Democracy in the Dark? – SAIS Dean Speaker’s Series: A Conversation with Damon Wilson

Read Time:3 Minute, 38 Second

Mustafa Ahmad

Edited by David Forner

On Feb. 7, 2023, in conjunction with SAIS Pride, the Dean’s Speaker Series hosted Damon Wilson, President and CEO of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In a discussion with SAIS Dean Jim Steinberg, Damon Wilson described his personal career trajectory and offered a current diagnosis of the global state of democracy. Wilson, who is openly gay, also met with members of the SAIS Pride club before his talk with Dean Steinberg.

Wilson described how he came to understand the importance of a healthy democracy through two of his childhood friends: one whose family fled from Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in Romania and another whose family were members of the Baha’i faith and faced religious persecution in Iran. Such formative experiences were key to the “hunger for public service” Wilson cultivated during his studies and early career. Per Wilson’s description, this hunger further crystallized during his internship at the National Security Council (NSC) at the same time when Dean Steinberg served as Deputy National Security Adviser.

In the aftermath of the 1990s, as Wilson described, the wave of democratization throughout much of the world was akin to “touching history,” a period where hope fueled millions to forge just and inclusive democracies. In Wilson’s experience, this was especially true as several post-Soviet states like Estonia—where Wilson spent some time as a Duke undergraduate student—worked to create new democracies for their people. 

However, as Wilson acknowledged, there were dark sides to this transition, some that he witnessed firsthand in the Balkans and Rwanda. In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Wilson worked with Save the Children to support children lost or separated during the conflict. From his experience with Save the Children, Wilson realized he no longer wanted to serve as a “neutral” actor but on the side of justice.  

Throughout their discussion, Dean Steinberg asked Wilson: What is the status of democracy today? How severe is the crisis of democracy on a global stage? Can democracy even be trusted to deliver good outcomes anymore?

In response, Wilson said, advocates of democratization missed several shortcomings amidst the euphoria of the 1990s. This misplaced euphoria partially led to the Iraq War’s outcomes and many nations’ struggle to respond to the Great Recession. Furthermore, as Wilson described, autocrats worldwide have not been “giving up without a fight.” At present, emboldened autocratic and semi-autocratic regimes are “exporting the tools of repression” worldwide, exacerbating the attack on global democracy. 

Wilson also noted that democracies have struggled to address contemporary challenges like rising socioeconomic inequality. For example, Wilson pointed out how democratization in Central and Eastern European nations exposed a sense of social cleavages with their Western European counterparts. Over time, these sentiments fueled populism and continue to challenge democracy in countries like Hungary.

Nonetheless, Wilson stated that he was a long-term optimist. “The verdict is still out,” Wilson said, as “the messiness of democracies” is not evidence that democracy does not work. As Wilson explained, democracy is not a guarantor of strong outcomes but a framework for organizing and issue resolution. 

Wilson offered Ukrainian democracy as an example of this dynamic: As one of NED’s largest projects, Ukraine’s fight against and coverage of political corruption is a credit to democracy rather than a denouncement. Wilson also cited how larger powers like China have tried to represent themselves as “redefining democracy” rather than confessing their autocratic tendencies. Furthermore, Wilson mentioned comparisons of regimes like North and South Korea or Taiwan and China, indicating that democracy and the rule of law are conducive to prosperity.

During the Q&A, Wilson reflected on his experiences at NED and throughout his career. For example, as a gay man working in countries or societies where his orientation may not be well-received, he saw NED’s role as empowering marginalized people for their own advocacy rather than imposing value systems. He also asserted that promoting global democracy is a common-cause issue, noting that NED’s budget doubled under the Trump administration due to bipartisan support in Congress.

Ultimately, as Wilson asserted, future policymakers and the global community face a crucial choice to guide the course of history: to accept the continuation of current events in furthering a democratic recession or work to usher in a “fourth democratic wave.”

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