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Pushing Back Against the Tyrants

How to counter the alarming authoritarian assault on civil society groups.

By Suzanne Nossel

Tagged Authoritarianismcivil societyDiplomacyHuman RightsNonprofitsObama Administration

Civil society worldwide is simultaneously prospering and imperiled. Around the globe, the civil society sector—leaders, organizations, and institutions that are independent of government—has exploded in diversity and dynamism. The Internet and social media have enabled activists to rally and spread their message more widely and at lower cost than ever before. The Obama Administration has elevated support of civil society as a pillar of its foreign policy, requiring diplomats and officials to reach beyond their usual government counterparts and work in partnership with citizens’ groups. Foreign governments, Western foundations, and international organizations have pumped in hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen civil society organizations as bulwarks for human rights and democracy. Organized civil society has taken its place alongside governments, militaries, and citizenries as a force to be reckoned with all over the world.gov

Yet increased influence and relevance for civil society has triggered a determined backlash. Authoritarian governments including Russia and China, as well as democracies like Israel, India, and Turkey, have gone on the attack, aiming to discredit and harass local groups, and, in some cases, to cut off the flow of foreign funds. Since 2012, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 50 nations—including countries on every continent and quite a few democracies—have enacted laws meant to hogtie civil society organizations and starve funding for their work. Having witnessed the power of the people in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and Ukraine’s Maidan, and now armed with punitive copycat laws that are being shared from one parliament to the next, governments are pushing back hard against the growing power of NGOs that are seen as challenging the state.

Examples abound: Russia has enacted a law requiring recipients of any foreign funding to register as foreign agents and has banished Western foundations including the Open Society Foundations and the U.S. Russia Foundation from operating in the country, making it a crime for Russians to so much as possess their material. Uganda passed a similar law in 2015, targeting “subversive methods of work and activities” in the NGO sector and requiring that any foreign NGO employees be vetted by a Ugandan diplomatic installation abroad before being allowed to enter the country. Venezuela’s 2011 “Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination” gives the government power to impose fines of up to double the amount that local NGOs receive from foreign funders, prohibits violators from running for office, and heavily penalizes groups that invite foreigners who publicly express “opinions that offend state institutions.”

Egypt has carried out armed raids on local NGOs and, in 2013, tried, convicted, and sentenced to jail 43 representatives of U.S.-based and international NGOs including Freedom House and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The United States has registered serious concerns with a proposed Israeli law that would require NGOs receiving substantial foreign funding to announce the same at any public gathering where they appear. China recently passed a law restricting the ability of foreign NGOs to operate in the country unless they are sponsored by a government arm. Local NGOs there have faced harassment, shutdown, and prosecutions.

As the intensity of this totalitarian retort sinks in, Washington policymakers, private foundations, and large global NGOs face a quandary. The last thing they want to do is give in to the likes of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and other repressive leaders bent on squelching independent voices. They’ve searched for back channels, encrypted technologies, and third-party conduits to enable their partners on the ground to skirt restrictive laws while still receiving needed aid. They believe that supporting civil society is no longer optional but is essential when defending U.S. interests and advancing universal values worldwide.

Increased influence for civil society has triggered a determined backlash.

Amid the bravado, though, there is grim recognition that the very sustenance intended to nurture and develop local activists and organizations can now place them in peril. Those who consort with international benefactors are vulnerable to being impugned as stooges of foreign governments, or even held criminally liable for evading local anti-NGO laws. One of the most troubling aspects of the crackdown is that, in Russia, Israel, India, and elsewhere, it has rallied strong popular opposition to local NGOs from citizens. In Kenya, the government has sought to discredit NGOs by linking them to terrorism. Rather than siding with groups that exist to advance rights and empowerment, citizenries are too often ready to accept government-peddled narratives about the illegitimacy and corruption of foreign-funded projects. Governments have skillfully played on evocative tropes including xenophobia, homophobia, racism, religion, and traditionalism to paint advocates of rights and reform as subversive and representative of the “other.” As Peter Aling’o, a senior researcher at the Nairobi Institute for Security Studies has said: “NGOs are painted extremely negatively in the face of the public. The narrative is that NGOs are not patriotic; they go to the West to look for money, they deploy this money for their own selfish ends, they are not using it for the public, they are not accountable to anybody, they are using that money to support terrorist and criminal activity. So public sympathy is increasingly in favor of the government’s negative perception of civil society in Kenya.”

Global trends including the rise of technology and connectivity, the trans-border nature of global conflicts and threats, the empowerment of women, rising educational levels, and growing awareness of individual rights have fueled the rise of civil society as among the most powerful forces in the world to address problems ranging from global health to religious conflict to the protection of human rights.

Where governments cannot or will not tackle these issues, civil society can step in. Where governments are capable and willing, civil society provides a bulwark against the endemic ills of official corruption, insularity, and bureaucracy. Civil society is also an incubator for independent-minded political leadership. It is the very potency of civil society that has prompted repressive governments to treat the sector as a threat. The outcome of this worsening hostile standoff could determine the pace of democratic and social progress worldwide.

The concept of civil society dates back to Aristotle, who referred to a “community” that worked to advance “common wellbeing” through structures and methods distinct from the state. Today, civil society is defined as organizations, associations, and institutions that are independent from government and that form a layer of organization and activity that sits in between the family and the state. Over the last two decades civil society has gained strength and attention as patterns of organization and mobilization once confined to Western democracies have emerged across the globe. Civicus, a worldwide alliance of NGOs formed in 1993, now counts members in more than 145 countries. Vivid illustrations of the power and influence of civil society are witnessed in the movement for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the global environmental movement, and the popular mobilization against globalization that now manifests regularly at international gatherings of heads of state and economic officials.

Over this time, civil society has gone global in several respects: Country-based non-governmental organizations have forged coalitions that transcend national boundaries and collaborated on international campaigns; new democracies have witnessed the rise of local, homegrown civil society organizations; and Western-based organizations have spread out, setting up branches worldwide, often staffed by local nationals. The influence of this sector has become an indispensable force in multiple arenas: securing global treaties and agreements—such as the international bans on landmines and cluster munitions, climate change protocols, and nuclear non-proliferation agreements; responding to natural disasters, epidemics, and environmental threats; and helping to bring economic development, education, and health to hundreds of millions.

For all these reasons, civil society has become both more important and more dangerous in the eyes of governments. So much so that authorities in China, Azerbaijan, Russia, and elsewhere have constituted government-controlled entities that pose as NGOs (so-called GONGOs or government-organized NGOs) with the objective of claiming the mantle of citizen-based credibility in order to defend government positions. Civil society is ever more important to the United States, Europe, and other rights-respecting governments as a potential ally, an arbiter of legitimacy, a catalyst for change, a force for democratization, and a conduit to reach ordinary citizens. And for exactly the same reasons, it is more dangerous than ever to governments in China, Russia, Uganda, and elsewhere.

The Obama Administration’s decision to prioritize civil society worldwide remains an admirable policy choice, premised on a sophisticated understanding of the central role civil society organizations play in light of the truism that government is not the solution to every problem. Civil society has been the driving force behind the advancement of a wide range of U.S. foreign-policy priorities, from curbing the spread of Ebola to meeting the needs of refugees in Syria, Turkey, and throughout Europe, to curbing astronomical rates of sexual assault in Guatemala, and advancing the status of women in dozens of other countries. With rising awareness that simply holding elections does not a democracy make, investments in civil society are central to democracy promotion—helping to provide the education, information, and accountability without which voting can be an empty exercise. Even—and especially—in the most repressive settings, civil society can operate as a safety valve, allowing citizens to fix some of their own problems, to help others in need, and to press for reform. Civil society is the most viable long-term counterweight against the deep, uncompromising, and immovable state, which is the most potent anti-democratic force in the world.

Yet, at least in some places, Western embrace may risk becoming the bear hug that suffocates local civil society. Soaring rhetoric about the importance of civil society, faraway meetings, training programs, and generous grants have colored how local civil society activists are perceived, not just by the governments they challenge, but by the people they aim to represent and serve. Seizing any opportunity to impeach their critics, self-serving governments have gone on the attack, seeking to stigmatize and smear local civil society organizations. Disadvantaged and repressed populations with limited access to independent media and objective information accept these false narratives. They are willing to believe that Greenpeace in India will stall the country’s economy, that traveling lectures by Israeli veterans speaking against the occupation are a threat to the state, and that Memorial, a distinguished Russian human rights group founded by Andrei Sakharov, is a foreign plant aimed at harming the Kremlin.

The United States government’s embrace of civil society, through a White House-led campaign called “Stand with Civil Society,” has been deliberately high-profile, aiming to shine a spotlight on an often-overlooked sector. Launched in 2013, the initiative was given prominence when President Obama chaired a meeting of heads of state that year to discuss shared efforts to promote civil society. The President said at that session:

[I]t’s my strong belief that the strength and success of all countries and all regions depends in part on protecting and supporting civil society. . . . So the instructions to my team and my government are that we are going to put our full support behind these efforts. . . . And we do so because, ultimately, we believe that governments that are representative and accountable to their people are going to be more peaceful, they’re going to be more prosperous, they’re going to be better partners for us. It is not just charity; it is something that we believe is in our national interests and our security interests.

Obama acknowledged that with the rise of civil society had come a sharp backlash in the form of government pressure and constrictions, commenting, “governments that restrict civil society are sharing their worst practices.” He vowed to lead an international effort to “do more to stand against restrictions on civil society and better coordinate our diplomacy when the government tries to stifle civil society.”

The optics of this signature initiative surely lifted the spirits of civil-society advocates around the world. They helped raise the profile of decades-long efforts by foundations, including the Open Society, Ford, and MacArthur Foundations, to direct significant portions of their funds away from large, Western organizations and toward smaller groups working on the frontlines around the world. But the fanfare may also have inadvertently played into the hands of governments that seek to bind global civil society and U.S. foreign policy interests tightly together in the eyes of their populations and then cast this unholy alliance as dangerous to their national sovereignty. In recent years, U.S. policymakers and foundations have faced the risk of turning the promotion of civil society into a visibly made-in-America project.

Repressive governments have been able to self-servingly define and discredit civil society and the very term “NGO,” putting human rights and democracy groups in particular in the crosshairs. While human rights and democracy promotion work is essential (and often all but impossible to fund locally in the places where it is most needed), it is only a small part of the full-fledged civil society that buttresses a thriving democracy. Civil society can and should be defined much more broadly: as a big tent including labor unions, chambers of commerce, religious institutes, youth movements, universities, museums, arts organizations, professional societies, scientific organizations, charities, and trade groups. This broader definition of civil society provides many uncontroversial public goods and touches large segments of a local population directly, through their employers, community services, churches, and local businesses. The way the terms “civil society” and “NGO” are now used in many parts of the world, they signify politically oriented, reform-minded and internationally connected organizations, a constituency that is easier to ostracize and discredit than is civil society writ large.

Another problem relates less to the “what” of civil society and more to the “who.” Partly due to the demands of securing and managing Western funds, supported civil society organizations are often populated by professionals selected for their issue-specific skills and expertise, often acquired abroad, and knowledge of English; these qualifications can take precedence over local stature, clout, or credibility. Of necessity, organizations receiving Western support must hire staff capable of producing meticulous financial reporting and detailed proposals and reports in English. The most influential independent local civil society icons who would be hardest to delegitimize—reputable businesspeople, clergy, labor leaders, writers, publishers, intellectuals, academics, media personalities—are often ill-equipped to respond to U.S. government or foundation requests for proposals relating to their work. They may also not self-identify as part of civil society or an NGO, nor construe their work as fitting under the rubrics that Western governments and foundations fund. Those that do fit the paradigm neatly tend to be populated by, or close to, Westerners. This pattern has opened the door to criticism of civil society groups for enriching their own hand-picked staffs and holding increasing political power without maintaining effective lines of ‘accountability’ to citizens. Albeit unintentionally, civil society funding and support from the West can tend to go toward groups whose personnel, reputations, and methods make them relatively easier to discredit and marginalize locally.

Civil society provides a bulwark against the ills of official corruption, insularity, and bureaucracy.

Vladimir Putin has exploited this opportunity masterfully to discredit critics and amass power. Over the last 18 months, the Russian government has designated 126 groups “foreign agents,” with at least 16 of them—including a voter’s rights organization, an association of lawyers for constitutional rights, an LGBT film festival, and a league of women voters—being effectively forced to shut down entirely. Under a 2012 law, groups are required to register as foreign agents—a label that connotes spying and treason—if they receive international support and carry out political activity, a designation that extends to virtually any type of advocacy or human rights work. In 2014 the law was amended to allow the Ministry of Justice to register independent groups as “foreign agents” without their consent, resulting in a long list of discrediting designations that have hobbled civil society.

In the same period, the U.S.-headquartered Open Society Foundations, National Endowment for Democracy, and the U.S. Russia Foundation have been declared “undesirable” and banned for allegedly undermining Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. Russians who have ties with the organizations or distribute their materials face fines and imprisonment. A longer list including Freedom House and the MacArthur Foundation were flagged by Russian senators for immediate attention over their supposed anti-Russian activities. Listed groups have shut their offices in Russia, withdrawn support for local grantees for fear of endangering them, and wiped their names off programs and projects. Funders are scrambling to figure out where to redirect their funds and what the future of their Russia programs, if any, should look like. Meanwhile independent organizations staffed and led by Russians have been left stranded, victimized by prying and obstructive government policies and now deprived of income and support.

Civil society and its supporters stand at a crossroads. Western funding is increasingly portrayed as carrying a taint that tarnishes the legitimacy of local actors. Channels for such support are being progressively choked off, and yet no major alternative source of resources exists for many mission-driven groups that operate in countries with little potential for or tradition of philanthropy. The traditional benefactors of civil society, including both governments and large foundations, are wracked with concerns over whether their assistance might imperil those they hoped to empower.

For now, there remain plenty of places where the funding environment is still relatively permissive, and foreign funds have yet to be banned or stigmatized. Yet the playing field is shrinking steadily, and by doubling down where they can still spend money, governments and foundations could inadvertently accelerate the passage of measures that make such work is virtually impossible.

Bolstering Civil Society

In assessing how Western funders should respond to the backlash against their civil-society efforts, blame must not for a minute be shifted away from the restrictive and paranoid governments fueling the crackdown. The hostility toward civil society around the world has been manufactured by regimes that are ill-disposed to the very principles—openness, citizen empowerment, freedom of information, individual initiative—that a vibrant independent sector stands for. The workings of civil society are protected by internationally recognized rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association, principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the domestic constitutions and laws of many of the countries that are intruding most egregiously on these rights. These repressive laws contravene international human rights protections and impede worthy and productive efforts to better societies. Government assaults on civil society have been called out by the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and such denunciations should be stepped up.

While decrying the global clampdown on civil society, human rights and democracy advocates need to take a hard look at what the trends of the last few years portend. As a new Administration prepares to take office early next year, there is an opportunity for a serious rethink on new approaches that avert, deflect, and defang the kinds of countermeasures repressive governments have now perfected. A series of measures should be explored: changing the rhetoric and redefining Washington’s role, ramping up cultural diplomacy, shifting the focus to influential individuals, engaging diaspora communities, and using new funding and support channels.

Redefining Washington’s Role

Activists in tough places need to know that Washington has their backs and there must be no retreat from U.S. and Western support. But, from here on out, Washington needs to demonstrate such stalwartness with less spectacle and fewer speeches. Aid and democracy activists have grown ever more attuned to the risks of having U.S. organizations and government funders be seen as a driving force behind domestic movements and initiatives around the world. USAID-funded democracy and human rights programs can qualify for a “branding exemption,” meaning that unlike food aid or medicines they need not be consistently identified as “from the American people.” While tsunami aid and agriculture programs can generate valuable goodwill toward the United States, the calculus is different when it comes to support for the sensitive causes championed by more cutting-edge local groups.

Yet the United States’s push on behalf of civil society has been shaped not only by Washington’s passion for this worthy cause, but also its proclivity to be seen to do so. The impulse to invoke the power of the American Presidency to stand up openly for civil society and demonstrate unapologetic global leadership that rallies others can be powerful. When the United States shies away from such leadership, few others step in. When the U.S. President rallies others to put political muscle and money behind an initiative, they are more likely to come through.

Yet, even with the best intentions, the Western hand can feel heavier around the world than Washington realizes. Civil society promotion efforts may need to enter a new, more measured phase. The United States should consider what elements of its agenda would be compromised if it were to stop shouting its support for civil society from the rooftops, and it should listen ever more carefully to local partners and in-house experts about the kinds of rhetoric that help and hurt. In a December 2014 Presidential Memorandum on Civil Society, one of the tasks assigned to U.S. agencies abroad was “brokering dialogue between government and civil society representatives.” While such dialogues are sorely needed, in most circumstances it will make more sense to focus on identifying credible local brokers rather than having U.S. officials mediate conversations between governments and their own civil society groups. American diplomats have become experts at using coalitions and allies to blunt the sharp edges of American leadership; those tactics will be needed in the next phase of support for rights and democracy.

Cultural Diplomacy

Groups documenting human rights abuses, bringing legal challenges to restrictive and abusive laws and policies, and mounting controversial campaigns have been targeted with legal attacks, prosecutions, tax investigations, and, in some notorious cases, violence. In places where it has become virtually impossible to support political and human rights activity, the United States should examine how to revive previously discarded, less direct forms of influence, including cultural diplomacy. During the Cold War, cultural diplomacy—the distribution of books and films, translation, exchanges, television, and radio programs—played a central role in shaping opinions and sustaining connections to closed society, emphasized partly because more direct forms of democracy promotion were off-limits in a hostile Soviet bloc. Rather than the cloak-and-dagger methods of yesterday, which would arouse reflexive mistrust in a civil society sector that treasures transparency and is hyper-aware of government surveillance, a modern approach should be open and work through credible, independent organizations. It should support cultural projects that foster creativity, connection, exchange, and people-to-people understanding, rather than purveying official U.S. messages.

While the United States has lately focused its public diplomacy efforts mostly on countering violent extremism, other nations have doubled down on tactics that Washington invented but mostly abandoned years ago. Between 2004 and 2014, China opened more than 480 Confucius Institutes on six continents, including at least 100 in the United States. Russia is aggressively promoting its cultural narratives in its own near-abroad though the Russkiy Mir Foundation, a government sponsored arm to promote Russian culture and language abroad, and more globally through the television network RT, its international media mouthpiece.

Cultural affairs, long seen as the soft underbelly of American diplomacy, deserves a harder look as a counterweight to the aggressive efforts of other governments to promulgate their alternative worldviews, and as a potentially more viable channel for influence at a moment when more hard-hitting efforts are meeting stiffened resistance. A reinvigorated Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty with stable leadership, stepped up access to American television programs and films in translation, cultural exchanges, and support for influential and independent cultural voices could help sustain Russia’s small and intrepid independent sector. Such programs may demand new tools of assessment to determine whether they are achieving results, but the congressionally driven dogma of rigorous program evaluation should not blind policymakers to proven tools and methods that defy measurement by such formulas.

Focusing on Influential Individuals

Aid efforts should focus on ferreting out individuals of stature, credibility, and independence—those who are hard to impugn by association with the West—and supporting what they are doing, whether it is traditional NGO work, writing influential essays, running community programs, or organizing workers. The Obama Administration has taken some steps in this direction, expanding its outreach to clergy and entrepreneurs, for example by establishing its Young African Leadership Program to find and develop talent on the African continent. While it is vital to consider how such assistance may affect their profile locally, seasoned independent individuals should not be subject to patronizing denials of support on the basis that Western funders know what is best—or safest—for them. Living in repressive countries and pushing the bounds of discourse, they are well positioned to judge whether outside assistance will cause more trouble than it is worth. The willingness of these individuals to accept foreign assistance may even help turn the tables, discrediting governmental efforts to tar highly respected dissidents as foreign agents.

This is especially important in places like Russia, where USAID has been kicked out and traditional programs shut down. The plan now cannot be to build rights-focused organizations and networks per se. Administration efforts should be concentrated on keeping increasingly suffocated independent dissidents, intellectuals, media figures, and activists feeling sufficiently recognized and supported so that they do not give up by leaving the country or ceasing their efforts to write, speak, and create in ways that grapple with Kremlin-fed orthodoxies. With laws effectively prohibiting organizations from accepting foreign aid, the more viable recipients of assistance may be individuals who can be sponsored for fellowships, trips, and exchanges that help them keep motivated and connected to the world. While the U.S. government largely turned away from such individual approaches over the last few decades—it wanted to reap the advantages of scale and avoid the risk of investing in individuals with their whims and wonts—circumstances may dictate a revival of this approach.

Where Western organizations are still able to convene and operate exchanges, they should include a wider group of organizations, professionals, and civic leaders—independent-minded heads of museums, academies, and scholarly institutes, alongside more traditional NGOs. In so doing, the West can help forge ties across civil society, connecting vulnerable activists to influential individuals who have the potential to support them politically and morally. By defining a human rights agenda to encompass a prominent place for scholarly and artistic freedom, it may be possible to broaden the constituency for these rights and enlist new champions.

Engaging Diaspora Communities

A networked world also presents new opportunities to influence democracy and human rights through diaspora communities. Whereas in the Soviet era a dissident who defected from Moscow was gone forever and barred from visiting, the world has gotten smaller and more connected. Substantial diaspora communities worldwide—more than 30 million native Russian speakers living outside the country, and more than 50 million Chinese—now travel back and forth and are in continuous daily contact with those left behind. Targeted efforts in exile enclaves offer opportunities to build connections, promote ideas, publicize rights abuses, offer training, and instill hopes for the future.

The playbook developed over decades in Myanmar, with international support going to exile media outlets (mostly based in Thailand) that provided vital conduits for information, offers one model. Western support for skilled, committed, independent media outlets during the rule of Myanmar’s junta helped keep a spotlight on the long years of repression, and has now provided the kernel for a burgeoning independent media in Myanmar now that the military has stepped back. Those media outlets now face the challenge of developing new and sustainable business models, but at least some are actively and successfully weaning themselves off international support. The 300,000 Chinese students studying in the United States annually, and smaller but significant numbers of students from other nations, also offer an opportunity to shape the perspectives of a rising generation. Prestigious programs that invite such students to Washington to engage with American institutions, media organizations, and nonprofits could forge valuable connections and be a potent introduction to the workings of an open society.

New Funding and Support Channels

Finally, governments and funders need to get serious about establishing and building on new vehicles that can enable assistance to get through despite the backlash. One fruitful avenue is that of horizontal global networks of civil society organizations—bar associations, writers’ organizations, professional consortiums, and academic societies—that can receive funds to support their own local members in frontline nations without those branches bearing the risk of transacting directly with foreign funders. At a UN civil society summit in 2013, President Obama spoke of the need to “internationalize funding for these efforts so that they’re less easily caricatured.” Some progress has been made, with groups of funders backing, for example, local civil society centers around the world that are backed by private and public consortia. Some credit in this arena goes to the George W. Bush Administration for helping to start the UN’s Democracy Fund, which since its founding in 2005 has disbursed more than $170 million to support roughly 600 civil society projects, utilizing pooled funding from more than 40 donor countries. That program should be expanded.

Another under-tapped resource at the UN is the chronically under-funded Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which carries out human rights monitoring and technical assistance in dozens of countries. Adequately funded, OHCHR could provide grants to local civil society organizations that would come less burdened by the stigmatizing taint of Western interference. OHCHR, headed by a Jordanian High Commissioner and staffed according to the UN’s system of geographic distribution, is hardly above criticism, but has an international profile that is distinct from that of Western donor nations. While the UN is accountable to its membership, including many of the countries that are hardest on civil society, the optics of resisting UN engagement are different, and sometimes more politically costly, than brushing off the United States or Europe. The International Institute for Democracy and Election Assistance is an umbrella body involving 27 Western and non-Western States—including Australia and Canada, but also India, Botswana, South Africa, Ghana, and Uruguay—that promotes democracy and credible elections. It offers another example of the type of genuinely multinational vehicle that needs to be strengthened.

The U.S. government and major foundations like to define and execute their own programs, without the long consultations and loss of control that international multilateral partnerships can entail. But the backfiring trends now manifest are broad and powerful enough to mean that if human rights and democracy work are to continue, the multilateral channels that were long a sideshow may need to take center stage.

Sustain and Rebuild

The Obama Administration’s “Stand with Civil Society” has the potential to be an enduring part of the President’s foreign policy legacy, or to be looked upon wistfully as a well-intentioned effort gone awry, feeding the very forces it was intended to counter. There is no easy solution to this dilemma. Even smartly retooled tactics will not reverse the pernicious trends toward repression witnessed worldwide. The aim for the time being must be to strategically sustain vulnerable organizations while striving to steadily build up the coalition of countries—including those active in bodies like the Community of Democracies and the U.S.-backed Open Government Initiative—that recognize civil society as a greater asset than it is a liability. In countries that are considering but have not yet adopted anti-NGO laws and those that have such laws on the books but have not stepped up enforcement, affirmative diplomacy can help ward off or roll back regressive measures.

Civil society organizations and their leaders are the frontline warriors battling against nearly every threat the world faces and are working to unleash every positive possibility. Faced with a refugee crisis of epic proportions, pandemics, genocides, homegrown terror threats, and melting glaciers, the world cannot afford to leave its most active and visionary citizens marginalized, disempowered, and silenced. As the West fights battles on multiplying fronts, the war over the fate of civil society is one that it cannot afford to lose.

Read more about Authoritarianismcivil societyDiplomacyHuman RightsNonprofitsObama Administration

Suzanne Nossel is the Executive Director of PEN American Center and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organizations. She has previously served as COO of Human Rights Watch and Executive Director of Amnesty International USA.

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