To eliminate redundancy with constrained budgets and growing demand: Is it time to merge IRI and NDI?


Mara Herd

This is a post I started a few years ago and let sit.  I usually avoid writing about things that directly mention the International Republican Institute other than as specifically necessary in regard to the 2007 election in Kenya and some advocacy for people arrested in Egypt.   It’s awkward for a lot of reasons to write about IRI,  the most personally important of which is my deep affection for people that work there.  And to the extent I have criticisms it would be my desire that they become better rather than that they be harmed.

Nonetheless, I think the structure of democracy assistance is something we need to think about and almost everyone who is in a position to be engaged is also in a position to feel constrained from speaking freely or has an unavoidable conflict of interest.  And its is an especially challenging time for the effort to share or support democracy so I am going to suck it up and proceed:


In an era of hyperpartisanship in the U.S. we are also faced with a divided government and a real question about our collective ability to do the basic business of governance in terms of passing budgets, for instance.

More specific to democracy support, the old notion that “politics stops at the water’s edge” is long dead. Every issue anywhere is contested space between Democrats and Republicans in grappling for power. [The attack on the U.S. government facility in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 being perhaps the most conspicuous example.] There are profound divisions in a few areas of policy and culture between the Republican and Democratic base voters.  Nonetheless, it is also clear, ironically perhaps, that in the present moment there is not any clearly identified and coherent policy difference between the parties on foreign affairs as such. Now in the early stages of the 2013-16 presidential campaign, Republican Senator Rand Paul appears to be his party’s front runner for the nomination. The traditional Republican foreign policy establishment has less disagreement on specific points of foreign policy with the Obama Administration than with Senator Paul. And much of its membership would presumably in private vote for a Democrat seen as somewhat more hawkish and interventionist than Obama, such as for instance Hillary Clinton, than for Paul. Some piece of the base of the Democratic Party might well feel obligated to vote for Paul over Clinton in a general election if it came to it.

Referencing the policies of the most recent Republican Administration, which was in office when I worked for IRI in East Africa, there is no reason to think that Jeb Bush, for instance, believes in the “Bush Doctrine” and certainly Ron Paul doesn’t.  Foreign policy was important in the 2008 Democratic primaries and in the 2008 general election and there was at that time a sharp perceived difference between Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin over the aspects of foreign policy that were important to most voters and that difference was essential to Obama’s election.  Not so much in 2012 in either the Republican primaries or in the general election.  All presidential elections matter with great intensity for Washington foreign policy people because they decide who gets what jobs (like do you go to the State Department or stay at IRI or NDI or some think tank) and in general everyone is either Democrat or Republican and either wins completely or loses completely, heads or tails, each time.  For most American voters the relationship of parties and elections to foreign affairs is completely different.

The traditions of the Democratic and Republican foreign policy establishment in Washington are based on the Cold War, like the structure of the National Endowment of Democracy itself, with IRI and NDI along with the overseas arms of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO as its “core” “private” institutes. Relatedly this tradition and structure is also critically Eurocentric. Going on a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union the terms of the contest between a democratic Washington and an authoritarian Moscow are very different in Europe itself today–and much less of immediate relevance in, say, Africa. The old days of the American Democrats supporting the democratic left in Europe and the American Republicans supporting the right–both as a pro-American alternative to Soviet-aligned Communists–are interesting history that we should learn more from, but they are history.  And we are not nearly so Eurocentric now in our policies and relationships in Africa, Asia and Latin America, so we have different types of opportunities to support democracy and its related values in those regions rather than dividing everyone up as pro-Western Bloc versus pro-Eastern Bloc.

In practice today, I don’t see the Democratic Party in power in Washington really aligned with the “democratic left” in other countries, given the lack of need to shore up against Marxist/Communist forces (among other reasons) nor much particular interest in the Republican Party in supporting more rightist or conservative parties abroad per se.  Generally Republican and Democrat campaign and media consultants, like lobbyists, seem to work for whoever they come to terms with commercially in any given emerging or frontier market rather than on the basis of some coherent party related framework.

Formally, IRI and NDI are completely overlapping as they are both non-partisan.  Occasionally they are said to be “affiliated” with their respective parties, but more frequently they are said to have “no connection” to parties.  Ultimately this is simply confusing and unclear–and not really consistent with the principles that the organizations are trying to teach to others.  In Germany where the government funds overseas institutes of the parties, the law is different and the government provides funding for the parties themselves in a way that would presumably be unconstitutional in the United States.  So you don’t have a counterpart to this strange melange of “nonpartisan Republican” or “nonpartisan Democratic” even though the German organizations are said to be a model for setting up IRI and NDI back in the early 1980s.

In my personal experience, I had the clear impression that IRI was quite serious about being legally compliant in terms of the 501(c)(3) nonpartisan formalities [and this was noteworthy in an  a organization that did not have an overall compliance component at that time–I am not going to be a whistleblower or even a public critic on this but have noted that they have gotten in at least a little difficulty with the government for ignoring cost accounting regulations that I told them they shouldn’t ignore when I worked for them].  I have no reason to assume that NDI is not equally serious.  In the case of IRI, with the chairman running for president two different times during his tenure, they know that the Democrats have had incentive to catch them if they were to get tangled with a Republican campaign; and of course everything is potentially tit-for-tat in that regard for the other side.

At the same time, both parties have an incentive to make as much use of “their” respective unaffiliates as permissible on a mutally backscratching basis.  While there are certain cultural and stylistic differences in how this plays out–as any observer of the current American political scene can well imagine–I don’t think this warrants the whole separate infrastructure of two duplicate organizations.  For instance, unaffliliated Republicans could still do programming at the Republican National Convention and unaffiliated Democrats could still do programming at the Democratic National Convention even if it was under the umbrella of one unaffiliated nonpartisan organization instead of two separate unaffiliated nonpartisan organizations. And the unaffiliated Republicans could apply a conservative orientation to have programming that is solid, on-message stuff supporting the party line; and the unaffiliated Democrats could be liberal-minded and have a “soft power” approach that involves people on both sides at the convention of their side.

One of the haunting questions for all of us I think now should be whether we did our best in South Sudan before things came apart and what can we change to do better going forward. Just as with me in Kenya in 2007 and 2008. Can we improve and be more effective by making some changes on our part, in the things that we have complete control over?

Without editorial comment, here is a story from the New Mexico Independent from July 2009 about an IRI trip (link is no longer available since I did my original draft of this post, but here is the link for a more extensive story from the reporter’s blog if you are interested, “Heather Wilson announces her plans on Facebook”):

Heather Wilson headed to Sudan, Kenya

Ex-U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson is headed to Sudan and Kenya “as part of a democracy-building and security mission tomorrow,” the Albuquerque Journal’s Michael Coleman reported.

Coleman also spoke to Wilson about her thoughts on the 2010 gubernatorial run.

“It’s a scandal a day out here, and somebody’s got to clean up this mess,” Wilson told me in a telephone conversation, referring to the rash of public corruption scandals during Gov. Bill Richardson’s tenure. “If the Democrats are telling you the Republicans are in disarray they must be looking in the mirror.”

Coleman pointed out that Wilson has been hit by Democrats over her potential involvement in the David Iglesias firing.

Wilson has not made a decision on whether or not to run for governor. She lost to Steve Pearce in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate last year. Pearce went on to lose to Democrat Tom Udall in the general election.

3 thoughts on “To eliminate redundancy with constrained budgets and growing demand: Is it time to merge IRI and NDI?

  1. Excellent blog Ken. You make a compelling case. I’ve often wondered why each party had to have its own institute or even had to have its party name in the title. As you rightly point out, there’s no difference between the people/groups each institute works with in a country. There certainly is no broader global right/left framework. In a developing country you generally have your pro western/anti-western people and both institutes generally work with the pro-western folks. Having the party names is confusing and adds no value to the brand. I think it was one of the things that made sense 30 years but doesn’t today. Plus Lorne and (and probably Ken I assume) used to brag about attending big meetings together and showing a united front on democracy promotion issues, which certainly begs the question of being separately. The tough thing, of course, would be the logistical and political nightmare of consolidating the two groups!

  2. Reblogged this on Non-state actors and commented:
    One former insider muses about merging the loosely party-affiliated US democracy promotion institutes, IRI and NDI. He is surely right that there is more overlap than differentiation in their work. That is even somewhat true with the two main German party foundations. I remember in 1990s Morocco it was Germany’s conservative Adenauer foundation that provided more support to feminist and secular currents in civil society, rather than the social democrats one would have imagined as closer in spirit to the Moroccan ‘espace alternative’. But an IRI-NDI merger or rapprochement would surely be a bad thing. It would strengthen the US ‘democracy promotion’ machine, and erase some of the Chinese walls that keep the more-or-less defendable bits of what NDI does (support for liberal NGOs against some authoritarian regimes) separate from the subversive and dirty tricks stuff that goes on outside, but not completely disconnect from the IRI. Inside Europe, a IRI-NDI merger would increase the respectability of the US outfit. So something to keep an eye on…

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.