In recent decades, as other chapters in this volume illustrate, civil society actors around the world have found themselves grappling with a global contest between values systems. This clash is generally framed as being between Western-style liberal values and more traditional approaches to sociocultural life and is tied to an assumption that Western countries explicitly seek to support liberal values abroad. Many analysts see this growing values rift as integral to a widening geopolitical division between liberal democratic and illiberal authoritarian powers.1
Such a framing, however, is too simplistic. The growing clash of sociopolitical values is playing out not only between countries but also within them. Domestic constituencies in countries around the world are fiercely debating questions and issues at the intersection of values and public life. As they do so, they are increasingly engaging with like-minded partners abroad to share ideas, strategies, and resources. This, in turn, is creating new international partnerships and coalitions that can cut across perceived geopolitical boundaries.
Civil society has been at the core of this dynamic. The globalization of values struggles has invigorated transnational collaboration among ideologically aligned civil society groups around the world. This trend has been especially visible among conservative organizations, which have built civil society partnerships across every region to promote traditional values, a more prominent place for religion in public life, uniform conceptions of marriage, and a host of other causes. These nongovernmental networks often cut across geopolitical boundaries: the U.S.-based International Organization for the Family, for example, partners with groups not only in geopolitically friendly countries, like Italy and the United Kingdom, but also adversarial ones, like Russia and Venezuela.2
U.S. civil society, particularly U.S.-based groups’ support for civil society abroad, has been key to the emergence of these transnational partnerships. Aid flows from American conservative groups to like-minded organizations internationally—flows that include not only money but also strategic advice, informational materials, and legal support—have grown in recent years. On issues ranging from expanding gun rights to countering abortion, American conservative nongovernmental organizations have sought to advance their civil society support objectives, which they frequently and explicitly contrast with those of liberal civil society supporters, like the Open Society Foundations. To achieve these goals, these organizations mirror the strategies employed by mainstream civil society supporters, especially by providing direct financial backing to partners abroad and engaging in capacity building, training, and advice.
Taking this broader view, it is clear that civil society support flowing from the United States is far from monolithic. Instead, the deep divisions and clashes over values that have fractured U.S. politics are being replicated in civil society support flows. Case studies on the National Rifle Association’s (NRA’s) support for international gun rights, conservative legal nonprofits’ efforts to support like-minded lawyers abroad, and campaigns by conservative religious groups to oppose abortion across the globe illustrate how such conservative civil society support works and how it has changed the international sociopolitical landscape. These case studies show that civil society groups have to navigate competition not only between geopolitical adversaries but also between civil society supporters, often from the same country, that seek to advance very different values systems.
Case Study 1: Promoting Gun Rights
Gun control is one of the most polarizing topics in U.S. politics. Fierce debates over the merits or downsides of regulating firearms or, conversely, liberalizing their use have created deep divides over the role of government and how best to achieve public safety. However, although the omnipresence of guns may be a uniquely American phenomenon, debates about gun rights are not. Wading into gun rights campaigns abroad, U.S. conservative civil society groups—none more so than the NRA—have actively worked to support anti–gun control partners internationally.
Barred by its charter from giving money to groups abroad, the NRA has been unable to use its vast financial resources to support pro-gun efforts elsewhere. However, the group has provided extensive strategic guidance, educational material, and training to gun rights activists abroad. Across multiple global contexts, the NRA has helped gun rights organizations and activists to bring about dramatic political change. Reflecting the capacity-building strategies employed by many civil society supporters, the NRA has exported its ideas, strategies, and even institutional structures to pro-gun groups around the globe.
One of the earliest examples of the NRA’s growing international role came in Australia in the early 1990s. After multiple mass killings in the mid-1980s and early 1990s spurred the country’s state and federal governments to enact more restrictive gun laws, the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia (SSAA) sought support from its U.S. counterpart. In the early 1990s, the head of the SSAA made two trips to the NRA’s headquarters to learn about effective lobbying and public relations (PR) strategies.3 In a speech to the NRA board at the time, the group’s head explicitly stated his ambition to emulate the NRA, stating, “I believe we could not do any better than become the NRA of Australia.”4 Shortly thereafter, the then NRA president, Robert Corbin, toured Australia in an effort to help the SSAA “learn NRA strategies that Australian gun owners could employ in their own fight for freedom.”5 Only a few months later, the SSAA launched its Legislative Action arm, built explicitly in line with NRA advice and modeled on the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA).
The NRA employed a similar approach in Canada. As Canada also sought to tighten gun laws in the mid-1990s, the NRA provided strategic guidance, PR advice, and advocacy training to Canadian organizations and activists. As in Australia, this support took an institutional form: in 1998, the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA) established its own mirror of the NRA-ILA, which it named the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action (CILA). The institute’s executive director, Tony Bernardo, openly stated that the NRA provided “tremendous amounts of logistical support” to CILA and “freely [gives] us anything” short of financial contributions.6 The NRA has also sent a long line of advocates and strategists to rally support and provide advice in Canada. NRA political strategist Glen Caroline helped Canadian gun groups organize in the run-up to the 2006 federal election, and the then NRA president, Sandra Froman, participated in a town hall on overturning the country’s gun registry. This effort to help Canadian organizations paid significant dividends in 2012, when Canada’s conservative members of parliament voted to abolish the registry.7
The NRA’s work extends beyond the English-speaking world, as shown by the organization’s involvement in Brazil’s battle over gun rights in the early 2000s. The country had one of the world’s highest per capita gun ownership rates, and firearms were widespread; so, too, was gun-related crime. As legislative debates over gun control raged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Brazilian gun rights activists and the NRA worked closely on strategy, messaging, and advocacy.8 When the legislative dispute came to a head, NRA official Charles Cunningham visited Brazil in August 2003 to consult top activists and host public pro-gun rallies. Cunningham and the NRA encouraged Brazilian activists to adopt a rights-based framing in the gun debate, arguing that the activists should portray the issue as being about the right to defend oneself from crime and violence.
Brazilian activists translated many NRA materials word for word and circulated them in the National Congress and civil society.9 Although the activists lost the legislative debate in 2003, the NRA remained active—although to a lesser degree—in efforts to oppose the subsequent referendum on banning gun and ammunition sales. In a shock defeat for gun control advocates, the NRA-backed argument about rights won out: Brazilians rejected the ban proposed in the referendum by an overwhelming margin.10 Claiming victory, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre noted that the victory stymied establishment civil society funders’ efforts to promote “civil disarmament” around the world.11
Case Study 2: Bolstering Conservative Legal Advocacy
As major questions in American sociopolitical life have increasingly been pushed into the judicial sphere, conservative groups have invested heavily in a legal movement that seeks to limit governmental power, prioritize religious freedom, and counter what they perceive as judicial activism to create new interpretations of rights. That legal movement has seen notable success not only in shaping the U.S. judiciary but also in drafting laws and litigating the way the laws are implemented. Lessons learned in the United States about how to use the law to address major sociopolitical questions are also shaping legal debates beyond American borders. Flush with resources and experience from decades of advocacy in U.S. courts and legislatures, American conservative legal groups have eagerly sought to strengthen the capacities of like-minded lawyers and legal movements abroad.
One of the leading groups in the transnational conservative legal movement is the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Founded in 1994, the ADF describes itself as “the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, marriage and family, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.”12 The group pursues these objectives through litigation, political advocacy, and training for lawyers. In 2010, the ADF launched a global arm, ADF International, to expand engagement on all three of these fronts abroad.
The ADF and ADF International support lawyers and legal movements abroad through two primary avenues. The first is training and information sharing. The ADF runs multiple programs aimed at developing the capacities of Christian lawyers, including its marquee Blackstone Legal Fellowship. The group claims that since 2000, it has trained 2,600 law students from more than thirty countries; its training programs emphasize legal philosophy and practice as well as hands-on experience through internship placements.13 ADF International likewise runs capacity-building programs, including the Veritas Scholarship, which pays for promising lawyers from around the world to work directly with an ADF International advocacy team in Vienna or Geneva.14
The ADF and ADF International also routinely host or co-host conferences to foster the exchange of ideas about law, faith, and values. Some of these events are aimed at global audiences, including ADF’s annual Summit on Religious Freedom, while others are directed toward specific regional or country contexts, like the 2017 Referendum for the Family: Analysis and Implications conference held in Bucharest, which sought to galvanize civil society support for a referendum to ban same-sex marriage in Romania.15
The second avenue for supporting international lawyers and legal movements is by providing direct financial and strategic backing. The ADF runs a robust grants and funding program designed to pay for lawyers to take on key cases in countries around the world, advocate before governing bodies, arrange training programs, and publish legal analysis. According to openDemocracy, an independent media platform, the ADF has spent $21 million since 2007 on international programming.16 ADF staff have also provided direct legal advice and guidance to teams engaged in hot-button cases around the world, including over same-sex rights in Jamaica, free speech in Finland, and religious freedom in India.17
Other U.S.-based conservative legal organizations, like the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), have taken a similar approach to capacity building and advocacy. Since its founding in 1987 by evangelical leader Pat Robertson, the ACLJ has gradually expanded its international operations, opening offices in France, Pakistan, Russia, and South Korea. The ACLJ expanded into Africa in the early 2010s, establishing locally run but largely U.S.-funded affiliates in Kenya (the East African Center for Law and Justice) and Zimbabwe (the African Center for Law and Justice).
The primary mission of these centers, as identified by Jason Sekulow, head of ACLJ operations in Africa, was to support each country’s constitution-drafting process by mobilizing relevant civil society actors. In Zimbabwe, this was achieved primarily through providing legal training and research facilities to local lawyers.18 This training helped these lawyers propose constitutional provisions to ban same-sex marriage and abortion. The group applied similar approaches in Kenya, although when a similar ban was taken out of the country’s draft constitution, the East African Center for Law and Justice worked to help mobilize Christian civil society groups to vote against ratification.19 In both Kenya and Zimbabwe, the ACLJ’s funding and capacity building strengthened the abilities of relevant constituencies to push for abortion and same-sex marriage to be outlawed in the countries’ constitutions.
Both the ACLJ and the ADF have frequently been at odds with the U.S. government and major U.S. civil society supporters. For example, in Kenya, although U.S. officials stopped short of urging a “yes” vote in the 2010 referendum on a new constitution, they strongly backed Kenyan constitutional reform, while the ACLJ supported organizations that advocated a “no” vote. And in Zimbabwe, multiple American funders supported programming on LGBTQ rights and family planning, while the ACLJ backed groups that advocated strict constitutional restrictions on same-sex marriage and abortion.20 The ADF has also butted heads frequently with other civil society funders. In Belize, for example, the ADF advised and supported litigants seeking to uphold antisodomy laws, while major U.S. civil society supporters, like Heartland Alliance International and the Open Society Foundations, worked with the United Belize Advocacy Movement, the plaintiff seeking to overturn the ban.21
Case Study 3: Faith-Based Groups Supporting Pro-Life Causes
Few issues have animated U.S. conservatives as much as abortion. In the nearly half-century since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that a constitutional right to privacy extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, conservative faith-based groups have made countering abortion both at home and abroad a key objective. Support for pro-life civil society across the world has been a centerpiece of this effort.
Reflecting the transnational aspirations of the pro-life movement, many U.S. antiabortion organizations have been explicitly designed to strengthen and support pro-life activism abroad. Heartbeat International, a leading Christian antiabortion group based in Ohio, for example, adopted an international model shortly after its formation in 1971. Heartbeat’s network is rooted in a growing global network of affiliates, which expanded from 200 partners in 1993 to 2,800 affiliates across sixty-eight countries in 2022.22 Heartbeat provides partner antiabortion organizations across the world with training, advice, educational material, and strategic guidance. Perhaps its most important contribution to global antiabortion activism has been the export of the model of pregnancy resource centers, which offer counseling and seek to dissuade women from having abortions. Heartbeat provides significant knowledge and financial resources to partner organizations, including through a portal called Life Reach Global, which allows U.S. donors to directly contribute to international pro-life partners.23
Other U.S.-based groups have been active in countering abortion and contraception as well. An antiabortion group founded in Texas, 40 Days for Life, has worked with activists in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere to implement its model of forty-day prayer vigils as protests outside abortion clinics.24 And Human Life International (HLI), a Virginia-based Catholic group that is active in one hundred countries around the world, provides partners with educational resources, training, and financial support. It has also connected U.S. lawyers with Latin American advocates in an effort to “educate and fight politically against anti-life laws and in favor of pro-life laws,” according to Adolfo Castañeda, HLI’s education director for Hispanic outreach.25
As with LGBTQ issues, global debates on abortion rights have pitted conservative organizations against establishment U.S. civil society supporters. Although the U.S. government’s funding of organizations that provide or promote abortion has been notoriously inconsistent, groups like Heartbeat and HLI have repeatedly funded causes directly opposed to those supported by establishment funders, including the U.S. government. In El Salvador, for example, HLI has funneled resources for decades to Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life), the country’s main pro-life organization; in a 2001 article, the president of HLI claimed that Sí a la Vida’s victory in enshrining an abortion ban in the Salvadoran constitution showed how U.S. organizations could successfully export pro-life activism.26 In contrast, organizations like the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights have been seeking to mobilize civil society opposition to the country’s strict ban.27
Although U.S. support for civil society abroad is often framed as supporting a liberal set of values, the flows of conservative civil society aid identified in this chapter run counter to this view. Instead, the clash over values that is shaping global—and U.S.—politics is increasingly impacting the ways in which civil society organizations support one another, often in ways that cut across geopolitical fault lines.
The findings of this chapter point to a basic truth: civil society groups in countries around the world are more likely to solicit and receive support from groups that are ideologically aligned with their values and objectives than from those that are not, regardless of their host country’s geopolitical alignment. In many cases, this may mean building partnerships with mainstream organizations like large foundations or the U.S. government, which advance or are perceived to advance a liberal set of values. But in many other cases, groups may seek support from organizations that align more closely with their own views on a given issue, including conservative groups.
As a result, civil society aid from the United States frequently flows to organizations on both sides of an issue. Such aid also often flows to groups in countries with strained relations with the United States, including places like El Salvador, Russia, and Zimbabwe. Across cases, the transnational nature of the values struggle appears to supersede geopolitical considerations. Conservative civil society actors, in other words, tend to view themselves not as geopolitical actors but as universal ones.
American conservative groups frame their civil society support initiatives as both proactive and reactive. They are proactive in the sense that they seek to strengthen actors who will advance a shared set of values and policy preferences and thereby have a greater ability to make an effective case in public debate. Yet, they are reactive in the sense that they respond to mainstream civil society support agendas, which many conservative groups view as skewing toward liberal causes. The combination of proactive advancement of values and reaction to establishment civil society support has been a key dynamic in the growing effort to counteract liberal civil society support agendas.
The increased resources and organizational capacities of groups on both sides of a divisive issue can also exacerbate political fissures domestically. In El Salvador, the civil society support flowing from the United States to pro- and antiabortion groups has continued to inflame political divisions, even decades after the country’s ban was put in place. And in courtrooms from Belize to Kenya, lawyers on both sides of highly contentious cases on issues like same-sex marriage often receive support from U.S. organizations. The result is that political polarization, rooted in seemingly intractable disputes over values, can become an incidental export of competing aid flows.
Civil society support, then, reflects the vast range of views held by Americans and American organizations. Far from being monolithically liberal, civil society support flows from the United States to organizations that represent a wide range of values systems. And as the contest of values systems continues to divide global politics, ideologically diverse civil society aid flows underscore the degree to which those divides are playing out within democracies—and how those divides might shape both governmental and nongovernmental engagement with civil society abroad in years to come.
Benjamin Press is a nonresident research analyst in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program.
The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.
1 Marc Fisher, “Leaders of Democracies Increasingly Echo Putin in Authoritarian Tilt,” Washington Post, October 16, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/10/16/authoritarian-world-leaders-putin.
2 “World Congress of Families Partners 2017,” International Organization for the Family, September 2017, https://www.profam.org/world-congress-of-families-partners-2017.
3 David Morton, “Gunning For the World,” Foreign Policy, October 19, 2009, https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/19/gunning-for-the-world.
4 Simon Chapman, Over Our Dead Bodies: Port Arthur and Australia’s Fight for Gun Control (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2018), 164.
5 “Congratulations to the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia on 70 Years,” NRA-ILA, April 13, 2018, https://www.nraila.org/articles/20180413/congratulations-to-the-sporting-shooters-association-of-australia-on-70-years.
6 “NRA Involved in Gun Registry Debate,” CBC News, September 13, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20130919165820/http:/www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nra-involved-in-gun-registry-debate-1.923766.
7 Wendy Cukier, “The NRA’s Hemispheric Reach,” Americas Quarterly, April 22, 2013, https://www.americasquarterly.org/fulltextarticle/the-nras-hemispheric-reach.
8 Clifford Bob, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 147–182.
9 Kelly Hearn, “As Brazil Votes to Ban Guns, NRA Joins the Fight,” Nation, October 21, 2005, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/brazil-votes-ban-guns-nra-joins-fight.
10 Mark Tran, “Brazilian Gun Ban Vote Backfires,” Guardian, October 24, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/news/blog/2005/oct/24/braziliangover.
11 Wayne LaPierre, “Why You Should Care About Brazil,” NRA-ILA, February 18, 2006, https://www.nraila.org/articles/20060218/why-you-should-care-about-brazil-1.
12 “Who We Are,” Alliance Defending Freedom, https://adflegal.org/about-us.
13 “Training—Blackstone Legal Fellowship,” Alliance Defending Freedom, https://adflegal.org/training/blackstone.
14 “Veritas Scholarship,” ADF International, https://adfinternational.org/veritas-scholarship.
15 ADF International, “Romania’s Coalition for Family and ADF International Co-Hosted the Conference ‘Referendum for the Family: Analysis and Implications’ at the Romanian Parliament in Bucharest—Family News,” Family News, April 26, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20171111124643/http:/familynews.ro/romanias-coalition-for-family-and-adf-international-co-hosted-the-conference-referendum-for-the-family-analysis-and-implications-at-the-romanian-parliament-in-bucharest.
16 Nandini Archer and Claire Provost, “Revealed: $280m ‘Dark Money’ Spent by US Christian Right Groups Globally,” openDemocracy, October 27, 2020, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/trump-us-christian-spending-global-revealed.
17 Jessica Glenza, “The Multimillion-Dollar Christian Group Attacking LGBTQ+ Rights,” Guardian, February 21, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/20/alliance-defending-freedom-multimillion-dollar-conservative-christian-group-attacking-lgbtq-rights; “Finnish MP Wins on All Charges in Major Free Speech Trial,” Alliance Defending Freedom, March 30, 2022, https://adfmedia.org/press-release/finnish-mp-wins-all-charges-major-free-speech-trial; and “2022 Starts With More Christians Being Acquitted With the Help of ADF India Allied Lawyers,” ADF India, February 28, 2022, https://adfindia.org/stories/2022-starts-with-more-christians-being-acquitted-with-the-help-of-adf-india-allied-lawyers.
18 Jordan Sekulow, “The New ACLJ: All About the African Center for Law & Justice,” American Center for Law and Justice, July 24, 2012, https://aclj.org/aclj/the-new-aclj-all-about-the-african-center-for-law-justice-.
19 Kapya John Kaoma, “Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right Is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa,” Political Research Associates, 2012, https://politicalresearch.org/sites/default/files/2018-10/Colonizing-African-Values.pdf.
20 Open Society Public Health Program, “HIV and Human Rights: A Mapping of Donor Priorities and Trends in Southern Africa,” Open Society Foundations, June 10, 2014, https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/hiv-and-human-rights-mapping-donor-priorities-and-trends-southern-africa.
21 “United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM),” Devex, 2022, https://www.devex.com/organizations/united-belize-advocacy-movement-unibam-61462.
22 “Our Story,” Heartbeat International, https://www.heartbeatinternational.org/about/our-story.
23 “Life Reach Global Program,” Heartbeat International, https://www.heartbeatinternational.org/our-work/life-reach-global-program.
24 “Day 11: 40 Días Por La Vida,” 40 Days for Life, October 4, 2019, https://www.40daysforlife.com/news-individual-post.aspx?id=986&type=blog; Manuel Rueda, “US Conservative Groups Ramp Up Influence in Colombia Amid Abortion Debate,” The World, March 3, 2020, https://theworld.org/stories/2020-03-03/us-conservative-groups-ramp-influence-colombia-midst-abortion-debate.
25 Angelika Albaladejo, “US Groups Pour Millions Into Anti-Abortion Campaign in Latin America and Caribbean,” Guardian, October 26, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/oct/26/us-groups-pour-millions-into-anti-abortion-campaign-in-latin-america-and-caribbean.
26 Molly Redden and Nina Lakhani, “US Anti-Abortion Group Quietly Fights Bid to End El Salvador’s Draconian Ban,” Guardian, July 27, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/27/el-salvador-abortion-ban-human-life-international; Anto Akkara, “How To Export Pro-Life Activism,” Catholic Culture, November 26, 2001, https://www.catholicculture.org/news/features/index.cfm?recnum=20774.
27 “Sentence Commuted of Woman Convicted for Abortion Crime in El Salvador,” Center for Reproductive Rights, February 10, 2022, https://reproductiverights.org/el-salvador-woman-abortion-crime-sentence-commuted/.