Delivering keynote to Atlas Freedom Dinner attendees.
Garry Kasparov at Freedom Dinner (Atlas Network) Nov, 2014
Usually saying “thank you for having me here” is a perfunctory opening, but for me, especially on this occasion, it has a very sincere and personal meaning. The kind of brave people in this room, and a few actual people in this room, share some of the credit for my freedom and the freedom of hundreds of millions of people like me who were born behind the Iron Curtain. I thank you and we all thank you for your efforts and your belief that the right to individual liberty should not be based on where you are born.
Unfortunately, that attitude seems to have fallen along with the Berlin Wall. If people like Obama and Cameron had been in charge instead of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s I would still be playing chess for the Soviet Union!
But instead, I am truly very happy to be here. If only my die-hard Communist grandfather could see me now!
November 9, 1989, was one of the most glorious days in the known history of the world. Hundreds of millions of people were released from totalitarian Communism after generations of darkness.
There is no shortage of scholarship and opinions about why the Wall came down when it did. I am happy to engage in those endless discussions, but we must recognize that looking for a specific cause at a specific moment misses the point. We do know that without the unity of the free world against a common enemy, without a strong stand based on refusing to negotiate over the value of individual freedom, that the Wall would still be standing today.
Yes, there were alliances and rivalries and realpolitik for decades. Yes, individuals played a part on both sides, from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II, to Mikhail Gorbachev unleashing forces he could not control. The critical theme was as simple as it was true: the Cold War was about good versus evil, and, just as importantly, that this was not just a matter of philosophy, but a real battle worth fighting. Society supported the efforts of those great leaders, society supported the fight and the principles behind it. But as Milton Friedman wrote in 1980, “Society doesn’t have values. People have values.” So we must talk to people about these principles of freedom. We must spread this message far and wide.
In today’s era of globalization and false equivalence it can be hard for many of us to recall that most Cold War leaders had seen true evil up close during World War II. They had no illusions about what dictators were capable of if given the chance. They had witnessed existential threats with their own eyes, seen the horror of the concentration camps and the use of nuclear weapons in war. In some ways it is a shame that today the names of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin have become caricatures, as if they are mythological beasts representing an ancient evil that was vanquished long ago.
But evil does not die, just as history does not end. Like a weed, evil can be cut back but almost never entirely uprooted. It waits for its chance to spread through the cracks in our vigilance. It takes root in the fertile soil of our complacency. Like the dragon of Greek myth, whose teeth sprouted from the ground as soldiers, the Berlin Wall fell to pieces, and many of those pieces contained the seeds of evil.
Nor did Communism did disappear when the Wall fell. Nearly 1.5 billion human beings still live in Communist dictatorships today. And another billion live in unfree states of different stripes, including, of course, much of the former Soviet Union. The desire of men to exploit and to rule over others by diktat, and by force, did not disappear. What did disappear, or, at least, what faded dramatically, was the willingness of the free world to take a firm stand in support of the oppressed.
The Wall fell and the world exhaled. The long war of generations was over. The threat of nuclear annihilation that hung over all our heads was ending. Victories, however, even great victories, come at a cost.
I have written about what I call “the gravity of past success” in chess. Winning feels great, but it can also inhibit your development. The loser knows that he made a mistake, and that something went wrong, and he will work hard to improve. The happy winner, on the other hand, often assumes he won simply because he is great. It takes tremendous discipline to learn lessons from a victory.
The natural response, the human response, in the aftermath of the Cold War was to embrace the former enemy. Clinton and Yeltsin smiling and laughing. The European Union and NATO welcoming the former Soviet Bloc nations with open arms. The principle was to lead by example, to offer the newly free countries incentives to join as a full partner, with democracy and free market economies. This principle of engagement was a great success in Eastern Europe, despite the bumpy road for many. But this expansive method was also applied in places where the forces of oppression had not been rooted out. They were invited into the club with few demands, with little reciprocity. The prevailing attitude in the West was, “It’s okay, they will come around eventually. Their time has passed. We just have to keep engaging with them and wait.” But the forces of history do not win wars.
It is amazing how quickly the lessons of the Cold War victory were forgotten and abandoned! The strong moral stance and the isolation of evil were rapidly discarded. At the moment of greatest ascendancy of the forces of democracy, they stopped pressing the advantage. With overwhelming military, economic, and moral power on their side, the West changed strategies entirely.
This shift represented the public’s desire to end the tension and the decades of standoffs. Bill Clinton epitomized the mindset that it was time to move beyond the harsh Manichean worldview of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the dragon’s teeth were growing. Belorussian dictator Lukashenko began his lifetime tenure in 1994. His Central Asian dictator colleagues, Nazarbayev and Karimov, will soon celebrate their 25th anniversaries in power. It is no coincidence that the two countries from the former Soviet Union with the greatest potential to break free of this orbit, outside of the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine, were both attacked by Russia and partially occupied.
There were no truth commissions for Communism, no trials or punishments for the epic crimes of these regimes. The KGB changed its name but it did not change its stripes. And just nine years after the statue of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was torn down in Moscow, a KGB lieutenant- colonel named Vladimir Putin became president of Russia. It was one of many warning signs that went ignored by the free world.
Western soft power had reached its limits and there was no will to bring back the policies of containment. Human rights were treated as an internal issue, especially in places where profitable deals were available.
Engagement cuts both ways, it turns out. Former Soviet nations used money from globalization and their newfound market access to buy companies, politicians, and influence. Having abandoned our standards, we are being dragged down to the lowest common denominator. While destroying civil society in Russia, Putin could hire former Chancellors to lobby for Gazprom, buy the Olympic Games, and beam a global propaganda network into billions of homes around the world. The West boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games over the invasion of Afghanistan. No such threats are made today about the World Cup despite the ongoing Russian invasion of a European country.
Today’s dictatorships have what the Soviets could scarcely dream of: easy access to global markets to fund repression at home. Not just the petro-states like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, but the manufacturing states as well. The idea that free world would use engagement for leverage against dictators on human rights has been countered by the authoritarian states because they are willing to exploit it without hesitation, while there is no similar will in the free world.
Engagement has provided dictatorships with much more than consumers of the oil they extract and the iPhones they assemble. They have their IPOs and mansions in London and New York; they use Interpol to persecute dissidents abroad; they write op-eds in the New York Times full of hypocritical calls for peace and harmony. And all of this while cracking down harder than ever at home. This is engagement as a one-way street. This is engagement as appeasement. This is a failure of leadership on a tragic scale.
Even the greatest ideals and traditions can lose focus after a radical change in the landscape. Symbols help us find that focus, leaving us vulnerable when those symbols disappear.
America going to the moon was not so remarkable because there was anything of value there. John F Kennedy understood that it would become a symbol of American progress, of challenge, of difficulty, and of superiority over the USSR. A generation of new technology was developed thanks to the space race, technology that would power American industrial might into the computer age. But not long after this incredible feat was achieved, the space race fizzled significantly. The symbol was gone and no man has walked on the moon since Eugene Cernan in December, 1972. The symbol of challenge, the symbol of progress, was confused with the challenge itself. When the moon was reached, the great quest it represented was quickly forgotten. As with Hitler and Stalin, a man traveling to the moon is mostly remembered today as mythology.
The Berlin Wall was more than a symbol, of course. It literally divided a city and represented the divide between the free and unfree worlds. When it fell, it was easy to forget that those two worlds, the free and the unfree, still existed even though the Wall did not. The symbol was gone and so what it represented was forgotten. Suddenly, evil no longer had a familiar form. As 9/11 taught us, the dangers are real even though the battle lines are hazy. Allies of convenience have replaced alliances based on history and values. This is the natural result of over twenty years of treating everyone like a potential friend, a practice that emboldens enemies and confuses true allies.
But enemies do exist, whether we admit it or not. They are the enemies of what America and the rest of the free world stand for. Whether it is Putin or ISIS, these forces cannot be defeated with engagement. No, to defeat them will require the unity and the resolve and the principles that won the Cold War. In chess terms, our great predecessors left us with a winning position 25 years ago. They gave us the tools to bring down dictators and showed us how to use them. But we have abandoned these tools and forgotten the lessons. It is past time to relearn them. <applause>
Each generation has its own Berlin Wall, its own challenges to meet. Without a clear symbol to focus our energies, strong leadership is required.
America, in Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase, is the only nation built on an idea, the idea of liberty. That idea must now build a global coalition to defend liberty against its enemies, a coalition that is based on principles, not on borders or language or culture.
In a few weeks I will be in Ukraine, and what message can I bring? That it is Ukraine’s poor luck to be so close to Russia? That the destiny of 45 million human beings is to be a besieged buffer state because it is difficult to confront Vladimir Putin? Really? More difficult than Truman standing up to Stalin and protecting West Berlin in 1948? More dangerous than for JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962? No. But will the threat Putin represents continue to grow if left unchallenged? History tells us yes. History tells us that no dictator stops until he is stopped.
Soviet propaganda worked hard to portray Communism and the USSR as the side of good, as representing a utopian future. Putin has no interest in this. His propaganda today is all about national superiority and destiny, the fascist messaging so familiar from the Nazi build-up in the
1930s. Putin’s threat grows because the free world is letting it grow. Too many leaders still want to believe that evil was defeated for good on November 9, 1989. What could be called optimism and wishful thinking twenty years ago must now be called out as dangerous delusions. <applause>
The world needs a new alliance based on a new Magna Carta, a declaration of rights and practices that all member nations must recognize. Nations that value democracy and individual liberty now control the greater part of the world’s resources as well as its military power. If we band together and refuse to coddle the rogue regimes and sponsors of terror, our authority will be irresistible. Our combined wealth can also fund new technologies to cure our fossil fuel addiction, which currently empowers a majority of the terrorists and dictators.
The goal should not be to build new walls to isolate the millions of people living under authoritarian rule, but to come to their aid. The so-called leaders of the free world talk about promoting democracy while treating the leaders of the world’s most autocratic regimes as equals. A global Magna Carta would forbid this hypocrisy and provide a powerful inducement for reform. The policies of engagement with dictators have failed on every level. It is time to recognize this failure.
As Ronald Reagan said fifty years ago, in 1964, this is not a choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender. We must choose. We must fight. And it must be a global fight. America must lead, yes, but it is obsolete today to speak only of American values, or even of Western values. Japan and South Korea must act, Australia and Brazil, India and South Africa, and every country that values democracy and liberty. We have every advantage in this fight for freedom. We know it can be done because it has been done before. We must find the courage to do it again. Thank you.