For the past 15 years, George Soros has been one of the world’s most influential philanthropists. Through charitable work that promoted democratic reform around the world, Soros helped sustain and inspire civic groups and mass movements that ushered in non-violent democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Michael T. Kaufman’s Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire offers a detailed portrait of Soros the man, the investor, the activist, the political analyst, and the philanthropist; it does justice to a figure of significant intellectual complexity and major impact.
Kaufman is well equipped for the task. A former East European correspondent at the New York Times, with an intimate knowledge of the region’s politics, he knows much of the terrain in which Soros has played an influential role. Himself the son of an eminent leader of the Jewish community in prewar Poland, Kaufman has a strong understanding of the maelstrom into which European Jewry fell in the 1930s and ‘40s, the period of Soros’s childhood and adolescence.
From this informed perspective, Kaufman is able to provide an engaging and sympathetic narrative of Soros’s early turbulent years, when Nazism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia cast a dark shadow over his Jewish family and disrupted his upper-middle-class life. Kaufman traces Soros’s life trajectory from war-ravaged Hungary to an encounter with the philosopher Karl Popper’s ideas on “open society” at the London School of Economics, to a remarkable career in New York in hedge funds and international finance, and on to philanthropy and efforts to promote democratic change in closed societies.
Soros has made a mark as one of a handful of wealthy moneymakers and hedge fund managers. But what has truly distinguished him has been his unique form of cause-oriented philanthropy, for which he has provided huge resources, averaging in the last decade roughly $500 million in grants per year.
Not only the scale of Soros’s philanthropy has made it so effective, but its precise focus and approach. Soros has been most influential when addressing the transcendent issue of helping to topple tyrannies and replace them with societies rooted in the rule of law and democratic accountability.
His early ventures into philanthropy were conventional and unremarkable: support for the arts, for scholarship on his former homeland Hungary, and for the restoration of New York’s Central Park. But by the mid-1980s, as his fortune grew, he began to direct his attention to the cause of promoting openness in countries governed by closed, authoritarian systems. His growing wealth, and the growing political ferment in the Communist world, allowed him to focus his energies on giving practical expression to the views of his intellectual mentor, Sir Karl Popper, and his influential work The Open Society and Its Enemies.
Soros’s funding was effective because it assumed a centrist orientation. It was linked to a noble cause, supporting broad coalitions that worked peacefully for revolutionary democratic change. Soros’s philanthropy assisted and helped bring together social democrats, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians in some of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
Clearly, such coalitions cannot persist in perpetuity. Once a tyranny unravels, and democracy and open society take root, normal democratic interest-group politics intrudes and policy differences rend the once-unified fabric of democratic movements. Soros was influential because he focused primarily on deploying his resources at these transcendent moments, and then assisting democratic forces in the early years when the institutional, civic, and cultural architecture of a liberal democracy needs to be shaped. His philanthropy was truly non-partisan, and it deepened support for and understanding of his aim of open societies. To be sure, Soros’s network of foundations was not the only Western institution offering assistance to democratic forces trying to topple dictatorships peacefully. In the early 1980s, other U.S. organizations like the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as the Catholic Church, the West German government, and the AFL-CIO, played crucial roles in assisting democratic forces in the Communist bloc and around the world. Nevertheless, Soros was preeminent among private philanthropists seeking to bring freedom to Central and Eastern Europe. Some of his earliest grantees are now influential figures in their countries’ independent civic life. Many have also served in key positions in government as ministers and sub-ministers throughout Central and Eastern Europe.
After martial law was declared in Poland in 1981 and the Solidarity movement was driven underground, Soros provided modest assistance to a network of underground newspapers and journals that eventually became the bedrock of democratic Poland’s free media. Soros also assisted democratic voices in Poland through the Stefan Batory Foundation, which became a crucial source of support for reformists such as Bronislaw Geremek (later a foreign minister) and Tadeusz Mazowiecki (who served as Prime Minister). Soros was an early financial supporter of a circle of Czech dissidents that included Václav Havel, the country’s current President. In Hungary, a Soros foundation established in 1983 became a crucial funnel of aid and assistance to political leaders and independent publishers, who helped usher in the fall of Communism in 1989.
Soros had not only a clear vision for his philanthropy, he also understood that at key junctures of history carefully focused resources play a decisive role. He adopted a similar approach in promoting democratic voices in Kosovo in the period before Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing, in Bosnia, and in Serbia. In the latter case, it was these civic forces and independent media—with assistance from Soros and significant support from the U.S. government—that helped ensure the political defeat of Milosevic.
Soros was an early investor in efforts to assist reformers in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia, where he focused on issues like education, curriculum development, and support for civil society. Over the last decade, he has rapidly expanded his network of foundations beyond the former Soviet bloc to focus on promoting democracy in Africa and Asia. For example, he has assisted democratic intellectuals and human rights activists from China and Burma.
Kaufman portrays Soros as a hands-on philanthropist who moves rapidly and responds to intellectual and political passions. At times, this has resulted in a jumble of inchoate, sometimes duplicative and competing initiatives, a problem Soros has attempted to resolve by building a more coherent network of coordinated foundations. Still, Soros has recognized that sometimes the best way to approach a problem is to attempt a series of avenues of solution, and then to invest significant resources in the projects that appear to gather momentum.
Soros remains a man of enthusiasms, able to launch new initiatives and redirect resources at lightning speed. In some sense, he has operated as the de facto chief program officer in his vast network of foundations. This personal engagement means that Soros, who travels the world constantly and regularly meets with civic, political, and intellectual leaders, is able to respond quickly to emerging needs and, more importantly, to emerging opportunities. I witnessed this in Warsaw in the summer of 2000. Soros had helped support the World Forum on Democracy, a meeting of civic leaders, democratic activists, and intellectuals. One of the democratic opposition leaders was Alejandro Toledo, who was the chief political opponent to Peru’s authoritarian ruler Alberto Fujimori. Toledo represented a mass movement that was pressing for free elections and an end to state domination of the media. Within weeks of their discussion, Soros had quietly provided a grant of $1 million to support Toledo’s campaign of mass protest marches and to sustain a network of opposition to the increasingly repressive Peruvian government. When a videotape scandal broke that proved the government’s complicity in bribing legislators and the media, Toledo’s movement was ready to press for change. Today, Alejandro Toledo is the democratically elected President of his country, and Fujimori is living in exile in Japan as Peruvian authorities press for his return to face criminal charges. Former State Department official Morton Abramowitz puts it well: Soros is “the only man in the United States who has his own foreign policy and can implement it.”
Soros not only has been integral to many of the most important political changes of the last half-century; he also has been a key force for popularizing the objective of achieving a world of liberty. He has achieved his greatest influence in advancing the ideas of open society because his work has been largely free of partisanship, that is, he has sought to promote open systems and not to focus on specific policies.
In 1996, Kaufman tells us, “Soros had come to the conclusion that ‘if an open society is to serve as an ideal worth striving for, it can no longer be defined in terms of the Communist menace; it must be given more positive content.’” As a result, these days Soros is out to avert the threat to open society that he sees arising in America. He now devotes approximately $100 million per year to domestic U.S. issues.
This means Soros’s global efforts to promote the broad aim of open society are now accompanied by philanthropic activism that is necessarily adopting a more prescriptive cast. In these new domestic efforts, Soros is supporting campaigns aimed at the decriminalization of drug use and the reduction of and alternatives to prison sentences. More recently, Soros has vigorously criticized the anti-terrorism efforts of the Bush administration, which he believes pose threats to civil liberties.
Soros clearly has the right to address what he sees as vexing issues of American political life. Some may even argue that by engaging what he believes are the defects of our own democracy, he is enhancing the credibility of his efforts abroad. But by staking out clear prescriptive positions, his philanthropy is losing its distinctiveness; Soros’s efforts now increasingly resemble those of the rest of the crowd. Indeed, his more recent U.S. initiatives on alternatives to incarceration, on the abolition of the death penalty, on drug policy, and on immigrant rights have little to distinguish them from the conventional projects funded by numerous major establishment foundations.
By supporting specific policy remedies, rather than funding a broad array of creative and at times competing approaches on these issues, Soros is departing from the open society approach that has been his hallmark. At the same time, by allowing his U.S. foundation to adopt language that resembles that of the far left (“mass incarceration of poor people,” “massive destabilization of communities [that has resulted from] punitive criminal justice policies”), even as he seeks to be a highly visible nonpartisan advocate of open society and democracy, Soros likely is diminishing his ability to influence change around the world.
As the events of September 11 made clear, the great global task that Soros undertook in the 1980s—the defeat of tyrannies and the construction of open societies—remains far from complete. The Arab world and the Islamic world are dominated by tyrannies, out-of-touch monarchies, and obscurantist ideas. In many poorer countries, fragile new and restored democracies are under great strain. In many other places where Soros contributed to bringing down tyranny, democracy did not take root. The democrats Soros helped empower are losing out to the old ex-Communist nomenklatura, who have ushered in regimes built on cronyism and corruption in places like Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova.
To address these vexing challenges will require greater philanthropic commitment to broad-based efforts that eschew partisanship and help unite the world’s democratic forces. Whether, in the light of his growing domestic advocacy in America, George Soros will be able to continue to play the role of a central advocate of such a movement will determine whether he will be as influential a philanthropist in the next century as he was in the last.
Adrian Karatnycky is president of Freedom House.