Lech Walesa on Why Democracy Is Failing: ‘There Is No Leadership’

The legendary Polish union leader who helped end the Cold War says the United States and other nations have not done enough to create a new global system of democratic values.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Former President of Poland Lech Walesa
Former President of Poland Lech Walesa speaks in Gdansk, Poland, on June 4. Omar Marques/Getty Images

Lech Walesa, the legendary Polish Solidarity leader who played a central role in dismantling Soviet communism toward the end of the Cold War, is in Washington this week to mark the 30th anniversary of his landmark speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Nov. 15, 1989, a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In words that now seem bitingly quaint, Walesa, the self-described “shipyard worker from Gdansk” who went on to become a Nobel prize winner and president of Poland, called Congress “a beacon of freedom and a bulwark of human rights” at the time. “The people of Poland link the name of the United States with freedom and democracy, with generosity and high-mindedness,” he said. Today, at 76, Walesa is white-haired, and his famous mustache is trimmer, but he is constantly seen wearing shirts emblazoned with the word “constitution,” and he exudes the same passions. Only now Walesa wonders what happened to the United States of America he once so admired. Walesa spoke with Foreign Policy on Thursday. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Foreign Policy: You are here to mark the 30th anniversary of your famous speech before Congress. What do you hope to achieve with this visit?

Lech Walesa: Back then we were all fighting for a change in the status quo in the world. And it was the status quo inserted after the Second World War: Two superpowers battling. Many countries had lost sovereignty due to that arrangement. The communist system was a great impediment to development. Even the communists themselves started thinking some change had to be introduced. They wanted to hold on to power, but they knew some reform was needed, and this actually facilitated our struggle. And ultimately, with the support of the United States and many others, we succeeded in eliminating this old division in the world. But then the question arose: What should happen next? How should the world develop? And this is my message today: We have not truly constructed anything new in the world. And there is a loss we have suffered.

FP: What is that loss?

LW: The loss is the leadership position of the United States. Which is a very bad situation for the world. There is no leadership. Previously, when we were involved in our struggle, we used to have the evil empire and the good empire. And the ultimate refuge for the world.

FP: You mean leadership in terms of values—political and human values?

LW: We defeated communism. And the organizations we had in place then somehow proved effective in that part of the world. But have we replaced any of those organizations since then? One era has come to an end, and another one has not fully emerged. And we are in between. And this is the era which I refer to as the era of words—the exchange of ideas. The point is, we still don’t trust each other after the old era. And now we need to be constructing something completely different. The question is, what?

FP: There are many critics who say the system of democracy itself is not working well, including some of the leaders of Eastern European countries such as Poland, who are embracing a new brand of authoritarianism. You yourself signed a letter to the European Union last year protesting abuses of power by the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. 

LW: In Poland we underestimated democracy and took it for granted. We allowed populist demagogues to win the election. Do not underestimate democracy here in the United States and elsewhere, because you have the example of Poland. Democracy is made out of three components mainly, with about 30 percent going to each of them. The first 30 percent is legal: laws, regulations, constitutions. The second 30 percent is assessing whether people are taking advantage of this and are organized in political parties and are engaged. And the third 30 percent is the size of the bank account. And if democracy is criticized, then we have to decide which of these elements are not really operating well. Whether it’s the laws and regulations, or whether people aren’t really getting involved in political activity and elections. Or maybe they’re just too poor to get involved. 

FP: And what is your assessment?

LW: If you are speaking of Poland we do have the first 30 percent. They are trying to deprive us of some elements, but we are still holding onto the legal ground. As for the second 30 percent, I think the general voting turnout is below 50 percent—in the last election it was slightly higher but generally it’s below that. So maybe we have only 15 percent of the second 30 percent we need, and as far as the wealth of society maybe 5 percent of the Polish population can oppose political trends because they can afford to say no if they don’t like something. So following this formula I think we can say that Polish democracy in practical terms is below 50 percent [of what it could be]. How about assessing democracy in the United States? 

FP: According to your formula, or any formula, we don’t seem to be doing very well right now. There is much concern about people’s reliance on bad or false information, and how that can be the death of democracy.

LW: My diagnosis is the masses of people want some change. They can sense the world has changed, but it hasn’t changed in their favor. So that’s why so many people vote for those individuals or groups who claim they will introduce change. That’s how they voted for President [Donald] Trump and for our leadership. We have to be truthful and say that both Trump and our politicians diagnosed the situation correctly, but the treatment they have been applying is wrong.

FP: Going back to your experience as one of the leaders who brought about the fall of Soviet communism, do you think that in the aftermath of the Cold War there was too much hopefulness about the possibilities of liberal democracy and markets?

LW: I guess people did not realize that the new era required totally new solutions. That’s why we are faltering: We keep applying old solutions to the new era. … Once we invented planes and the internet, we needed to organize ourselves differently than nation-states. In Europe we are integrating countries into continents and to what extent we need to think of things globally. So this is the same question worldwide: Which of the threats and challenges need to be approached worldwide, like environment?

FP: But wasn’t that the attempt made 30 years ago, and even before that? Instead, now we find ourselves falling back into nationalism.

LW: That’s why I’m referring to this transitory period now as the era of words. … If we make mistakes then we need to debate what they have been. The only question is whether we’ll find solutions debating, or our civilization will collapse. … For example, shortly the environment will say no to what we’re doing, or maybe [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will press a button, because we cannot reach consensus.

FP: What is your greatest fear?

LW: Actually the only fear I have is of God. And I do have a little fear of my wife. I don’t fear anything else.

FP: Well, do you fear for your grandchildren, the younger generation?

LW: Actually I do have fears in this respect. That’s why, though I’m as elderly as I am and should be taking it easy, I keep traveling around the world and try to inspire discussions, because I do hope that young people in the United states will observe the same things I’m seeing and can help to secure the world for my children and grandchildren.

FP: So you are trying to restore luster to democracy?

LW: My message is, let’s find answers to the question of what should be the foundation for a new structure in the world. … If we do manage to reach a consensus on shared values, then what should the global economic system be like? We know that in previous times capitalism was a little like a rat race, but now if we’ve eliminated the competition among nations, then what should capitalism and competition be like?

FP: The solution of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is to combine nationalism with progressive redistribution, which I suppose is a little like national socialism. You don’t agree?

LW: That is the trouble. Politicians have not proposed any positive solutions, and life abhors a vacuum. And this allows the old demons of nationalism to awaken. Simply because we do not have new good solutions.

FP: If you go back 30 years, did you ever imagine that what we’re seeing now would take place?

LW: Actually I foresaw everything. The point is when we were struggling, people listened to me. But when we reached freedom, they stopped listening to me. 

FP: Finally, with your neighbor Ukraine so much in the news, do you have any thoughts about what’s gone wrong in that country?

LW: The point with Ukraine is they had been under communism much longer than Poland and other countries outside the USSR. … So it was much easier for us to introduce a new system and new regime. They had not a single living memory of what a regular world looked like, and they had been controlled by Russia much more than us and continue under this today. But certainly there is no freedom in Europe without Ukraine and Belarus being part of it. The trouble is that Europe is not integrated enough to make a decision.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh