America periodically flirts with the notion democracy is a homegrown product worthy of export, something like a holiday toy delivered in a box, assembled on site and roundly celebrated at its unveiling.
Of course, we learned long ago — and again in Iraq — that democracy does not spring fully formed from America’s mind. Rather, it best grows locally and slowly as it embraces and adapts and arranges the essential ingredients of a free society to fit the prevailing political, cultural and economic environment.
This very thing is occurring in one of the world’s most important yet fragile countries — Pakistan — which could become a major economy in this century.
And after a yearlong consultative process, with the support of a unique American nonprofit — the Center for International Private Enterprise or CIPE — the Pakistani government and private sector enacted landmark legislation that liberalized trade organization advocacy, strengthened anti-corruption measures, and, for the first time, permitted women to form their own business associations and have a real stake in Pakistan’s economic system.
For more than two decades, the National Endowment for Democracy, and its supporting organizations such as CIPE, have been doing exactly this kind of patient promotion of the values that have empowered our country since its founding. The National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have done heroic work overseas helping others build the mechanisms of democratic political competition — parties, elections, debate and accountability to the public and the press.
Less well known but as significant are the NED’s two other pillars that promote free market competition and workers’ rights — the underpinnings of the democratic systems we wish others to enjoy. For more than 20 years, CIPE has been quietly introducing free market ingredients to the developing world — as it did in Pakistan — and the Solidarity Center champions the labor agenda.
CIPE today works in some 60 countries, including Iraq, to develop programs to fight corruption, advance the role of women in business, promote legislative and regulatory reform, advocate transparent public and corporate governance and introduce market-oriented principles to entrepreneurs. These ingredients aren’t trendy or dramatic; they are, however, the real DNA of free market institutions without which stable, productive and democratic nations can’t be built.
Today, if we’re not careful, America’s willingness to share the ingredients of free market democracy could become the next casualty of the Iraq conflict. Since our foreign policy difficulties are usually conspicuous and our successes too often untold, Americans could come to believe the United States should play no part in developing free and democratic societies other than our own. Out of exasperation and war weariness, we might mistakenly abandon those little-seen but highly effective programs that have enjoyed the support of Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses for more than a generation.
Leaving the field could be America’s biggest mistake to date. In the global neighborhood in which we live and work, isolationism should be unthinkable, yet it periodically emerges in the rhetorical guise of “family first.”
But, finally, Americans must remember our long-term national security interests have been and will be advanced only through our active participation in the development and growth of free market institutions around the world. Concern for our neighbors is concern for ourselves — and we must be wise enough to plant the right ingredients, patient enough to allow their germination, and generous enough to support their development so more than a handful of emerging democracies will survive and one day flourish.
Greg Lebedev is chairman of the Center for International Private Enterprise.Top