A key front in the global struggle for freedom
The small Baltic country of Lithuania is once again a battleground in the global competition between democracies and authoritarianism
The Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy, planned for December 9 and 10, aims to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal in the world and renew America’s commitment to supporting freedom in the world.
A few voices have already criticized the summit even before it’s been held, with some in the United States pointing out the considerable challenges America faces at home with its own democracy. Other voices from the realist and retrenchment camps of U.S. foreign policy have argued for years that America does more harm than good on the values front, a perspective shared by many of America’s autocratic competitors in the world.
Predictably, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the United States published a joint opinion piece this month in an American publication disparaging the event, writing without irony that it will “stoke ideological confrontation.” Compare the “blame America first” voices in U.S. foreign policy with the views of America’s adversaries in the world and you’ll find some overlap.
The fact that President Joseph Biden is taking time out of his busy schedule at the end of a very active first year on the domestic and foreign policy fronts to hold this summit is nonetheless an important sign. Donald Trump undercut democracy at home and abroad for four years, after Barack Obama mostly downgraded America’s global democracy agenda in the list of U.S. national security priorities. The move by the Biden administration presents an opening for those who think it’s important for America to take on a leadership role in advancing freedom in the world. But summits can only do so much and it will be key to follow up on the commitments made on specific cases.
One important front to watch in the current struggle for freedom in the world is the small Baltic country of Lithuania, which is facing pressures from both Russia and China as well as some of its neighbors like Belarus. How did a small country with a population just under three million find itself in the crosshairs in this wider struggle for freedom in the world?
Part of it is simple geography – like the two other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, the country is situated between Russia and Europe, and it finds itself on the fault lines of some of the major geopolitical tectonic plates shifting in the international system. To its immediate east, Lithuania faces Belarus, a country led by an autocratic partner of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and to its west is Poland, a country that has seen considerable backsliding in its own democracy. Lithuania is also a key transit area for trains carrying goods from China to Europe.
Lithuania’s commitment to its own democratic independence is legendary, although not flawless. The Soviet Union forcibly annexed Lithuania in 1940 during World War II, and the country declared its independence 50 years later during the wave of democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. In the three decades that followed the end of the Cold War, Lithuania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union while maintaining an independent voice supporting democracy.
Today, Lithuania faces new challenges to its democracy on three key fronts:
Russia – Russia’s Putin has initiated a number of destabilizing moves across the region in recent years. The Biden administration is currently worried about mounting Russian threats to Ukraine, but it should also keep an eye on what Russia has done for years to intimidate Lithuania with its military exercises and political pressure. NATO meets this week in Latvia, and Russia’s threats to regional security are high on the agenda.
Belarus - Lithuania’s next-door neighbor has been drawing even closer to Russia in recent years. Belarus has exploited the global migration crisis for political purposes, engineering a scheme aimed at putting pressure on Europe by sending migrants from around the world to their borders and reinforcing a gated community mindset in many open societies. In addition, Lithuania has offered a haven for opposition activists fighting an uphill battle for freedom in Belarus.
China – In recent months, China has targeted Lithuania in a series of political and economic moves because Lithuania built closer ties to Taiwan, an independent democratic country threatened by China. Lithuania also advised its officials not to use Chinese phones found to have censorship software and withdrew from a regional diplomatic grouping promoting China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. On a visit to Washington last week, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis raised the prospect of working on a coordinated boycott of the Winter Olympics scheduled for Beijing next February.
All of these pressures recently prompted Lithuania to update its national security strategy recently to put an even stronger emphasis on the aggressive moves by authoritarian countries like Russia, Belarus and China. But a small country like Lithuania won’t be able to stand on its own in the face of such large pressures – and that’s where Biden’s Summit for Democracy could be important – to send a message of solidarity to countries like Lithuania.
The Biden administration has lifted up its voice on Lithuania, and a speech earlier this month given by Uzra Zeya, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the State Department struck all the right notes in Vilnius, as were the messages sent by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman after her meeting with the Lithuanian foreign minister.
This week, I spoke with a senior foreign policy advisor in Lithuania’s government to discuss all of these dynamics and get his ideas on what could be done and why it’s important not just to Lithuania but the wider challenges. He shared the impression that “America has taken a step back” on these key issues related to freedom in the world, especially compared to thirty years ago. In discussing ideas about what could be done, his main idea was to help make his country a “hub” for freedom. All of his ideas were in the diplomatic and information space and didn’t require military measures or boots on the ground. He spoke about U.S. public diplomacy efforts of previous eras and how much more robust America’s activities were in shaping the information landscape years ago.
He described the political battle today as much more complicated and nuanced, and that America is not doing nearly as much as it could to fight the battles and country the disinformation and political efforts of aggressive authoritarian countries. In this battle of ideas and contest between different political systems, leading from behind will not work – America needs to be more deeply engaged than it already is.
In essence, this Lithuanian official is talking about how to counter what Christopher Walker of the National Endowment for Democracy has called “sharp power” – the assertive efforts by autocratic governments to spread confusion, limit criticism, and create dysfunction and gridlock in open societies like America and Lithuania.
While it’s true that America faces major challenges with its own democracy and has made several unforced errors in its foreign policy in recent years, Biden’s Summit for Democracy offers an important opportunity to connect with others around the world in places like Lithuania and find common cause in facing the shared challenges we face in open, democratic societies.