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NPR’s Frank Langfitt on being a correspondent, the state of democracy and what's at stake in 2024

NPR Global Democracy Correspondent Frank Langfitt speaks to a crowd at the Old Capitol Museum on the University of Iowa campus.
Sahithi Shankaiahgari
The Iowa City Foreign Relations Council
NPR Global Democracy Correspondent Frank Langfitt speaks to a crowd at the Old Capitol Museum on the University of Iowa campus.

Frank Langfitt spent nearly two decades as an international correspondent reporting from more than 50 countries and territories. Now he covers threats to democracy at home and abroad as NPR’s global democracy correspondent.

Frank Langfitt is a name familiar to many IPR listeners. Most recently, the foreign correspondent was based in London, covering the United Kingdom and Ireland. He was one of three NPR correspondents in Ukraine when Russia invaded in February of 2022. Before Europe, he spent five years as the NPR correspondent in China, where he covered the first term of Chinese President Xi Jinping before moving to Shanghai. Langfitt was also once NPR’s East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi. In 2022, Langfitt won a national Edward R. Murrow award for a journey across London exploring the evolution of the English pub.

Langfitt was invited to speak about his career at the Old Capitol Museum on April 10 by the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council (ICFRC) as part of its 40th anniversary community celebration, where he recounted the history he's witnessed through the people he's met and how that history has shaped today's challenging geopolitical landscape. Before that, he joined Ben Kieffer on IPR'sRiver to River to discuss his new role and his thoughts on democracy through a global lens. Here are some of the things he noted during their conversation:

On his new position as NPR's global democracy correspondent

"Ever since 2016, I think a lot of us in the news business — and I'm sure, certainly a lot of the audience out there — has been worn out by all that's happened. But I was interested in doing this because of the work that I'd done in China, and living under authoritarian regime and also seeing this democracy in retreat in a variety of places. And certainly then covering the war in Ukraine — I was there for the opening of the invasion and a number of times afterwards. And that, to me, was also a democracy story: the first time, really since World War II, that a big country in Europe had attacked a sovereign nation and a democracy. And it was an authoritarian country attacking democracy. So all these sorts of things. I thought, 'This is a place that I should sort of look at and put a lot of energy into,' because it's so important, and the stakes are so high for the United States, but also much of the rest of the world."

From left to right, River to River host Ben Kieffer, NPR Global Democracy Correspondent Frank Langfitt and ICFRC Executive Director Peter Gerlach.
Ben Kieffer
From left to right, River to River host Ben Kieffer, NPR Global Democracy Correspondent Frank Langfitt and ICFRC Executive Director Peter Gerlach.

On the decline of democracy around the globe

"Democracy in various countries — people don't feel that it's been working. And this is true in the United States as well. Let’s take a place like the Philippines — if you go quite a few years back: terrible crime problem. Rodrigo Dutertetakes over and of course, in the end, ends up overseeing a lot of killings of thousands and thousands of people — extrajudicial killings — but still remains very popular because people were looking for a strong man. You see that with [Nayib] Bukele in El Salvador... You've seen Viktor Orban doing this in Hungary, and certainly, you have these tensions in the United States.

"I think income inequality is a big part of it as well. People would look at the United States and other countries where they don't feel that they have the opportunity to really move up that the system, in terms of legislation, and tax code really favors people who already have a lot of capital. And that's really a source of frustration.

"And then what you've seen, that's really interesting, is that the kind of approach to authoritarianism is really not ... where you end up trying to, frankly, kill a lot of your opponents. It's much more subtle. They do this with the courts. They tried to defang the courts. I was just in Israel back in December and talking to a lot of people about the attempts there by the government to, from their perspective, make sure the courts really weren't a check-and-balance on the system ... But there's a whole authoritarian playbook. And people have been using it at least for the last decade or 15 years.

"Also, there's always talk about free and fair elections. Sometimes it might be a free election — everybody gets to vote. But it's not fair, because they find legalistic reasons to keep people who are potential challengers to the authoritarian in-charge off of the ballot. That happens frequently. And so it's also not an easy thing to report about sometimes, because it's not sensational. It's not open conflict. But this is being used everywhere. And you see a lot of the same regimes resorting to the same kind of tactics. And there's no sign that there's some grand conspiracy, that all the authoritarians get together and trade tactics, but they watch each other through the internet. Everybody has access to this information and can see what's going on. And it is a challenge, and some of them are very clever, a lot of authoritarian leaders. And then the last thing I'll add is just repression of the internet. I mean, I lived for five years under the Great Firewall of China, where you couldn't get access to tons and tons of sites. And China has been exporting some of that very software to other countries who see what China's done. And authoritarians like the tactics that they see. And China's happy to sell the software and also help let them know ways that they can use this to their advantage."

On what's at stake in 2024

"I've been very interested, given my experience overseas, to see that the President of the United States is making [democracy] a centerpiece of his run. I think there's sort of two elements to it: One is, if Donald Trump does not win, does he accept it? He didn't accept it back in 2020, in terms of a verdict. And what happens there? And the other thing is if he does win. If he wins, he wins. That's the way the system works here. But he's already made it very clear in terms of what he'd like to do to the Civil Service here in Washington, D.C. and the federal civil service, that he wants to replace a lot of people with loyalists. So he's kind of running on a platform that talks about eroding some of the checks and balances that have been a hallmark of American democracy. He's been pretty explicit. And he says, 'I'll be a dictator, on day one, or just for day one,' but that's an extraordinary thing for someone to say who's running for president. So I think the stakes are extremely high. And I think it's also, having worked so much time overseas, particularly in Europe, I can tell you that people all over the world are watching this election very, very closely. And I think that they will see it as, to some degree, determinative of the future course of this country."

"Having worked so much time overseas, particularly in Europe, I can tell you that people all over the world are watching this election very, very closely. And I think that they will see it as, to some degree, determinative of the future course of this country."
Frank Langfitt, NPR Global Democracy Correspondent

"This is an incredibly unpredictable election. It's very, very close in a number of places. We just learned that on April 15, unless there's some other delay, [former] President Trump will go on trial in New York. That's unprecedented, and you don't know how the trial will turn out, and then how people will respond to whatever the verdict is and what that does in terms of his support. You also see that Nikki Haley, while she's no longer in the race, Trump has not reached out to her supporters. I don't cover American politics, I just watch it like everybody else, but I think it's very unpredictable. One of the challenges will be that if Trump does win, and he does come back into office, he will not have some of the guardrails that he had in more traditional people in the cabinet. He's not interested in those sorts of people in key cabinet positions. And so there will be fewer people to try to restrain some of his proclivities. And then I think that does end up with a civil society question, 'How do civil societies react to that if the system itself is not able to stop things that the population is very unhappy with in terms of eroding checks and balances?' Then I think you see what civil society does. The answer in Israel was enormous protests. So I mean, we'll see what happens between now and early November.

"I'm just interested in seeing how the rest of the elections run this year. There are more people able to go to the polls in the world than ever before, and I'm going to be fascinated to see by the time we get to New Year's Eve, exactly how democracy has fared and where there have been wins and where there have been losses and we've seen decline, and if we know a lot more about the trajectory of democracy around the world."

On how allies and adversaries view America

"Pretty much anytime the United States is distracted from China, by and large, that's good for Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. And I'll give you some examples: When the United States went to war in Afghanistan, and then also into Iraq … the United States couldn't focus on China. And that gave China a lot of opportunity to do the kinds of things it wanted to in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative of building these trade routes out towards the west. And so that seems very advantageous. In terms of Russia, for instance, obviously they've been very involved. They were involved in the 2016 election. And they like to see a distracted America as well, because when the United States is looking inside, or when it's distracted with other issues overseas, that just gives them a lot more room to maneuver ... Generally speaking, when the Americans are at each other's throats on Capitol Hill, that's beneficial to our adversaries, no doubt."

"People were talking about the pivot to Asia back in the Obama administration. And one of the — I can't remember whether it's the first or second term I had been reporting from China. Actually, since the 1990s I had done a stint earlier with the Baltimore Sun from ‘97 to 2002. And it was pretty clear to us as reporters that this was going to be the global story that the country was growing at 10%, 12%, 14%. At times, it was staggering. It's just never happened in human history. And we were on the ground seeing this. And we would talk sometimes to people in the state department, we'd say this is a really big deal. And they knew that, but it was hard for the United States because the landscape —the global landscape — was so uncertain. And you had 9/11, then you had the war in Iraq and then, of course, you had the global financial crisis. There were a variety of distractions, plus things also going on in the Middle East. That's not to say these things aren't very important. But when you think about what's the biggest geopolitical rival to the US, there's no question: It's China. And so what happens is, the United States continues to try to pivot Asian. What I mean by that is really strengthen these alliances, and from China's perspective, contain China. But it's hard to do because things keep happening.

"Gaza is a great example. I mean, up until the weeks before Gaza, I think Jake Sullivan had talked about how quiet the Middle East had been. And of course, now, not only has this consumed American policy, not only has it consumed America in terms of foreign policy, but it's also redrawn some of the dynamics in the Democratic Party. And it's a challenge domestically, obviously, for President Biden as he runs for a second term. So they were actually doing quite well on the pivot. They've really strengthened their relationships with Japan and with Korea and with Australia. They're doing a big sub deal with Australia — 12 subs — which could be a bit of a game changer, frankly, in the South China Sea. But it's always been a challenge for Americans to keep focused because there are so many places that are so unpredictable around the world."

"[America's allies] are stunned. In 2016, I was in the U.S. Embassy in London watching the returns. And people in the United Kingdom were very surprised that Americans chose somebody like Donald Trump, who also did not have this sense of a transatlantic alliance or even as much interest in alliances. He's a very transactional real estate person. And when you look at NATO, people in Europe, they depend on the United States for security. And they also feel whatever the differences there are between the French and the Americans and the Germans and the Americans, there are shared values and shared beliefs and shared democratic beliefs. And so with Donald Trump coming in, he was not interested in those kinds of alliances, and he's been very critical. And there's concern that he might try to pull out of NATO, or if he can't actually pull out of it, he could just not participate, which would really hurt NATO. I would say that they are watching each election trying to figure out if the United States is the country they thought it was before 2016. And they're concerned. And I think that this is also that's another reason why I think this election is so important, because if Donald Trump wins, many of our traditional allies, particularly in Europe, will really be concerned. And they will think, ‘Well, maybe America is not a place that we can rely on at all.’ And that sort of changes everything."

On war in Ukraine

"Trump saying they need to spend more money on their own defense is the same thing that Obama said and other presidents have said, and Trump is right. It’s very important to say that. That general message is absolutely true. If you look at all of the spending, 70 cents on the dollar comes to the United States in terms of all of the spending of the NATO allies. And so Trump is right about that. The other thing is that for Europe and for NATO, they're going to have to spend a lot more on their own defense, because the United States really is going to continue to be focused on China and NATO. There's no Blue Water Navy and NATO that can get to Asia and really support the U.S. So I think as the U.S. continues to focus on Asia, the powers there in Europe are going to have to do a lot more to defend Ukraine and defend the eastern front against Russia. And I think that's just an inevitability.

"The question is, how do they do it? And how quickly do they do it, because most of them are not remotely at the capacity to be able to provide the way that the Americans did and without the American support. The EU did a good job, a very good job, in the early days of the war in Ukraine. Without the Americans, the Russians would have probably rolled across Ukraine almost certainly. And it was the American weaponry and the American support that made a huge difference in keeping the Russians out of Kyiv and keeping the Russians from sweeping the country."

"I was in Odessa [when Russia first invaded Ukraine]. I used to be an economics and business correspondent, so I thought it'd be important to be down along the Black Sea, because I knew that if Russia's Black Sea Fleet could seal that off, it would really strangle the economy. What happened was about midnight or so I was in touch with Tom Bowman, who's our Pentagon correspondent ... and he told me that there would be an invasion the next morning before dawn, and that I should be prepared for that. At that time, the Pentagon thought that this was something that could fall within 48, 72 hours. And so the advice that I was getting was basically, ‘Get out of there. Get out of Odessa. Get maybe even get out of Ukraine.' That morning, at about a little after five o'clock, we heard the missiles hitting in Odessa, and we were concerned about an air assault. So I went to my driver and my translators and I couldn't convince them that this invasion was actually happening. And that was because President Solinsky had convinced many, many Ukrainians that this was never going to happen at all. And they believed him.

"And so we were driving just to get out of Odessa because we were concerned that if there were an air assault in Odessa, we would get pinned in, and I was with my translator at the time, and she was looking at her phone and saying that, 'There's no invasion, I don't see anything on Twitter.' And I said, 'This is how reporting works. We actually find out what happens and then we report on it.'

"We were able to make our way north. Over a series of days we must have driven at least 1,500 miles across the country, watching the whole country change every 24 hours as people came to realize that this was an existential threat. You'd be driving along perfectly normal, like anyplace in Iowa or here, and then the next morning, you would see people putting up sandbags and creating checkpoints, old farmers coming out to a cultural center in a small village to sign up to fight at the front and get their machine guns and head off to fight the Russians. It was remarkable to see a country changed so rapidly from this sense that, 'This is never going to happen,' to, ‘Oh my gosh, the Russians want to take over our country.’"

"It was remarkable to see a country changed so rapidly from this sense that, 'This is never going to happen,' to, ‘Oh my gosh, the Russians want to take over our country.’"
Frank Langfitt, NPR Global Democracy Correspondent

"In Kyiv, and to the west, for sure, very European leaning, and very focused on Europe in parts of the Donbas and also parts of the south, which is where I spent a lot of time, and I spent a lot of time down in both areas. This was really interesting and kind of creepy … there was a lot of support for Russia, partly for cultural reasons, partly because they had watched a lot of Russian TV and they believed what they were hearing. But they felt more of an affinity to Russia. And so what would happen is during these big battles for these towns and cities, most people would leave, but some of the people who would be left would be very pro-Russian. So we would have reporters go into small villages, and it would be pretty bombed out, and then they might see a few men like, ‘Oh, who are these guys?’ And they would go into the village, and within ten minutes, there would be Russian artillery. These were Ukrainian men who were actually working as spotters for the Russians. And they would call in airstrikes to hit the journalists.

"Most of the country is not in favor of Russia, and they didn't like Russia to begin with. Before the war happened, I was spending time in Kyiv and the Maidan, this is the Independence Square, and I was there for a memorial. More than 100 people were killed, in 2014, who were protesting a pro-Russian regime and ended up actually toppling that regime in the end. And certainly people in Maidan, they didn't like Russia at all. They really had a much greater affinity with the West. But still to this day, an interesting question is, even if Ukraine were able to take back a lot of this territory, what would happen if you take back territory where the people who are left there are actually quite pro-Russian?

"I think in terms of the parliamentary elections, which will be in June, I think that more populist and right wing parties are expected to do considerably better, and that will put more pressure on aid for Ukraine. And there's been a lot of back and forth over the years. The first big story I covered in Europe, I arrived a week before the Brexit vote, so I got a good look at some of those sentiments in England and in the United Kingdom, and what a big impact that they can have politically. Things ebb and flow in Europe. I covered a man named Geert Wilders. I covered his election, he ran in 2017. Very right wing. In the Netherlands, did not win, and now most recently, in the last year, he was able to come back and do very, very well. And actually, his party got the most votes. So I think it's just worth watching that very closely, as well as other parts of the world, as populists gain ground. Of course, populism in Europe is also very complicated. You can have a populist who also was willing to work with the rest of Europe to defend that Eastern flank. But I think the parliamentary elections, it's not something Americans paid that much attention to, but given the fluidity of global politics these days, it's worth keeping an eye on all these places."

Josie Fischels contributed to this report.

Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River