Trump State Department Accused of Abandoning Global Democracy in New Budget

The State Department is seeking to drastically cut funding to a decades-old non-profit that makes grants to support pro-American and pro-democracy media outlets, labor groups, and human rights organizations across the globe.

As outlined in its fiscal 2019 budget request released in February, the State Department wishes to cut funding for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) by two-thirds, from an estimated $168 million in 2018 to $67 million next year. The State Department also says it wants to transfer funds from the NED's core institutes, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, to general State Department coffers open for competition.

It is unclear whether Congress will approve the cuts and changes to the NED.

"The proposed cuts are devastating but not surprising, and the Congress will have the last word," NED President Carl Gershman told Newsweek. "This is not a budget issue. It doesn’t save any money. It’s a structure that has worked overtime, giving NED the ability to respond quickly in a comprehensive, coherent, and unbureaucratic way to difficult challenges. Casting it aside is short-sighted, politically as well as programmatically, since this is a core part of the Reagan legacy that is being discarded."

Gershman added to The Washington Post that that move would amount to "sending a signal far and wide that the United States is turning its back on supporting brave people who share our values."

In total, the Trump administration is expecting to cut State Department expenditures by 25 percent in 2019. A State Department official told Newsweek that the proposed cuts reflected "the Administration’s budget request to not directly request funds for independent non-profit organizations that are also eligible to compete for funds."

department of state A U.S. national flag and its shadow on the Harry S. Truman Building at the Department of State. Larry Downing/Files/Reuters

The NED was founded in 1983 at the behest of President Ronald Reagan. At the time, the CIA and other government agencies received much criticism for their covert funding and support for pro-American factions abroad. 

"A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA," NED acting president David Ignatius said in a 1991 interview. "The biggest difference is that when such activities are done overtly, the flap potential is close to zero. Openness is its own protection."

The NED has since remained a private, 501(c)3 organization, but the vast majority of its funding comes from Congress. The NED also receives a small amount of revenue from the Journal of Democracy, its official publication, and from private donors. According to its website, the NED gives out over 1,200 grants per year, with the average grant about $50,000.

The NED's ties to the American government—and its interests—have cast doubt on the non-profit's professed independence. In 2015, as reported by The Guardian, Russia banned the NED under a law against "undesirable" international non-governmental agencies, claiming that it "[posed] a threat to the constitutional order of the Russian Federation and the defensive capability and security of the government."

The ban elicited a scathing response from Gershman in The Washington Post.

"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin may claim that the National Endowment for Democracy and other nongovernmental organizations are 'a threat to Russia’s basic constitutional order,'.... But it is the regime itself that has been undermining Russia’s constitutional order through repression, corruption and international aggression," Gershman wrote.

The NED has been credited with helping to topple Communist regimes in the 1980s, particularly in Poland, but criticism of the NED has not been limited to Russia. Politicians and foreign policy analysts have charged the NED with supporting movements and organizations that fit squarely with U.S. foreign policy interests, regardless of the recipients' true intent on promoting genuine democratic reforms in their country.

In 2002, for example, the NED was charged with funding opposition groups in Venezuela who actively sought to overthrow the democratically-elected government of President Hugo Chavez. Four years later, the non-profit was also criticized for aiding groups in Haiti linked to the country's elite and military allies of ousted President Jean Bertrand Aristide.

In 2005, after President George W. Bush asked Congress to double the funding to the NED, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas criticized the non-profit as "an organization that uses U.S. tax money to actually subvert democracy, by showering funding on favored political parties or movements overseas."