The biggest democratic champion isn’t who you think it is: When I graduated from college in 2004, democracy was on the march – or at least it felt like it was. George W. Bush’s lush and inspiring speeches penned by Michael Gerson had a galvanizing effect, not least on yours truly.
Minding the zeitgeist, I leaped at the opportunity to work for Freedom House, America’s oldest human rights organization, where we had the biggest booster of democracy since Ronald Reagan in the White House.
Bush was bullish on democracy. “As the 20th century ended, there were around 120 democracies in the world — and I can assure you more are on the way,” Bush declared to great applause in 2003. He couldn’t have been more wrong about the moment.
Since 2003, the number of democracies has precipitously declined, and established democracies like the United States are in big trouble.
If 2003-2005 was the high water mark for US democracy promotion abroad, the whole democracy bureaucracy has been adrift and floundering ever since autocrats outsmarted our bloated bureaucracies that are unable to respond in real-time to Russian propaganda. And the Chinese are another story altogether.
I have written critically – and accurately – about how ineffectual USAID is, and after finding the work of implementing some of its democracy programs in Azerbaijan and Georgia disheartening and even pointless, I left the field altogether.
Last week made me wish that I hadn’t.
While Washington is the champion of nothing, Vilnius has assumed the mantle of leadership. Make no mistake about it: Vilnius is the new democratic champion, thanks in no small measure to Foreign Minister Gabrielis Landsbergis. The energetic forty-one-year-old minister comes from good democratic stock: his grandfather was one of Lithuania’s most eminent freedom fighters, so for the younger Landsbergis, the worldwide struggle for democracy is only a continuation of what his grandfather and, indeed, Lithuania started in the 90s.
Last week, hundreds gathered at the third annual Future of Democracy Forum in tiny Lithuania to examine why the state of democracy is so lousy and to recommit themselves and their governments to change the trend.
“I get emotional when I speak about Lithuania,” said Taiwanese Foreign Minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu on November 10. Defying the Chinese, in 2021, Lithuania allowed Taipei to open a de facto embassy. Beijing remains furious. In 2022, Lithuania opened a trade representative office in Taipei.
At the forum, real democrats who have put their necks on the line were on ample display, from Belarus’ Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya to Venezuela’s Leopoldo López. Over lunch, López recounted how he took refuge in the Spanish embassy in Caracas and eventually escaped in the trunk of a diplomatic car. Nicaragua’s Felix Maradiaga’s story was no less dramatic – he was put on an airplane and told an hour or so before landing that he was going to Washington, DC. Both Lopez and Felix helped launch the World Liberty Congress, an initiative funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, to give democratic actors more space to talk and work together.
Burmese Union Minister Daw Zin Mar Aung gave the off-the-record but inspiring lunch address, and Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky gave equally energetic remarks.
Most democracy cabals feature the same tired experts who make the same tired points about the worldwide democratic slide and how hopeless the picture is.
That was not the mood in Lithuania!
A banner proclaims, “Putin the Hague is waiting for you,” above one of the largest skyscrapers in the city of 544,000. Underneath a bridge downtown, “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself,” the now famous refrain from the war in Ukraine, was spraypainted.
This is a small but scrappy city, and it is a city capable of change.
When I first visited Vilnius in 2007, I tried to use Russian to communicate in stores and restaurants. I was rebuffed. The waitstaff preferred to use broken English.
Fast forward to 2023. Russian is widely spoken on the streets of Vilnius, and no one recoils in horror in spite of the country’s long and painful history with the Soviets.
Vilnius opened its doors to Belarusians fleeing Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime in 2020, and it has become a refuge for Russian democrats and activists who fear for their lives in Russia. Lithuania also took in 70,000 Ukrainian refugees after the war started.
Western Europe has taken its cues from Eastern Europe time and time again during the war. The Baltic states, Poland, and the Czech and Slovak Republics were the early responders, emptying their inventories. The Slovaks were the first to donate an air defense system to Ukraine. Their sterling moral example has pushed Germany and France to increase their defense spending at a minimum and to finally take the Russian menace seriously. The Germans reluctantly sent air defense systems about a year later.
Perhaps there’s a lesson here for us. Small democracies like Lithuania have much to teach us.
Image Credit: Vilnius, Lithuania - March 2, 2022: Peaceful demonstration against war, Putin and Russia in support of Ukraine, with people, placards, and a couple of friends with Ukrainian and Lithuanian flags. Image via Shutterstock.