Thank you for being here today and my thanks to the John Adams Institute for inviting me. I’m glad the Dutch are accepting both refugees and exiles! Because I am both, a refugee living in exile. But here I feel closer to home than in the United States if only because here everyone correctly pronounces my name kas-PAR-ov, while in America it’s always KAS-par-ov! And I believe I can count on most of you knowing who I am without a lengthy introduction, although to many I am still best known for chess, which has the Dutch Defense, than for politics, where I am more concerned about a lack of Dutch offense! I was told by a young woman listener yesterday that “your message is depressing, but I’m not depressed because of how you said it!” I will take that to heart here today. I do not want to scare or depress anyone. The book is called Winter is Coming, but don’t blame the weatherman for a dark forecast! I hope to share my analysis and my experience and my opinions. Your reaction is up to you!
I’d like to begin with an interesting anniversary before moving on to the book and to current events in Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. It’s an example that reflects a little of how I like to see the world. A year ago today, on December 12, 2014, the price of a barrel of oil dropped below $60 a barrel for the first time in five years. For most of the industrialized world, this was good news, promising cheaper fuel. I wrote around that time that while celebrating, we should also be very cautious on the international front. Many of the world’s most repressive regimes depend on high energy prices to maintain internal stability, including Putin’s Russia. With oil dropping so low, these dictators would need to find other ways to justify their eternal grip on power, and a typical recipe is foreign aggression.
Putin had already spent most of the year invading Eastern Ukraine, but, I wrote, he will soon need a new front. Contrary to Putin’s expectations, the Ukrainians had fought very hard and if he continued there the price in Russian lives lost would get too high for him. The Baltics would be even riskier because NATO had already begun preparations there. So I was thinking south, to the Caucasus. And Putin did go south, but even further, all the way to Syria. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise, since the Middle East has so many of the ingredients Putin is always interested in. Gas, and oil and key pipelines. Second, a Russian naval base to “protect” from outside enemies. Third, Syria has a messy border situation with a NATO country, Turkey. NATO is the only enemy big enough to satisfy Putin’s propaganda in case of total economic collapse in Russia. And last but not least, a growing refugee crisis that would strengthen Putin’s main allies in Europe, the ultra-nationalists.
The way things have gone in the Middle East are an excellent case study of many of the themes in my book about the nature of dictatorships and their relative advantages and disadvantages when matched against the free world. The impossible mix of rivalries and alliances in the region, and how the violence there has spilled over into the rest of the world, is also illustrative of conflict and power politics in the post-Cold War world. To deal with these crises we must think deeply and we must think strategically. We must plan for the long-term and build lasting institutions instead of running around in a panic demanding an immediate response to every item in the morning news.
My book is titled Winter is Coming, and I assure you this is not merely an homage to the great series of books and television shows, Game of Thrones! The title reflects the idea that there are cyclical patterns in history, or seasons. Of course this is more of a poetic metaphor than a political science theory, but it does provide a useful framework to examine the back and forth, action-reaction character of world events and especially foreign policy. The dark winter of the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The thawing of spring with European unification and the summer of blue skies, albeit with a few dark clouds in the Balkans and Africa. But the existential threat we had lived with for decades was over. Hundreds of millions of people had been freed from totalitarian Communism. It was time to celebrate.
In this regard, my book’s title is a sort of long-delayed response to the title of another book, Francis Fukuyama’s famous “The End of History” from 1992. To simplify greatly, he saw the fall of the USSR as a victory in the last great battle for the development of human society, the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy—the forces of light winning over the forces of darkness. I spoke with Professor Fukuyama last year and I was delighted when he agreed to contribute a blurb for my book. After 23 years since “the end of history,” he agrees that history is making a dangerous comeback! But I cannot criticize his hopeful 1992 vision because I shared it myself, from the other side of that fallen wall. I had long dreamed of that day and, whenever possible, done my small part to bring it closer. Unfortunately, history does not end, and evil does not die. It may be battled back, cut down like a weed, but it grows back in the cracks of our complacency.
That growth is one of the stories in Winter is Coming. The first story is the rise and fall of Russian democracy, from Gorbachev’s retreat from Europe to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. How did we go from jubilant crowds in Moscow tearing down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, to, just nine years later, electing a former KGB lieutenant colonel as the president? The second element is my personal story, as a witness and sometimes participant in the events. From a rebellious young chess champion in the USSR to a… well, to a rebellious old chess champion in Russia! And to my current activities as the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, based in New York, with activities supporting individual freedom and dissidents from North Korea to Venezuela.
The third story in the book is what the rest of the world did, and did not do, as Russia and other former Soviet nations failed to embrace democracy. It’s the story of how the free world failed to press its huge advantage over its enemies after the Iron Curtain fell. This complacency allowed dictatorships to slowly grow powerful and the forces of terror to prepare and attack. By the way, I am aware that terms like “free world” and even “enemies” can sound old-fashioned to some.
But enemies don’t care what vocabulary you use to describe them. Enemies try to kill you, to terrorize you, to undermine your institutions and your way of life. Enemies hate you no matter how much you try to engage with them or how often insist you aren’t at war with them. Pretending our enemies do not exist or finding new euphemisms to describe them will not stop them or make us safer. Let us not fall into the propaganda habits of dictatorships. Let us end the culture of denial and call things by their correct names.
Now there are once again enemies not only at the gates, but inside the gates, and, after 25 years of complacency, Europe is culturally, militarily, and rhetorically unprepared to fight them off. The beloved European soft power tools of economic and political engagement do not deter or weaken an aggressive dictator like Vladimir Putin—they encourage him. The openness and charity that represent the great European Union experiment at its best also make it all the more vulnerable to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS and the disruptive impact of immigrant groups that do not return that openness—or in fact resent it.
During the Cold War the security focus of the European Union and nearly all of its members was external. The Soviet Union was a tangible threat, with an oppressive grip on half the continent, an aggressive ideology, and a massive military and nuclear arsenal. The existence of an obvious enemy reduced security matters to a simple binary for the EU and for the European nations without complicated colonial legacies. The United States, often via NATO, set the agenda and spent untold fortunes on defense build-up to keep the USSR in check for decades.
An immune system that rarely comes into contact with pathogens never gets strong enough to fight off dangerous diseases on its own. Many Europeans resent it and are loathe to admit it still, but for decades the United States has functioned as a sort of antiseptic for Europe (and much of Asia), protecting it from threats with the side-effect of allowing Europe’s own immune system to atrophy. But the US has been steadily retreating from the world under President Barack Obama, who has over-fulfilled his mandate to be the “anti-George W Bush” that Americans—and most Europeans—felt was needed after a years of painful and costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama’s policy of American retreat and retrenchment has been in its way as extreme as W Bush’s interventionist policy was, with security consequences no less dire. This is especially true in Europe, which has been unable to respond coherently or cohesively while facing so many threats. The weakness of Europe’s defense institutions has been rudely exposed. If the grand experiment of Europe is to survive it must adapt to face the new challenges. Waiting and quietly hoping that the next US president will come riding to the rescue on a white horse only perpetuates the condition of willful helplessness. Plus, Obama still has 13 months in office, a span that looks to become increasingly perilous.
So what is to be done? Everyone ask for solutions, as if solving chess problems. But we cannot fall victim to the “solutions now” trap that leads us away from strategic thinking. To use some chess terminology, dictatorships have an advantage when it comes to rapid tactical maneuvers. There is no parliamentary authorization necessary, no poll numbers to worry about, no critical media. Dictators can’t worry about long-term consequences, only looking strong and staying in power today. The one thing they know is that they cannot afford to look weak or get distracted by planning too far ahead or their subordinates might begin to wonder if it’s time for a change at the top. Even the most long-lived dictators rarely look beyond tomorrow’s battles. It’s hard to look into the future when you are always looking over your shoulder! Putin, for example, may well be in quagmires in both Ukraine and Syria, but he cannot slow down at all. He needs ever more action, more conflict, and more mud in the water instead of pausing to clean up his messes.
Democracies, in contrast, can be very slow to act tactically due to their layers of political alliances, public and governmental accountability, and systemic checks and balances—not to mention the cautious evaluation of public opinion. The strength of the free world is strategic, not tactical. Common goals, political and economic stability, and strong institutions allow for long-term planning and continuity. We have the ability to build frameworks to solve problems and meet challenges, albeit bureaucratically. When our institutions are weakened or outdated we cease to play strategically and are drawn into the dictator’s preferred battleground of tactical chaos. That is what we are seeing today, with confused responses to Putin’s aggression and to the civil war in Syria and the resulting waves of refugees.
The European Union is a wonderful example of a successful modern institution that promotes democracy and free markets, but it was never intended to be a military alliance. We must build institutions capable of fighting this new war against democracy and the world order or that order will not last much longer. This is not a new Cold War. It is a shooting war for Europe already, with massive casualties from the streets of Paris to the skies above Ukraine. … This is a war against modernity by forces that want to turn back the clock. You are already fighting it, whether you admit it or not. And you are on the front lines until you take the fight to the enemy at the source.
The John Adams Institute reflects the centuries of collaboration between Europe and the United States, and that collaboration must be reborn today. Allies must share values, not just borders and common interests. It is repulsive to suggest an alliance with Putin’s Russia and Iran, both sponsors of terror, and the murderous Bashar Assad. Their regimes are based on hate and repression and violence, nothing else. The free world can no sooner ally with such regimes than a patient can ally with the cancer that is eating at his bones. All across Europe there are voices calling to lift sanctions against Russia, despite the continued occupation and annexation of European territory that was taken by brute force. Do you negotiate with a cannibal by serving him pieces of your body—or of your neighbor’s body? Do you think Putin will stop on his own and suffer the violent consequences nearly every brutal dictator suffers when he falls from power? No.
My mother still lives in Moscow. She is seventy-eight, born and raised under Stalin, and so she has seen and heard every type of propaganda, as I’m sure you can imagine. She says it is even worse today because there is not even the illusion of a better future. Of course I have not a positive word to say about Communism, but at least it attempted to present a positive image of the future, however wrong it was. Today it is all darkness and hate, Russia surrounded by enemies with only a mythological hero, the invincible Putin, to defend it.
Like most dictators, when he started Putin needed friends, and he found plenty of them in the West. Now that he has completely wiped out any opposition inside of Russia, he needs foreign enemies, not friends. This means he will be increasingly dangerous until he is gone. There is no point of pretending he will be a friend if only you appease him enough. The free world has an overwhelming economic and military advantage today, as never before in history. It does not need Putin’s help or Iran’s help, unlike the alliance with Stalin to fight Hitler. We have the cause and we have the might; what is lacking is the will.
Our new institutions must remember the lessons that won the Cold War. Engagement and attempts to find common ground with aggressive dictatorships will only undermine our cause. Globalization is a powerful tool for growth, but it also provides autocratic regimes with resources for repression. The United Nations was designed to avoid conflict between superpowers and today it has become a platform for dictatorships and many of the world’s worst human rights offenders. Our new institutions must exclude the dictators, must isolate repressive regimes, and must act to protect our interests, our lives, and our values.
I have been called a warmonger because I say that confronting evil is better than waiting until it grows stronger. Winter is Coming is the story of how that evil can grow until it threatens us all. As I wrote in 2006, Putin was a Russian problem who would become a regional problem and then everyone’s problem unless he was stopped. And Putin could have been stopped, or at least limited, years ago, but he was encouraged to expand by receiving no resistance. Assad could have been ousted relatively easily four years ago, or even two years ago, and hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. But Europe and America didn’t see why they should take risks or take real action. Now the consequences are arriving in your cities. I desperately want to avoid greater war. History tells us that failing to stand up in small conflicts inevitably leads to big ones. History tells us that appeasement has caused far more deaths than deterrence, but deterrence is hard and appeasement is easy, like falling asleep in the snow. It is time to wake up.
If a fight is worth fighting it is worth winning. Nearly every EU nation has been underpaying its minimum NATO requirement for defense spending for years. That must change immediately. Europe needs a plan of action that addresses the causes of the security crisis, not just its symptoms. There must be unity against aggressors and public acknowledgement that military action abroad can be necessary for security at home.
Winter is coming, yes, but if we act we can make it shorter and make the cold less bitter. Every day it will get more difficult and the price will go up. There are many steps to take, but the first and most important is admitting there is problem instead of hoping it will go away on its own. It will not. Europe must admit that there are some challenges that cannot be met with endless dialogue and bureaucracy. It is time to put down the pen and pick up the sword.
Two hundred years ago, John Adams feared that Europe was abandoning America to its fate. He worked tirelessly, including here in Amsterdam, to bridge that gap, and in many ways he succeeded. Today, it’s America that is retreating behind its ocean walls, leaving Europe on the front line against Putin and against terror and dealing with the refugees born of terror. Europe must both defend itself and must also call upon the United States today much as Adams called on Europe two centuries ago.
We should also remember the words of John Adams in a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail in 1777, but a letter he addressed, very explicitly, to history, and therefore to us here in this room today. Adams wrote, “Posterity! you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.” … Let us not disappoint him! Let us make good use of our freedom and protect it! Thank you.