“You don’t have to pick a side between two extremes,” Kasparov said in an exclusive interview with The Dallas Morning News. “There is a place for ideas, for differences, for civil debate and progress via compromise, but you have to fight for that space as hard as the extremists fight for polarization.”
Ranked the No. 1 player in the world for 20 consecutive years when he retired from professional chess in 2005, Kasparov has been chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation since 2012.
We’ve known each other for quite some time. I think the first time I had the honor of editing one of your articles was in March 2005, when you announced in The Wall Street Journal that you were retiring from professional chess. In that piece you said, despite the rise of the Putin dictatorship in your home country, you believed that “For the first time in history, we are in a position to checkmate tyranny. Momentum is largely on the side of democracy.” A great deal has changed since then. Do you still believe we can “checkmate tyranny”?
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 15 years since that fateful day. My evaluation was accurate, but unfortunately there was no will in the free world to prosecute the advantage. Instead, it has been frittered away and any momentum in the geopolitical position today is with the dark side of demagogues and dictators. I’m an optimist still, and eventually we will figure it out and push back, but apparently we had to hit bottom first, to see with our own eyes what happens when engagement with evil and moral relativism replace the principles of democracy and the courage to defend them. Some of us knew already, and tried to sound a warning, but now it’s obvious to all.
How important is U.S. leadership to the forward “momentum” of democracy globally and the defense and promotion of human liberty?
Hugely important, now more than ever. America squandered that leadership after the Cold War ended, first through apathy, then by blundering around in the Middle East, and then by a full-out retreat from the world. And now, well, the U.S. is at its best when it’s leading by example and these days it’s in sorry shape at home when it comes to human rights and democratic principles. But no other nation has the influence, power and capability to lead this fight, so we urgently must get America back on its feet and back into the ring.
How has the balance of power between Putin’s Russia and today’s America shifted since 2005, and why?
I prefer poker to chess when describing Putin’s success. He’s no master strategist. He’s an opportunist who is good at reading people, which makes him good at bluffing. In poker, you can win with a bad hand if your opponents are weak-minded and keep folding their cards.
Putin pushes a little, looks for openings, and moves forward when it’s safe. If anyone challenges him he makes a big noise, lots of threats — a bluff. If his bluff is called, he retreats, like any schoolyard bully. A dictator cannot afford a real loss, to look weak, so he plays it safe. But three political generations of Western leaders have kept folding their cards despite having overwhelming advantages economically and militarily. After 15 years of this, Putin has accrued a lot of influence because he looks like a winner. He’s stepping into a vacuum left by the U.S.
You once said that chess allows one to better see the whole board, so to speak, geopolitically. Do you see any similarities between what the Trump administration is doing with its allies in Europe, say in Ukraine, and what it’s doing in Afghanistan, and more recently northern Syria?
The Trump administration, like the president, is so confused and chaotic that it’s impossible to discern any hint of strategy. The only consistent thread in his foreign policy decisions, from Ukraine to Syria, is that they all seem to suit Putin very well. Trump is leaving, as Obama did before him, and Russia is moving in, saying thank you very much. Trump’s bizarre loyalty to Putin is worrying, of course, but this policy of retreat was well established by Obama. The difference is that Obama said all the right things and his motivations were ideological. Trump says all the wrong things and his motives are likely corrupt as hell, but the results are depressingly similar. The influence of the U.S. and the free world is waning, conceding space and influence to the dictators, ayatollahs and mass-murderers. People somehow keep forgetting what happens when you allow such forces to gain strength and confidence. You can’t just walk away and be safe.
How do you think history will see what the Trump administration has done to its erstwhile Kurdish allies in northern Syria?
That depends on when the history books are written, and by whom. We all know that winners write history, so if the followers of Trump, Putin and Assad write those books, it will be hailed as a brilliant move, an essential step for peace, etc. Of course it is a hideous betrayal that will cost many lives and wound America’s credibility as an ally for at least a generation.
What message does this send other U.S. allies in Europe and in Asia, specifically our NATO allies, as well as Japan and South Korea, who currently rely on U.S. security alliances?
As I said in 2013 when Obama declined to strike Assad for using chemical weapons, the world is watching. A nation wants to be trusted by its allies and feared by its enemies, and right now that’s far from the case. The U.S. even voted with Russia on the U.N. Security Council to veto the condemnation of Turkey’s attack on American allies. And don’t forget, Turkey is a NATO country!
This is Putin’s dream, to drive a wedge into NATO and also the EU, as he’s done with Ukraine, to weaken the global system of alliances that arose to maintain stability during the Cold War. Putin wants a return of the great power, regional power system that existed before WWII, and WWI. That’s the way things are moving, with China also expanding its ambition, and a move back to that era should scare the hell out of everyone. Everybody likes to complain about the U.S. being a global policeman, but no one likes to live in a neighborhood without a cop on the beat.
Tell me a little about the Renew Democracy Initiative, which you chair. I know you had an event in New York City last week addressing the “political polarization and extremism that have come to define this moment in American life” as well as the decline in civics education and involvement that has contributed to the polarization. What is RDI doing to turn things around?
We have short-term and long-term missions. We don’t want RDI to be yet another think tank cranking out boring papers on democracy. Most of us are intellectuals, I suppose, but we feel the urgency of this moment. Our most recent development is to support the impeachment process.
We are a non-partisan group, this isn’t a political move, but we decided that if we support integrity and the rule of law, supporting impeachment is a must. The U.S. was a shining city on a hill not just because of prosperity, but because everyone, even the president, was subject to the law. If that is no longer the case, it’s a huge loss for democracy everywhere.
In the bigger picture, Trump and Trumpism are symptoms of a sick system. RDI wants to help heal that system with civics education projects and also by inspiring people to take pride in democracy and not to take their rights and freedoms for granted. To function well, democracy needs active citizenship, not just protesters and people yelling on Twitter. As someone who grew up in the totalitarian USSR, and who saw Russia’s young democracy die under Putin, I want to communicate that urgency to Americans. You don’t have to pick a side between two extremes. There is a place for ideas, for differences, for civil debate and progress via compromise, but you have to fight for that space as hard as the extremists fight for polarization.
In my Columbia Journalism Review interview with you in March 2017, just two months after Trump was inaugurated, you said that Americans had “taken their democracy and their affluence for granted for so long that they were vulnerable to someone like Trump.” Do you still feel that way?
Yes, I do, but there is no doubt Trump has been a wake-up call to exactly this problem. Americans had the luxury, or thought they did, of ignoring politics. There have been abuses and power grabs in every administration, but it took a Trump to show everyone how much of their government is run on the honor system. Traditions and norms aren’t laws, and even laws aren’t worth much if they cannot be enforced. The hundred million people who decided not to vote in 2016 had better wake up or it’s only going to get worse. Not just Trump, but he will have imitators, competitors, happy to exploit the radicalization of the debate.
In his resignation letter late last year, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. “must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values,” and that “we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.” Has Trump, specifically in regard to NATO and more recently in northern Syria, damaged those alliances?
Absolutely. To those that still doubt Trump is under Putin’s direct influence in some way, I ask them to say what Trump would do differently if he were! A major strategic strength of the democratic world is institutional continuity. Dictators can act quickly, tactically, with no need to worry about budget allocations or congressional approval or opinion polls. But they can’t plan long term because they have to worry about how to stay in power every day.
Democracies have alliances and institutions based on shared interests and values, even as administrations change over the years and decades. Trump has shattered that by insulting and ignoring U.S. allies. Putin loves it. If NATO is frayed over Syria and Turkey, and if Trump is still in the White House in 2021, the Baltics will be under tremendous pressure.
Does it surprise you that the impeachment proceedings in Washington center on allegations that the Trump administration withheld military aid to Ukraine, a U.S. ally, intended to protect it from Russia, which invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 and is still waging war against Ukraine through proxies?
First, let’s get it straight. This is a Russian war on Ukraine. There are Russian troops, Russian weapons, and Russian commanders in Ukraine, all directed from Moscow. This isn’t up for debate at all. Their Ukrainian proxies and the so-called separatists would vanish as instantly as they appeared if Putin made one phone call.
And no, I’m not really surprised that it comes back to Russia. As I said once, Trump has more Russian connections than Aeroflot. It always seems to come back to Russia because that’s where the money is. And Ukraine is also where Putin’s attention is. Remember the first change Trump’s people made to the GOP platform before the Republican convention in 2016? No lethal aid to Ukraine! Putin’s interests always seem to overlap with Trump’s. I believe in coincidences, but I also believe in the KGB!
Do you ever regret leaving the high-pressure world of professional chess for the high-pressure world of geopolitics?
No, I’m not much for regrets because I like my life. I have a beautiful family and the ability to do interesting, meaningful work every day. If I had done something differently, my life today would be different, so it seems wrong to regret. It’s also pointless, since I do not possess a time machine. I have made mistakes, certainly, and it’s important to learn from them, but that’s different.
As for leaving professional chess, it was time. I had achieved everything I could in chess and wanted to continue to make a difference in the world with the years I have left. I still love the game and can play for fun.
As part of your Kasparov Chess Foundation, you meet brilliant young people around the world on a regular basis. You’ve been described as an eternal optimist. What do you see when you look at them and envision their futures?
Working with young people is wonderful because they force you to challenge your own knowledge and orthodoxy. It would be easy for me to come into the room and say, “Don’t you know who I am?” and just lecture while they sit there taking notes. Instead, if I encourage them to show their best, to challenge me with their ideas, it keeps me sharp. Even if the ideas aren’t good!
There is a tendency to believe that young people will only have to learn how to use machines well to thrive. But what I find is that the greatest successes come when they use the technology to enhance their own creativity. Relying on the machine like an infallible oracle just turns you into a machine yourself. But if you can outsource the drudge work to a machine, use it to hone and perfect your own ideas and creativity, they become the tools we need to reach for the stars.
What do you see as the greatest threat to liberal democracy for this and the next generation?
Apathy, which is why freedom has declined globally for the past dozen years in a row. We cannot put all the blame on bad actors like Putin when they can only flourish if we let them. Inaction is also a choice. Inaction cost lives. Apathy can destroy a democracy nearly as well as a totalitarian ruler; it just takes longer. When people stop caring about liberty and democracy abroad, it inevitably comes home. Either these values matter, or they do not. Either they are worth fighting for, or they are not. And if you don’t fight for them, make no mistake, you will lose them.
This Q&A was conducted via email, edited and condensed by Michael Judge, a former deputy editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal and a contributing editor at The Dallas Morning News.