Lithuania shares a border with two hostile autocratic neighbors, Belarus and Russia. If that weren’t enough, the small Baltic democracy is taking on China, too, and wants to play an important role at the Summit for Democracy in early December. It’s a role model for confident, democratic leadership in the 21st century. But will the United States and other powerful democracies come together with tangible support even as authoritarians and populists seem to be on the rise? Lithuanian Vice Minister Mantas Adomėnas and US Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Kara McDonald joined The Cable to discuss the challenges and hopes for the summit.


The Cable is a production of ICWA and the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group.

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Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Former U.S. Consul General Strasbourg and Deputy Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe




Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania

Former Member of the Seimas (Parliament) of Lithuania





Executive Director, Institute of Current World Affairs

Journalist, author of Russians: The People Behind the Power



Senior Fellow and Director of Democracy Initiatives, The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Former Deputy Assistant Administrator, Europe and Eurasia Bureau, US Agency for International Development


The Cable is produced by Glenn Kates. Alexandra Wasielak provided research. Audio mastering by Danil Komar.


Read the transcript:

Jonathan Katz: When Joe Biden announced last November that America is back, the then president-elect cast his promise in terms of renewing American leadership of democracies and an overarching competition with China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes. He also focused on tackling the growing cancer of corruption and growing human rights abuses as part of that effort. The White House is spearheading a virtual Summit for Democracy next month to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today. That will be followed by another summit in 2022. The administration has invited 108 countries, saying it wants to highlight the key role civil society, independent media and the private sector play in advancing democracy. At the same time, autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Belarus’s Alexandr Lukashenko were not invited. Can President Biden catalyze a Democratic renewal, marshaling allies struggling to address the pandemic, climate change and economic difficulties. I’m Jonathan Katz in Washington, and this is The Cable—a transatlantic discussion about the front lines of democracy, produced by the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group and the Institute of Current World Affairs. I’m joined by my co-host Gregory Feifer, also in Washington.

Gregory Feifer: Thanks Jonathan. Among those transatlantic allies, few have stepped up to help confront the authoritarian threat as earnestly as Lithuania. The small Baltic country with a population of under 3 million people, is on the front lines against not only its neighbor and former Soviet ruler Moscow, but also Beijing and others. So I’m very pleased that we’re joined today by Lithuanian Vice Minister Mantas Adomėnas from the capital Vilnius. He can describe the threats his own country faces and what that means for the rest of us. Among his other work, he oversees Lithuania’s policy shaping and its implementation in the United Nations, the Council of Europe and other multilateral organizations. I’m also delighted that Kara McDonald is here from Washington. She’s the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, where she oversees the bureau’s work on Europe and South and Central Asia, among other things. What does the Biden administration expect to accomplish with its summit? Is it more than a symbolic fulfillment of a campaign promise? She can give a preview.

Katz: Deputy Assistant Secretary and Vice Minister, welcome to The Cable.

Lithuanian Vice Minister Mantas Adomėnas: Thank you. Good evening.

US Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Kara McDonald: Thank you, Jonathan, it’s good to be with you.

Katz: Vice Minister, I’d like to start off with you first by asking why advocating for democracy has become such an important part of Lithuanian foreign policy and what you’re doing to draw attention to the threats. Because Lithuania faces clear and present dangers on your border with Belarus and Russia. Can you describe some of those challenges as well?

Adomėnas: In a way, the choice of whether to pursue this policy of support of democracy, this choice was taken away from us because we are living in the corner of the world, in the corner of Europe, where tyranny and autocracy are not something academic. It’s 30 kilometers, 20 miles from where I sit, that another state begins, where people can be put in prison and beaten up, sentenced to long years just for wearing the wrong colors, colors that symbolize a yearning for democracy and freedom. So it is for us a very vivid reality. What is unfreedom? What is the alternative to this, if I may say so, still fragile achievements of freedom and democracy, which we sort of worked through to build for 30 years. Also, our very statehood is something that was born out of resisting the Soviet regime, and this is still a vivid memory of how our democracy came to be. It was not chosen in a referendum by the liberation, but by acting and fighting the Soviet regime by people who were ready to sacrifice their freedom and their life’s prospects just in the way that present day Belarusians do. So we have this very deep connection to the people who are fighting for their freedom and whose freedom needs constant efforts for preservation—hence also our solidarity with the democrats of Hong Kong and the democratic people of Taiwan, whose freedom and whose process of living in peace and security and enjoying their freedom is being threatened. So I think this understanding is what shapes our foreign policy. And as I said, it’s not a conscious choice, it’s just what we are and the place in the world where we are that we feel very acutely the threats to democracy.

Feifer: Deputy Assistant Secretary McDonald, President Biden has had a lot to say about strengthening democracy around the world, even as some worry that autocrats and kleptocrats are still on the rise, with China and Russia hardening their opposition to Washington and other liberal democracies. The administration is pitching the upcoming Summit for Democracy as a historic opportunity to renew democracy. Can you walk us through what exactly that means? Who will have a seat at the table and what would count for a successful summit? What specific deliverables are you looking for?

McDonald: Thank you, Gregory. You know, I think that the president recognizes that for the first time in two decades, more people live under authoritarian rule than democratic governance. So the president promised very early to hold a summit for democracy with two objectives. One is to build momentum for democratic renewal, and the second is to show or to demonstrate that democracy can deliver for all. The summit is very much designed towards these objectives, towards achieving these objectives, and our premise is that democratic governance is best placed to respond to these challenges. If you look at global health issues or climate change, I think the United States, it’s very important to say upfront that we come at this from a position of humility. It’s quite a daunting and ambitious agenda. But the idea has been to invite other countries, civil society, the private sector, legislatures and philanthropic organizations to join us in coming together. In what we see, December is really a launch as a beginning, not as a one off talk fest, but really the beginning of a process to bring us to some democratic renewal. And what we mean by that, is if we break it down a little bit, we have looked at three basic pillars for the summit: One is countering authoritarianism. The second is addressing and fighting global corruption. And the third is really doubling down on the protection of human rights. And I think across those areas, we very much hope and invite other governments, civil society and others to join us. This is not about coming together just to talk. This is about coming together to pledge and to act. So the two phases that you mentioned. So meeting in December virtually followed by what we hope will be an opportunity to work together for collective action. We hope, of course, the global health situation permitting, to do an in-person summit sometime next year to compare notes and to look and say what is working, what is gaining results, where are we seeing results in all of these areas in these three main pillar areas? It’s about bolstering democratic principles and protecting human rights, which are very much the backbone of our post-World War II architecture.

Katz: Vice Minister, Lithuania is clearly not waiting for the summit in December to promote democracy or to take on some of the challenges that have been laid out by Deputy Assistant Secretary McDonald. Your government’s going to be hosting a high-level forum on defending against authoritarianism, that’s coming up in a few days. So I’d like to ask you about that particular forum and what you hope to achieve.

Adomėnas: We want to draw countries and activists and civil society representatives who we know from our region, who we trust and just to articulate several threats that we see. First is this contracting democratic space and the threats and temptations, tyrannical temptations, which arise from certain acquiescence with seeing democracy as a sort of inevitability. But it’s not inevitable. It’s in fact as fragile now as it has ever been since the end of the Cold War. And on the other hand, we see entrenchment and consolidation of authoritarian opposition. We see there used to be this Communist International, when I was younger and growing up in the Soviet Union. But now the ideologues of the Chinese Communist Party call on Russia and Belarus to team together to punish Lithuania for expanding its relations and ties with Taiwan, with democratic Taiwan. So it’s very important to consolidate this democratic position into a united community of democracies, which would act in concert, in solidarity, helping each other against economic coercion, helping against political pressure from authoritarian giants. We need to rejuvenate the democratic discourse, which does sometimes, unfortunately, feel like the people who articulate it no longer believe it, as profoundly, as ardently as I believe those people who were fighting for their freedom 30 years ago in Eastern Europe.

Feifer: Kara, President Biden has described revitalizing alliances as a cornerstone to renewing democracy. I’d like to ask you, in the case of Lithuania, what does that mean specifically? Can we burrow down a little bit into what Lithuania is actually doing to step up, to provide leadership to defend against authoritarianism? And what’s the administration doing to support partners like Lithuania?

McDonald: I think it’s incredibly important to recognize the tremendous leadership and courage of Lithuania and other countries like it, that, let’s face it, are just punching way above their size and weight. This issue of building momentum for democratic renewal for democratic revitalization, pushing back against models of authoritarianism that are being exported to many other countries. Even a number of democracies are faced with flirtations with authoritarian models and authoritarian approaches. And I think Lithuania’s history, its dedication, its passion, defending democratic values and fundamental freedoms—we see it every day in our diplomacy. The United States and Lithuania enjoy a tremendously strong bilateral relationship. We have historical ties as NATO allies and as friends we’re very much dedicated to that robust security partnership and to these ideals and values, which I think the deputy minister so articulately noted are not just about values, they are the basis of strategic interest. They are the basis of international treaty and the architecture from which we work in diplomacy and in the international order. And I think what we have seen and what we hope for is the opportunity to learn and to hear from these countries that are really, on the front lines, so to speak.

Katz: Vice Minister, when you hear this back and forth, maybe talk about some of those direct challenges, the most serious ones right now, maybe the specific examples of the types of things your country is experiencing and then I wanted to also just turn to China for a second, if we could.

Adomėnas: Well, a year ago, when we were writing the present government’s manifesto, the phrase crept in, that Lithuania is keen to support and protect democracy and defend us and people who are fighting for freedoms, from Belarus to Taiwan. And that sort of phrase was almost accidental, in the sense that we see Taiwan as a litmus test of resilience in the international rules-based order. And I don’t need to explain that to Americans, but sometimes in Europe, people ask, Why Taiwan? Why is it important? Well, as long as Taiwan survives, we can be sure that there is a certain confidence in the power of the democratic world to fend for their own and to protect international agreements on which this international order has been based. That’s even though for us, the immediate challenge comes from Russia’s aggression, which is sometimes very inventive, very creative, very proactive and colorful. But in the long term, it is the systematic challenge to the very foundations of the system on which the international order is based, a challenge to democracy and human rights as a universal criteria of human development, a challenge through international organizations and through creating networks of influence and economic colonialism. And now what Lithuania faces is undeclared economic sanctions as a response to the decision to open a Taiwanese representative office. And I think this is an important point to emphasize—that Lithuania decided not to go with this euphemism of using the Taipei Representative Office because we have relations and want to extend our relations with the whole of Taiwanese people. Hence the decision to open a Taiwanese representative office, which China views as a violation of the one-China principle. But again, a substantial question for us here is that if we allow China to dictate the content of the one-China policy, then basically we hand over sovereignty to start building our relations with Taiwan to the country, which is only interested in its demise. Hence our insistence that we define what the conduct of our one-China policy is to which we are committed to international agreements and we observe our international agreements quite religiously. And this is the sovereignty that many countries forego when they go too deep into economic dependence. And then this is now a vital dilemma for Lithuania, which is being threatened with a total blockade of its exports and supply routes. And so I think that if Lithuania can survive this, the sanctions and this attempt to punish it, then it will be an example and maybe encouragement to other countries to follow more independent trajectories when building their relations with Taiwan and to China.

Katz: So there’s a real cost to taking on these challenges, also there is an importance of what you’re doing and the reason why am I raising this is, I think it was a senior official in your government in Washington recently said, I think this was a few days back that your nation’s rocky, rocky ties with China are a wake up call for Europe. And I was trying to understand what exactly does that mean? Is it that there’s a split within Europe about China or that Vilnius wants to see Europe transition because we can see different relationships with Beijing and China across Europe and in different capitals.

Adomėnas: I wouldn’t characterize it as a split, more like some of the learning processes, which sometimes may take time, and it is sometimes tempting for democratic countries to go deep and integrate deeply in the Chinese economy or in technological cooperation or even academic links and fail to see the stakes are quite high. What they’re risking is their independence of making autonomous choices. The cost of economic dependency on China is not fully realized by all members of the EU and how this how this interdependence can be exploited or even weaponized by unscrupulous authoritarian regimes is something that not many realize at the moment, but with the economic sanctions on one of the EU members, on one of the European market members, this realization is growing. And also a repugnance about using and weaponizing economic relations is also increasing. And so how one tries to gloss over it by talking about win-win situations and it’s a change through dialogue or the sort of nice formulae which are invented to mask and sort of conceal these underlying needs for economic profits. But eventually it all goes down to a fundamental difference. And looking at the human rights or even property rights, what is the nature of economics? Is it a servant of geopolitics or is it a respectable activity in its own right?

Feifer: Kara, this podcast recently hosted an episode about the Pandora Papers leak that revealed how autocrats, oligarchs and their enablers hide massive amounts of wealth at the expense of the general public. Now you witnessed that kind of system up close, when you served as deputy chief of mission, number 2 in the US Embassy in Moldova and as a senior official at the State Department as well. Can you describe the administration’s anti-corruption strategy and perhaps mention some specific episodes of what you’ve seen and how the U.S. might use the summit to increase support for those crucial tools of civil society, media and law enforcement?

McDonald: I often say when we’re talking about strategy, development and policy development, that corruption is the currency of repression. It facilitates authoritarian models. It creates a permissive environment for the success of these centralized authoritarian models. So we are very much in the context of the summit inviting participants to examine their own domestic value added to the international fight against corruption. We of the United States intend to come to the table also with pledges and commitments in this area. Let me talk kind of briefly how this administration has approached this. So I think you’ve all seen in the middle of summer, June 3rd, President Biden released what we call the National Security Study Memorandum. It was the first national security study memorandum of the administration on the fight against corruption. It established anti-corruption as a core US national security priority. So again, reinforcing this point of Mantas’s that this is not just about values, this is about strategic interests. And it really begins to outline how to modernize, how to coordinate, how to identify resources, to fight corruption, to tackle illicit finance, to hold corrupt actors accountable, to improve our foreign assistance in this area and to build coalitions and to build international partnerships on this. And as we look at this, I think you’ll see this administration and we at the State Department are very committed to bringing additional transparency to the US and international financial systems. And you asked for some specifics. So by going after illicit tax havens, making it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people to hide behind anonymous front companies, going after beneficial and looking into beneficial ownership, looking at curbing illicit and opaque financial transactions at home and abroad, reducing offshore financial secrecy, implementing federal US law, requiring companies to report their beneficial owner to the Department of Treasury and as necessary, looking at reforms that may be needed around these areas. So we’re really looking at a very wide and complex set of issues, set of challenges, recognizing, of course, that the United States cannot handle these alone, that this is very much a collective fight. And I think it’s also important here  to recognize that no country is too small in this fight. You mentioned my service in Moldova. I think Moldova is a country that certainly has recognized its priority of addressing and fighting corruption. And I think that we do see often that small countries, large countries, any, can be a front line of where illicit finance is channeled through where oligarchs and others are able to put their illicit gains.

Feifer: So I’d like to ask about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany. Lithuania’s foreign minister has called Washington’s acquiescence of that project a mistake, and that mistake will cost dearly, he said. Vice Minister do you agree? Isn’t the pipeline a prime symbol of the main challenge facing Western countries, getting them to put common democratic values over their own economic interests?

Adomėnas: Well, first of all, it would be unpolitic for me to disagree with my minister. So yes, I think that we don’t know the calculus by which this decision was made not to oppose Nord Stream 2, but this is a project which originates in corruption. And this is a very vivid example of how corruption is used to further the influence of authoritarian states, such as Russia in this instance. Corruption in the general political elite as its inception and it acquired an influence and instruments to pretty much hold a ransom of Eastern European states, which are primarily Ukraine, which can be bypassed and then become energy dead ends for gas transit. So I think again, it’s not only a matter of values It’s very much about  strategic interests. And when we’re handing over the instruments to authoritarian states. And so there is this naivete. But we can appeal to international agreements, to the papers they’ve signed, to considerations of the greater good and trust them not to use these instruments against all the democratic countries or countries like Ukraine, which is trying to integrate to, gets closer to the West. And so time and again we have proven that authoritarian states are intrinsically aggressive and they intrinsically will use any instruments that we leave in their hands to further their influence and not the common good. So yes, Nord Stream 2 is a very good case in point. That’s of deals we should not enter without knowing very precisely how we’re going to control the fallout. And I’m afraid we don’t have sufficient levers to force Russia to obey what it promised to Angela Merkel and not to leave Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova at the mercy of energy blackmail.

Katz: Vice Minister, I wanted to ask you about the Belarus border issues that your government and also others are facing in the region, including about those that are coming across the border. On the one hand, the government has obviously been very open when it comes to the Belarusians and Russians that have been fleeing the country, you know, from authoritarian governments. Clearly, there’s been an open door. I wanted to ask you about that question, but also about and I prefer to hybrid because there’s a weaponization of migration being carried out by Mr. Lukashenka that that puts both your government, but also those that are coming through Belarus in a very difficult space as well and exploiting them to achieve political objectives. And I wanted to ask you about the latest on that.

Adomėnas: So even as we speak, there is a search for several thousand migrants collected and actually directed by the Belarussian border guards to the Polish border. We see this cynicism of this authoritarian regime. And of course, we have to separate two levels. One is of the genuine plight of those migrants who are sometimes deceived, sometimes manipulated into thinking they can easily make their way into the West and the border. But on the other end, there is this regime which has engineered these flows as a means of political pressure. It’s really the weaponization of migration flows to exert pressure on all the countries. So you can imagine that this sort of instrument was really a desperate attempt by the dictator who is feeling the pressure of the Western sanctions on him to desperately try to force us into dialogue, to force us to step down on sanctions. We say that it shows us that sanctions work. We have to keep them on. We have to keep them to make the dictator release political prisoners and to go into dialogue with the opposition and people who fight for democracy. We cannot afford, as a democratic world, to blink first, because our credibility is at stake. If we carry it through then we can start restoring the credibility of democratic countries of the democratic system that we generally care to give freedom and to give voice to these people who are being persecuted for their fight for democracy in Belarus as well as throughout the world.

Katz: Kara, I wanted to bring you in too. What the minister is saying about the challenges facing the Belarusians and Russians, there are countries that will not be represented at the government level, both Russia and Belarus. What role do you see for citizens from countries that are not represented at the summit? What’s your expectation for them?

McDonald: Thank you, Jonathan. We have felt that it’s not just important, but indeed imperative to hear from human rights defenders, from independent journalists, from civil society activists globally. So that includes very much those from countries that are unfortunately very closed and who have not expressed an interest or who have not been willing to participate in what we’re calling this revitalization of democracy. So we do very much anticipate and see the incorporation not just the one off of a Dec. 9-10 event, but really the summit as a launch and into this year of action to hear from to understand best practices in these areas. I think something that the minister said is very important. You know, authoritarian regimes are using all tools: disinformation, strategic communication, migration, coercive measures, economic policy to enhance their influence and to undermine democratic norms and international treaties around human rights. And this is why, again, I keep coming back to what’s at stake. And so we see this very much as a tremendous concern. So I think having voices of those who are again really at the front lines and we talked about Lithuania’s role, but really of human rights activists, the tremendous and courageous Belarussian activists, some of whom are in Vilnius, some of whom are in Warsaw, some of whom are still in in Belarus, fighting for freedom. Those who are leaving Russia in larger and larger numbers because of the repression there, because of the closing of civil society, space and very much we want to hear from them. Autocratic governments will peddle and will have you believe that their citizens have to trade fundamental freedoms for their security. They will crack down on fundamental freedoms in the name of security. We have very much rejected that falsehood. We believe that challenges like global health, climate change, these are challenges that require transparency. They require equity, they inquire inclusion, they require free media. So very much this is not just about one country or one person, it is really about the trends that we see globally to be able to respond to today’s challenges.

Katz: Mr. Minister, you know when you hear this, Kara, what you just laid out, which is, there’s this argument that authoritarians are just the right model for right now based on global challenges. How does the government of Lithuania respond? And also, I wanted to ask, do you see something in your history that that might show why democracy works best?

Adomėnas: There is this temptation at the moment to say, look, we are now living in some crisis, let’s suspend human rights, let’s suspend transparency and suspend some democratic procedures which hinder things and drag them out in time. Let’s suspend it all for a moment until we’re safe and secure. This is the road to turn to tyranny. It’s so easy to get used to it, to having less accountability and having less competition in the public arena to have less criticism. And so we’ve been in this system which doesn’t work, which sort of tries to present itself as humanity’s last word. I mean, the Soviet Union’s, the word of scientific progress and that it’s the more scientific sort of political system devised. And we saw from inside how it failed to deliver not only on the fundamentals of economic conditions, but also to this society and change and aspirations. So we see the same now when we read about the triumph of socialism in China—that it has proven that Marxism works through its experimentation on a billion and a half human beings and through installing sort of Orwellian systems of surveillance and control. It’s a matter of, well, not in a sense of faith, but also a form of experience formed through very many bitter decades of enslavement that only in freedom can we can we be sure that we are creating our destiny ourselves, that it’s not some elites hidden under authoritarian controls which are trying to determine our path for us.

Katz: Vice Minister Adomėnas and Deputy Assistant Secretary McDonald, thank you. We really appreciate you joining The Cable today. Vice Minister, we wish you good luck in the upcoming forum. Kara with you as well, you and your colleagues as you get ready for the Summit for Democracy and the Year of Action and Summit Summit for Democracy Part 2 in 2022.

McDonald: Thank you very much.

Adomėnas: Thank you very much.



Top photo: Belarus border (Egor Eryomov, RIA Novosti, Wikimedia Commons)