Ending Forever Wars But Not Interventionism: Rethinking U.S. Civil Society Assistance Policy
What does it mean to exercise “restraint” in foreign policy? Increasingly, the term is associated with the use of military force. With campaign promises to “end forever wars,” extricate the United States from “unwinnable conflicts,” and rely first and foremost on tools of diplomacy and alliances, President Joe Biden has indicated a strong preference for a more restrained approach to U.S. grand strategy. Restraint has found increasing bipartisan support in Washington, D.C., with substantial numbers of progressives on the left and “America First” populists supporting reductions in U.S. interventions in the internal politics of other countries.
But should the United States demonstrate restraint in other, non-military areas of foreign policy?
As support for restraint appears to grow in America’s strategic community, other forms of intervention are likely to persist. Engagement with civil society organizations in developing countries is a central element of Biden’s foreign policy. A recurrent campaign promise was to host a 2021 Summit for Democracy featuring “civil society organizations from around the world that stand on the frontlines of defense of democracy.”
Supporting civil society organizations differs from U.S. military campaigns but extending material support to on-the-ground actors that try to advance political change in other countries is a form of political intervention. It is also a longstanding and bipartisan U.S. policy — from President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda to President Barack Obama’s Stand with Civil Society Initiative — that may be due for reconsideration. Current U.S. practices are encumbered by overly expansive and inconsistent expectations, are not clearly supported by available evidence, and expose the United States to credible charges that it advances double standards.
Future material support for civil society groups abroad should reduce the political or advocacy dimensions of such assistance and focus more on services and humanitarian projects. It should also be based on strategies developed cooperatively with other governments, and feature more circumspect rhetoric from U.S. policymakers. These are difficult and fraught recommendations to make, but they are more consistent with a restrained and less interventionist approach to foreign policy.
U.S. Support for Civil Society
U.S. expectations for civil society organizations are very ambitious. They are also based on an understanding of how civil society groups operate that features some internal tensions. This unclear framing likely sends mixed signals to foreign leaders about U.S. intentions and objectives.
Civil society is commonly associated with nongovernmental organizations and associations created and maintained voluntarily by citizens to advance or protect shared values or material interests. Though broad, this conceptualization is largely shared across U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. The 2014 presidential memorandum launching the Stand with Civil Society Initiative highlighted some common examples, including “nongovernmental organizations, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.”
Each year almost $500 million of U.S. assistance is extended to civil society organizations abroad, though a good chunk of this money is channeled through large U.S. or international nongovernmental organizations. Beyond material support, U.S. policy emphasizes diplomatic engagement and appearances alongside civil society groups to increase their visibility and influence in other countries.
The outcomes associated with a “strong” civil society are as broad as the concept itself. They are “an essential ingredient of development” and a way to “reduce global fragility,” according to advocates. The Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy encapsulates these vast expectations in one paragraph:
Through civil society, citizens come together to hold their leaders accountable and address challenges. Civil society organizations often drive innovations and develop new ideas and approaches to solve social, economic, and political problems that governments can apply on a larger scale. Moreover, by giving people peaceful avenues to advance their interests and express their convictions, a free and flourishing civil society contributes to stability and helps to counter violent extremism.
Policymakers prefer to highlight that civil society actors are assertive but operate through conventional political methods. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development 2013 Strategy on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance explains that the agency “will invest in building the capacity of CSOs [civil society organizations] to perform analytical research, gather data, present findings, and advocate on issues that promote accountable governance.”
Despite this emphasis on institutional methods, policymakers have not shied from linking past support to civil society to more contentious political tactics, including nonviolent regime change. Touting “the Bush record,” a White House website argued that George W. Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda “supported the emergence of democracies in Georgia and Ukraine through its support for civil society and democratic activists during the successful Rose Revolution in Georgia and Orange Revolution in Ukraine.”
While the Obama administration was more circumspect and hesitant — famously paraphrasing the president’s post-Iraq war doctrinal principle as “don’t do stupid shit” — his team also lauded the role of civil society groups in nonviolent conflicts. During a speech in May 2011, Obama explained that “we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths. … For the fact is, real reform does not come at the ballot box alone.” These bold if deliberately vague claims may have been the product of the heady days of the Arab Spring, but a senior adviser on Middle East policy recognized that the Obama administration was embracing elements of his predecessor’s Freedom Agenda:
In another great irony of history, whereas the younger [President] Bush had for all practical purposes abandoned that agenda [i.e., the Freedom Agenda] by the end of his presidency, Obama — driven by unexpected public uprisings in the [Middle East] region — would soon find himself trying to implement it.
These claims cast U.S. engagement with civil society in a different light. Beyond merely anodyne attempts to enliven public engagement in policy debates, support for civil society could be viewed as an effort to influence a country’s internal political processes or even lay the organizational basis for regime change efforts, albeit nonviolent ones.
And some foreign leaders may indeed be confused by these mixed signals. From the perspective of the Russian political elite, “the pattern of color revolutions, democracy promotion and American regime change interventions [e.g., in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan], they view these actions not as different arms of American foreign policy, but as different tools of a unified American policy that seeks to change various countries around the globe to better suit their interests.” When the Russian parliament passed legislation in 2012 to curb foreign funding of Russian nongovernmental organizations, an architect of the bill cited regime change as a motive for the law: “There is so much evidence about regime change in Yugoslavia, now in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, in Kosovo — that’s what happens in the world, some governments are working to change regimes in other countries.” Prominent Chinese public intellectuals subsequently praised the Russian nongovernmental organization law, including one former People’s Liberation Army major general who argued in 2014 that “Chinese authorities should eliminate the danger brought by pro-Western agents … We can learn from Russia by introducing a ‘foreign agent law,’ so as to block the way for infiltration of external forces and eliminate the possibilities of a color revolution.” Nor are Russia and China the only governments expressing wariness of foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations. In 2012, then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh questioned the role of United States-funded nongovernmental groups for their involvement in anti-nuclear power protests.
Ironically, while U.S. policymakers sometimes rhetorically link civil society support with nonviolent regime change, a significant proportion of U.S. civil society assistance may have very limited influence on such dynamics. In countries where the United States has a strong strategic partnership with or interests in stabilizing an existing regime, U.S. civil society support is more likely to be directed to U.S. as opposed to local nongovernmental organizations in order to maintain control and accountability over what recipient organizations do. In other contexts where U.S. relations with the incumbent regimes are more tenuous, foreign-funded activists face a high likelihood of future regulatory obstacles or government interference if they engage in pressure tactics. Such interference would imperil their ability to obtain subsequent foreign support, and so they pursue a survival strategy and engage mostly in “tame” activities that are unlikely to challenge the status quo.
This represents another potential shortcoming of U.S. civil society policy: At the highest levels, policymakers advance bold claims that unnerve other governments but on the ground, the work is usually more ambiguous and reserved. However, given the stakes, politicians in other countries can hardly be faulted for wondering about U.S. government statements about the role of civil society in political reforms and nonviolent regime change — including the Biden administration’s signaling of strong engagement with civil society organizations.
Civil Society Outcomes
Do civil society organizations meet the lofty expectations of policymakers? Do they contribute to stability and reform? The evidence for any such relationships is mixed.
For example, across municipalities in Bolivia, the number of nongovernmental organizations present in a city or town is positively associated with street protest events, particularly where electoral fraud is more common or confidence in elections is low. Carew Boulding, the researcher behind this analysis, notes the following:
Instead of acting as training grounds for the type of citizenship we associate with developed democracies, [nongovernmental organizations] may also be invoking much more contentious and less predictable forms of participation. Protest may well be a necessary and vital part of democratic participation, but it is rarely what advocates of civil society have in mind when they advocate for [nongovernmental organizations].
These conclusions were similar to those from another study that found a sometimes positive relationship between civil society mobilization and civil war onset and warned “that donors should earmark and allocate funds carefully in countries with underdeveloped or struggling [civil society organizations].” Other studies have found that as international nongovernmental organizations focused on human rights increase their presence within countries, violent protests occur more frequently and that in countries with high levels of inequality, civil society may be coopted by the state to more efficiently target certain identity groups with state-based violence.
Taken together, these studies point to a potentially troubling relationship between civil society organizations, political instability, and political violence. But this is not a systematic review. If anything, research points to a wide variety of contradictory outcomes. Some studies find that civil society participation “makes democracy work,” while others show how civil society has supported ethno-nationalist and illiberal political movements. Other research finds that civil society organizations improve civil war peace negotiations and drive gender-based, human rights, labor, or environmental reforms. Still, others find that many pro-democracy civil society groups are mostly “tame,” engage in largely inconsequential activities, and rely mostly on an aimless “technology of talk.”
A major complication may be rooted in the civil society concept itself.
The Varieties of Democracy initiative defines civil society as “populated by groups of citizens organized to act in pursuit of their interests, broadly conceived (both material and ideal).” This definition largely comports with those of USAID and the U.S. State Department and with other U.S. government statements.
This definition encompasses a much broader array of social enterprises beyond the ideal of a civil society organization. The Taliban, MS-13, and the Proud Boys all qualify as “groups of citizens organized to act in pursuit of their interests, broadly conceived (both material and ideal).” This may be why studies reach such disparate conclusions about the impact of civil society organizations: Heterogeneous inputs should produce heterogeneous outcomes.
The vastness of the civil society concept may also lead to some convenient intellectual elision. Policymakers typically do not have the Taliban in mind when they claim to support “civil society” groups. Instead, civil society has largely become synonymous with generally liberal and pro-democracy activist groups that often advance ideological or political preferences that are not always aligned with a country’s or society’s prevailing status quo. The definition, however, appears to be far more neutral — essentially just a form of voluntarism. By calling groups that receive support “civil society organizations,” assistance may seem more demure, benign, or apolitical, at least from the donor perspective. But civil society assistance arguably could constitute something potentially more transgressive on the ground.
Perceptions and Regulation of Civil Society in the United States and Abroad
Unsurprisingly, many governments — most prominently Russia and China, both of which have instituted restrictions on foreign funding of civil society — criticize and try to impede U.S. civil society assistance. Other authoritarian regimes have imposed similar limits. In many places, civil society groups are not only deprived of foreign funds; their members are also arbitrarily detained and targeted with violence.
Though it’s a far cry from authoritarian crackdowns, democratic and democratizing countries such as India, Poland, Israel, Austria, and Australia have also passed or tabled new requirements on civil society groups to reveal or limit overseas funding. Concerns about foreign funding of civil society are codified in U.S. law, too. Individuals and organizations engaged in political or other activities that receive foreign funding are obligated to register with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law passed in the 1930s and revised in the 1960s and 1990s. Groups must file a report of the funds they receive and spend, their associated activities, and the names and addresses of those involved. This information is made available in a publicly accessible internet database.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, which has been described as “wildly underenforced,” seems to reflect U.S. debates about the influence of foreign funding for domestic advocacy. From recent reports detailing the tens of millions of dollars that foreign governments provide to influential Washington, D.C.-based think tanks and controversies about Chinese and China-funded academics in the United States to older disputes about the supposed foreign-funded lobbying behind the 2005 U.S.-Indian civil nuclear pact, these concerns are recurrent. No evidence at all has emerged that such funds sway any work from think tanks or academics, and many concerns appear tinged by kneejerk fears of “foreign influence.”
The Foreign Agents Registration Act is very different from nongovernmental organization laws in Russia, China, and elsewhere, and America’s treatment of civil society groups is far less repressive. The act does not limit the amount of funds that civil society organizations may accept from foreign sources, only mandating that such funds must be reported. But others have pointed out that the act’s language is so broad that it could “curtail speech and undermine civil society’s ability to address pressing national and global challenges.” Members of Congress have proposed increasing Foreign Agents Registration Act reporting requirements and designations of foreign media networks.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Biden adopted a hard-line stance on foreign influence activities, stating:
There is no reason why a foreign government should be permitted to lobby Congress or the Executive Branch, let alone interfere in our elections. If a foreign government wants to share its views with the United States or to influence its decision-making, it should do so through regular diplomatic channels.
This stance was clearly adopted with Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections in mind, but if other countries followed such a standard it might preclude U.S. government funding for civil society organizations that interact with government officials overseas (though there are legal distinctions between “lobbying” and “advocacy”).
Support for regulation like the Foreign Agents Registration Act is high in some countries. Over 80 percent of respondents opposed U.S. funding for civil society groups in Egypt in 2012, and similar proportions supported requirements for civil society groups to reveal funding sources in Malawi in 2014. Overall confidence in nongovernmental groups can vary across countries, earning net negative ratings in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Germany, and South Korea. Citizens seem sharply divided over whether human rights groups should be allowed to “operate without government interference” in Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, and Tunisia. The wording of some of these questions is not great — who really opposes financial transparency? — and the results could reflect effective stigmatization by incumbent leaders. But many citizens in other countries appear to have reservations about civil society and foreign funding of civil society organizations.
Suspicions of foreign support for domestic civil society are not surprising —they exist in the United States, too. That the U.S. government regulates foreign funding of civil society while at times lauding its own civil society assistance programs abroad for aiding nonviolent regime change efforts is unlikely to assuage such concerns.
U.S. policy toward civil society groups in other countries merits reconsideration. Current U.S. expectations for the impact of civil society are overly broad and, at least rhetorically, signal a desire to achieve substantial political changes. Other governments perceive such efforts as a significant threat and undue interference. Meanwhile, as previously discussed, research suggests that the outcomes associated with civil society organizations are sometimes very different from U.S. policy expectations, potentially contributing to instability. Official and popular discussion on the role of overseas funding of U.S. civil society groups also makes U.S. support for civil society in other countries seem somewhat hypocritical.
Taken together, these conclusions suggest that U.S. policy on civil society does not achieve its aims of advancing stability and democracy and needlessly antagonizes other governments. It may even undermine the credibility and legitimacy the U.S. government needs to advance other key policy goals on climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and global public health cooperation, particularly with important counterparts in Russia, China, India, and elsewhere. Such credibility and legitimacy are sacrificed for no gain at all if civil society groups sometimes contributes to instability or even political violence.
The Biden administration should reconsider its approach to civil society support. Ending engagement with nongovernmental organizations is of course impossible given how vital they are for foreign assistance, development, humanitarian, and governance progress. Instead, three other adjustments may mitigate some of the challenges posed by current U.S. policy.
First, civil society assistance should favor economic and social services projects over political advocacy. There are of course no wholly apolitical issues, but good faith efforts by the U.S. government to avoid funding civil society organizations that lobby for or against specific political appointees and government officials, state institutional reforms, or significant government spending changes may go a long way. Admittedly, this leaves a lot of ambiguity and does not offer a strict rule for evaluating prospective projects. Funding an organization that engages in protests over a specific ministerial appointment may overstep some boundaries, but should the U.S. government fund an advocacy group seeking to advance an access to information bill or an independent think tank that publishes research demonstrating policy shortcomings or poor performance in specific government institutions? Obviously, these are tough judgment calls. Deep familiarity with the political context and recipient organizations may be the best way to ensure that political interference or blowback are minimized.
In any event, scaling back the political aspects of civil society assistance may not prove not too difficult, actually. Much U.S. civil society assistance programming already focuses on far less confrontational and more “tame” activities than occasional claims by policymakers that they support nonviolent protest campaigns suggest. Speaking of which, much more circumspection in policymaker rhetoric around civil society and nonviolent regime change is certainly needed.
This recommendation is informed by previous findings on the impact of foreign aid to reduce violence in civil war contexts. Such aid projects and resources have had mixed results and usually work only in already secure and stable locations. The same is likely true for civil society assistance: It will produce more openness, political reform, and general development and democratic benefits where there is already greater receptivity to civil society groups and the issues they advance.
Second, the first stop for U.S. civil society assistance in another country should be the host government. As is already common in much development assistance, civil society support strategies could be jointly built with those governments. No doubt governments — specifically authoritarian ones — will seek to exclude certain governance issues from these strategies, and the U.S. government could opt not to fund them if any proposed limits are too far afield from its objectives. But once forged, the strategy might allow for U.S. civil society assistance to proceed with fewer concerns about undue interference. Would this amount to giving authoritarian governments a free pass to stifle dissent and entrench their power? Perhaps, but, as discussed previously, it is not clear that supporting civil society groups would really delivery the stable political changes that the U.S. government seeks in these contexts. Moreover, extending such assistance raises once again the uncomfortable issue of whether U.S. policy is seeking regime change through its civil society assistance.
The United States could also seek out multilateral discussions to shape basic standards around civil society assistance. Though varied in their form and approach, China, Russia, and other countries clearly provide material support to politically consequential activities in other countries. It is easy to be skeptical about the prospects for such discussions or agreement, but an effort may send a useful signal of U.S. interest in finding common agreement and respecting other states’ perspectives.
Third, U.S. civil society support abroad should comply with how other countries’ activities are treated domestically. As others have argued, revisions to the Foreign Agents Registration Act would help, though current proposals look to extend its requirements. An alternative for the “foreign agent” term is worthwhile, given that it translates as “spy” in countries such as Russia, and clearer definitions for exempted activities around journalism, academic and scientific scholarship, and other activities are necessary. Once these are completed, the U.S. government could proactively provide data on the civil society organizations it funds to meet its own Foreign Agents Registration Act requirements.
At a level below policy, program officers making decisions on civil society support could engage in some useful thought experiments. They should ask themselves how they would perceive other governments extending similar support to civil society organizations in their country. Would they approve of a foreign government funding an organization that engaged on potentially hot-button issues such as grazing on federal land, small arms and light weapons policy, immigration issues, election management reform, or political appointees and senior officials? If an organization funded by a foreign government participated in street protests, would this constitute illegitimate interference? If these scenarios give one pause, then a U.S. civil society assistance project may warrant more thinking.
Reducing direct on-the-ground political interventions in other countries may lessen concerns among critical partners, such as India, and mitigate claims by Russia and China about U.S. meddling in the domestic affairs of other states. Changes to U.S. civil society assistance are not going to immediately transform relations with Russia, China, and others. These countries in particular will likely continue targeting advocacy groups and activists and probably attempt campaigns of interference in foreign states. But over time it may also reduce fears that the United States is trying to advance regime change as a strategic objective, concerns that may be motivating harsh anti-nongovernmental organization laws and stoking bilateral tensions.
These are not easy recommendations to make, and much of this analysis makes me uneasy. I have had the privilege to meet with and learn from civil society leaders and activists who work in challenging environments to advance meaningful progressive reforms that I wholeheartedly support. They are always inspiring, innovative, and courageous, and so it is difficult to conclude that their support should sometimes be curtailed.
But while I usually share this vision, I am not surprised if their compatriots and governments raise an eyebrow over their work and motives. U.S. foreign assistance for civil society could be interpreted as a form of political intervention – and U.S. rhetoric on regime change fails to ease such concerns. Consistent with a growing impetus for a more careful U.S. foreign policy, it may be time for more restraint in U.S. engagement with civil society groups in other countries.
Davin O’Regan is a post-doctoral research associate at the Center for International & Security Studies at Maryland, He researches the role of civil society in civil conflicts, both violent and nonviolent, among other topics. Previously he has worked as a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace and as a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.