Democracy at Stake

Laura Thornton ’88, senior vice president of democracy at the German Marshall Fund; she also sits on the board of the European Capitals of Democracy. Photo credit: European Capitals of Democracy

Laura Thornton's love of travel was sparked by her mother, Lenore, who took her daughter to unusual places such as Morocco and Turkey as a young child.

 "She opened that picture," of new worlds and new philosophies, Thornton says of her mother. Those experiences led Thornton, Class of '88, to a peripatetic life, traveling from France to Cambodia and Thailand and then to the country of Georgia, mostly working for international democracy organizations.

 Today, she's senior vice president for democracy at the German Marshall Fund, securing election rights and fighting malign influence operations, and supporting civil society organizations.

 Never has her work been more important, given the severe democratic backsliding across the globe.

 Thornton says she knew from a young age that "I would never be the titan of the private sector with a seven-figure salary that perhaps my parents would have liked. As a teenager, I always volunteered and was concerned about [human] rights, though I didn't really know how that would translate into a job. What motivated me was living in tricky places without established democracy where citizens have no voice or recourse."

 Thornton leads GMF's democracy programming—with offices in Washington, D.C., Brussels, Berlin, Bucharest, Belgrade, and Kyiv—in its mission to defend and build democracy which it does by enhancing its analysis of autocratic threats to democratic institutions, processes, and publics from malign influences, internal and external, and crafting policies and strategies to deter and raise the costs of such efforts.

 GMF programs also help support civil society by proactively bolstering democracy through independent media, civic education and media literacy, monitoring and watchdog initiatives, and public awareness and advocacy campaigns. These efforts are designed to inoculate democracies against rising autocracy in the Black Sea region and Eurasia, the Balkans, and Central Europe.

 "I like my position because it allows me to look at democracy as a global issue—not one focused only on development-aid recipient nations—and draw connections on the threats but also the solutions. I also like that my job combines policy, research, and on-the-ground programming. Of course, as with any executive leader, my job comes with a lot of administration, HR, putting out fires, dealing with the board and finance," Thornton says.

 She helps guide GMF toward solutions by developing tools, conducting research, crafting policy recommendations, and convening partners to develop innovative recommendations and build communities of best practice. By supporting grassroots organizations and activists in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Black Sea regions who are on the forefront of the democratic fight, her teams aim to bolster civic resilience to ongoing threats.

 Thornton has also built out the Alliance for Securing Democracy's strategic partnerships and joint initiatives. "We have launched three overarching programs: the election trust initiative, securing democracy in the Global South, and democracy and geopolitics," she says.

Thornton doing an interview with Al Jazeera outside a polling station in Cambodia on election day in 2013.

 Prior to her position at GMF, Thornton served in leadership positions at the National Democratic Institute and International IDEA, providing training and technical assistance to political parties, parliaments, election monitors, and civil society organizations across Asia and in Georgia.

 "In East Timor, we had to go village to village with visuals. There were old, old women in their 90s who walked at 2 a.m. to this little hut to talk about the constitution. It was so inspiring. That's real democracy practitioner work," she says.

 The German Marshall Fund was a gift for the Marshall Plan implemented in the aftermath of World War II. GMF champions the principles of democracy, human rights, and international cooperation, which have served as the bedrock of peace and prosperity since the end of that war, but are under increasing strain, particularly with Russia's brutal war in Ukraine.

 "We feel all of Ukraine must be returned to Ukrainians, and that includes Crimea," she says. "That's a long slog. We are pretty robust in our support of Ukraine. It's going to be a massive reconstruction process, and [we need to know] who that should include. We want to ensure that Ukraine is at the table and Ukrainian civil society needs to be at the table. We feel quite strongly about it."

 Whether the United States is still seen as a beacon of democracy is debatable, Thornton says. Internationally, people are concerned about the decline of democracy in the United States with the rise of disinformation, challenges to free and fair elections, and a far-right illiberal movement taking hold.

 "They are worried about NATO falling apart, lack of political support for Ukraine—there's a lot of anxiety," she says. "If the United States isn't engaged and retreats and becomes [isolationist], it's just going to be really terrible. This is of deep, deep concern among our allies."

 Still, Thornton remains optimistic. "The world, from a democracy perspective, is way better off today than 40 years ago," she says. "We are definitely moving in the right direction. But in the past 10 years we've seen significant backsliding in old and new democracies, rich and poor democracies. This is a trend that's deeply concerning, and it's global. We are at an inflection point—we have to change how we think of...the United States as a teacher. That's nonsense: We Americans need to learn as much as we need to teach. We need to be a little bit humble. What can we learn from each other? How can democracies stick together? That's really where I want my organization to focus."