Lech Walesa, the onetime Polish shipyard electrician who helped ignite a movement that won the Cold War, gave a stark take on the modern world as he explained that the current state of many countries resembles “a lot of the situation” when he first seized the world’s attention four decades ago.

Speaking to a group at American University Thursday dressed in a grey T-shirt that read “Constitution,” the former Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate argued that the U.S. is no longer the global leader, which “causes a very dangerous situation worldwide.”

“The United States was the ‘good empire,'” he said in Polish, as a translator quickly followed up in English. “Whatever things were going wrong in the world, people could hope for the United States to come to the rescue. … The United States was the ultimate refuge.”

Mr. Walesa, famed for his anti-communist crusade in the 1980s, played a critical role in the formation of Poland’s Solidarity trade union that challenged both Poland’s communist government and the Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe. He served one term as modern Poland’s first democratically elected president.

He was in Washington this week to mark the 30th anniversary of his momentous address to a joint session of Congress, delivered even as the Soviet empire was showing serious cracks across the region. His trip included testifying before Congress and a White House meeting Tuesday with Vice President Mike Pence.

Asked about how he would approach the challenges facing democracy today, Mr. Walesa declared, “Certainly communism is out of the question because it has never proved effective around the world, not even in a single country.”

As he addressed a crowd of several hundred students and professors, Mr. Walesa acknowledged he is “concerned” about the current state of global affairs and the challenges to liberal democratic rule that he championed. The conservative government now in power in Warsaw has faced criticism from the EU for its policies that critics say have curbed the judiciary and the press and undercut the rule of law.

“The next major problem for us to find the answer to is how to address the problems of populist demagoguery and fake news that politicians spread,” he said, a possible swipe at the Trump administration and populist, nationalist parties in Europe. “These are the problems for you young generation to tackle.”

Fast-forward 24 years since Mr. Walesa left office in Poland, the world faces uprisings from Hong Kong to Venezuela demanding representative government, as well as climate change and the possibility of reviving Cold War tensions and a global nuclear arms race.

“The world badly needs leadership,” he declared. “We have to do everything we can for the United States to regain its leadership, but a new style of leadership.”

In his native Poland, “we have accomplished tremendously within the lifespan of just one generation,” he continued. “But we have reached a sudden cul de sac and we cannot progress any further unless the United States whispers into our ears some good solutions. We are hoping for that guidance that might come.”

The 73-year-old Mr. Walesa, his trademark walrus mustache trimmed and white with age, spoke directly to the young audience, putting the weight of his generation’s legacy on tomorrow’s leaders.

“Depending on how you address these issues, if you are successful, they will bless us for our victory in the past,” he said. “If you fail, they will curse us for our victory.”

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