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Don't Take Democracy for Granted

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, July 21, 1999.

By Jimmy Carter and Paul Wolfowitz

(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Last month Indonesia held its first free elections in more than 40 years. The balloting was overseen by a wide array of international observers, including an American delegation organized by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. Their efforts have laid the groundwork for Indonesia to become the world's third-largest democracy (after India and the U.S.) and a beacon of freedom for Asians and Muslims everywhere.

This is only the latest good work done by the two groups, loosely affiliated with the major U.S. political parties, which monitored an election in Nigeria earlier this year. Both groups are funded by a modest grant ($4 million each) provided by the National Endowment for Democracy.

Fifteen years ago President Reagan and Congress established the NED to spearhead America's nongovernmental efforts at assisting democratic movements around the world. The NED, which today has a budget of just $31 million, has been one of the most cost-effective investments our country has made to foster peace and democracy.

But last month a Senate subcommittee voted to discontinue funding for this vital program. The senators said they expect the State Department to fund the NED out of foreign-aid spending. This is an unlikely prospect, because the State Department hasn't made any provisions for the endowment.

Even if it did, that would undermine the NED's independence. The creation of the NED in the 1980s reflected a bipartisan belief that the promotion of freedom is an enduring American interest and that nongovernmental representatives would best be able to help their counterparts build democracy in other countries.

Today the full Senate is expected to consider an amendment sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) to restore funding for the NED. It would be a tragic mistake if we took for granted the current democratic trend in world affairs and decided to reduce our support for these efforts.

Like Indonesia, many important countries that have conducted elections -- among them Russia, Mexico and Nigeria -- need the support of free nations in order to consolidate democratic gains. We must also help movements in Asia and the Middle East striving peacefully to democratize authoritarian countries. And we need to encourage free and fair elections as part of the reconstruction effort in the Balkans. Defunding the NED would undermine this important mission.

Mr. Carter, a former president, led a delegation organized by the National Democratic Institute and The Carter Center, to supervise Nigeria's and Indonesia's elections. Mr. Wolfowitz, ambassador to Indonesia under President Reagan, was a member of that delegation and serves on the board of the NED.

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