Iran but not at Saudi Arabia?

With the United States’ domestic political realities now adding to the credibility issue, many foreign observers conclude that the United States should get out of the business of trying to help others improve their democracies and focus on getting its own house in order. More than a few Americans feel the same.

But this is not the right answer. The United States can still make important contributions to helping other countries strengthen their democracies. A country doesn’t have to be politically trouble-free to be able to help another improve its own political life. U.S. democracy aid shouldn’t end — but it should change.

Limited positive evolution has already taken place. Some democracy promoters stress to their foreign counterparts that they offer not a U.S. model, but useful comparative knowledge to help them achieve progress in their own ways. When the National Democratic Institute engages with foreign parliaments, for example, it does not hold out the U.S. Congress as a model. It and some other U.S. groups are making greater use of non-American trainers and experiences.

These are helpful steps. But they represent only very partial change. A great deal of U.S. democracy assistance still embodies the traditional idea of “you have problems, we have answers.” U.S. experts travel to other countries doling out advice on democratic “best practices” drawn from the U.S. experience; American staffs make key decisions on project management and funding; Americans serve as expatriate directors of field offices in countries that have a wealth of well-trained local people; and boards of directors are largely, even exclusively, made up of Americans.

Reforming these traditional features is crucial. But sharper change is needed. The United States needs to break the mold of democracy assistance as something people “over here” do to people “over there.” Assistance should be redesigned and presented publicly as a common enterprise aimed at alleviating democratic deficiencies both here and there, highlighting the value of mutual learning and flows of knowledge in both directions.

To move in this direction, U.S. democracy aid organizations should find ways to apply their expertise to the problems of democracy at home. U.S. democracy groups that are expert in troubled legislatures, for example, should engage on reform efforts with the U.S. Congress and state legislatures. U.S. organizations adept at helping other countries foster electoral integrity should try to help American state and local bodies achieve that same goal. Those trying to help other countries reform campaign finance should take on the challenge of doing so in the United States as well.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) might be a place to start such a change. It is the smallest of the three large funding sources of U.S. democracy assistance (much larger flows of such assistance come from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State). Yet is has a high global profile. Also, since it is a private (though government-funded) organization, changes in its mandate would be somewhat simpler to make than in the official aid bureaucracies. The NED’s mandate could be expanded to include U.S. democracy. New funding for this could be sought from private sources or domestic parts of the U.S. federal budget.

Finding a way to shift some of the democracy support sponsored by USAID and the State Department to problems in the United States would be more complex both legally and practically. It would require opening up what is, in fact, a badly overdue larger debate about the whole enterprise of foreign assistance. That enterprise was built on the idea that there are clear lines between developed and developing countries and between established and new democracies. But those lines have significantly faded in the last ten to fifteen years, raising questions about the basic structures and methods of foreign aid, which were built more than a half century ago for a very different world.

Waiting for some new configuration of domestic political forces to arise that would make it possible to pry open the rusted legislative door of U.S. foreign assistance and undertake deep structural reforms is likely to be a study in frustration. Positive change may have to be pursued in more limited ways. Rather than carrying out programs at home themselves, U.S. democracy aid groups might seek funding, whether public or private, to establish partnerships with groups that already work on political reform at home, adding on their comparative experience and expertise.

It was a useful step forward when Freedom House, a non-profit dedicated to political rights and civil liberties, issued for the first time in 2008 a probing report on the state of freedom in America to complement its usual focus on the state of freedom “out there.” The fact that Human Rights Watch relentlessly scrutinizes the state of rights in the United States is fundamental to its credibility as a witness to rights abuses abroad.

The German party foundations, such as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which are among the largest European democracy support organizations, carry out programs to bolster German democratic life alongside their work all around the developing world. The private American foundations with the largest reach overseas and reputations for innovation — such as the Gates Foundation, the Open Society Foundations (OSF), and the Ford Foundation — all combine their overseas work with substantial amounts of domestic activity. And in recent years they have begun to integrate some parts of their domestic and international agendas, focusing on problems that are common to the United States and other countries. OSF’s work on Internet freedom and Ford’s work on reducing inequality are two examples.

An opportunity to advance new thinking and action along these lines has recently presented itself. Last summer, the United States assumed the two-year chairmanship of the Community of Democracies, a global initiative aimed at bolstering democracy around the world that the United States helped launch in 2000. Officials at the State Department and White House who work on the Community of Democracies have been looking for a way to inject new ideas and energy into the U.S. chairmanship. Introducing a plan to fuse America’s commitment to democracy abroad with work aimed at democratic renovation at home would meet that need.

None of this will magically solve the credibility problem facing U.S. democracy assistance. But it would help. U.S. democracy groups would be able to assure foreign counterparts that they are part of an undertaking that involves tackling the same kinds of problems in the United States that they are attempting to solve abroad. This would be a much more compelling message to people abroad about how United States views its own democracy in relation to others.

Adding a domestic dimension would highlight to the broader U.S policy community the sensitivities of politically related assistance and help it understand better the wave of resistance to such work abroad. Imagine the touchiness that would arise among U.S. politicians if an aid group funded by the U.S. government sought to help overcome partisan gridlock in Congress, increase the representation of women in elected offices, or bolster the technical solidity of U.S. electoral processes. Being forced to navigate such political currents at home might help aid groups learn to do so more effectively abroad. If a U.S. senator argued, for example, that it is not the job of the government to sponsor legislative strengthening programs, the question would naturally follow: if not, then how is it the U.S. government’s job to sponsor them in other countries?

Taking down the geographic wall in democracy aid would open the door to ideas, examples, and talent relating to democratic innovations flowing into the United States from abroad. If U.S. democracy groups turned some attention to problems at home, they would be able to draw on their networks of activists and experts engaged in the same issues abroad and bring them into U.S. debates and reform activities.

A striking feature of debates over democratic deficiencies in the United States is their insularity from comparative experience. And to the extent that Americans do sporadically look beyond their borders for innovative approaches from abroad, they rarely look farther than Canada or Europe, missing out on the enormous pool of valuable practices and progress in other parts of the world. Of course, this change in the scope in U.S. democracy aid would not, in itself, be enough to overcome the deep-seated American resistance to political learning from abroad. But it would at least create some institutional channels for opening U.S. doors and minds to the possibility.

Making such a fundamental change in U.S. democracy aid would ruffle feathers and raise various practical issues. The ideas for doing so outlined above only scratch the surface. The structures of democracy aid have changed so little for so long that we’re out of the habit of thinking differently in this domain. But this fact should be an argument in favor of some experimentation and innovation, not a foreclosure of it. The world on which U.S. democracy assistance was built a generation ago has changed fundamentally, and the entire enterprise of democracy support is in question, both abroad and at home, in ways it never has been before. If it is to survive, it must move with the times. Breaking down the old wall between democracy “out there” and democracy at home would be a powerful way to start.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policys Democracy Lab.