“New Sinews of Peace” | Kemper Lecture | October 7, 2022


See below the text of the speech I delivered at the Churchill Museum in Fulton, Museum, where Winston Churchill gave his Sinews of Peace speech in 1946.

“Thank you for that gracious introduction, Director Kemper. Thank you for all your work in the causes of freedom and knowledge—which must always go together. I’m thrilled to be here to speak in Fulton again. My thanks to Director Tim Riley and his team at the Churchill Museum for making it possible. It’s a great honor to deliver the 36th Enid and R. Crosby Kemper Lecture, and to follow very literally in the footsteps of two of my heroes, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill.

It is also special to be here on this hallowed ground with so many friends, from whom I have learned so much. Among them are some of my living heroes, people with the courage and conviction that was rare in the day of Churchill and is rarer still today.

Masih Alinejad, a founder of the women-led movement currently sweeping Iran. If only Russian men were as brave as Iranian women!

Leopoldo Lopez of Venezuela, who lost his freedom for so long and is dedicated to bringing it not just to his people, but to all.

Abdalaziz Alhamza of Syria, where Putin practiced his genocide techniques with his dictator colleague, Bashar al-Assad.

Uniting them, and so many others, Thor Halvorssen, founder and CEO of the Human Rights Foundation. Thank you all for being here, and for everything you do to inspire me and all of us.

And my most special thanks to my truest inspiration, my bravest and most valuable ally through it all, my wife Dasha.

My lecture today is titled simply: A New Sinews of Peace. Not very original, I admit, but the threats we face and the answers we seek today are not original either. Today there is once again war in Europe, with a dictator determined to change Europe’s borders by force. Today it is again necessary to unite the forces of freedom, to create a new grand alliance. But unlike at the time of the 1946 original Sinews speech, today there is a clear and present danger.

The good news is that I no longer have to convince anyone of the danger Vladimir Putin represents, as I did, or tried to do, 21 long years ago, soon after he took power in Russia. And again in 2008 when he invaded Georgia, and in 2014 when he first invaded Ukraine, and every day since then. The threat has been realized. Winter is no longer coming, as I titled my 2015 book. It is a fine fall day here in Fulton, Missouri, but make no mistake: Winter is here. And it is still unclear if the free world is willing and able to meet this challenge.

We could do worse than to read and reread Sir Winston’s original speech, delivered on March 5th, 1946. It is remembered as “The Iron Curtain” speech, for its prescience and warning against the rise of Communist totalitarianism from Stalin’s Soviet Union.

That sounded strange to many ears at the time, since Stalin and the USSR had so recently been American allies against the Axis powers. Of course, American allies only after Stalin first allied with Hitler to divide Eastern Europe in 1939. That inconvenient fact is illegal to point out in Putin’s Russia, by the way.

Churchill’s speech was far more than a warning, and in this I hope to emulate him as well. He spoke about preserving and lifting up the ideals and methods that worked to advance modern civilization, the values of democracy and freedom. Of the need for action, not only words. His goal was not small, not selfish. He dreamed of safety for, quote, “all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands” from what he called the twin marauders: war and tyranny.

In 1946, war was over, and the menace of tyranny was not yet clear. Yet Churchill saw the need to build new defenses with no time to lose. What he lacked was the ability to build them, and that is where, once again, America came in. The United States would again become the arsenal of democracy, in Franklin Roosevelt’s famous phrase. More than weapons this time, the alliance would also build institutions to keep the balance of power. Speed was crucial, as it was just three years later when Soviets performed their first nuclear test in August 1949.

Churchill knew that the United Nations would not be enough, even with American participation. Diplomats and courts needed sheriffs and constables, in his words. I hate to skip so much important material, but let us just say that, with a many painful bumps and bruises, it worked, at least for a while. Nuclear catastrophe was averted by the principle of stalemate. Soviet expansion was contained by NATO. The United Nations served a purpose as a shock absorber, where the superpowers could yell and wrangle without making real war. The status quo allowed the free world to flourish in relative safety, even if those of us living behind the Iron Curtain enjoyed none of those benefits. It wasn’t until 1989, two generations removed from Churchill’s speech here in Fulton, that the rusty wall cracked and finally collapsed with the USSR itself on December 25, 1991.

It was a glorious day. A day of celebration, and a huge step forward for global freedom. The problem was the next day. And the next. The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union was over. But history… history was not over.

Where were our Trumans and Churchills, ready to step forward with bold new plans for the collapsing world order? Where were the strategic thinkers and visionaries creating new institutions to cement the advantages of the free world and to spread its benefits further, to every corner of the globe?

The United Nations, robbed of its purpose of freezing hostilities between the US and the USSR, has become a platform of dictators. Not merely obsolete, not merely a “frothing of words” in Churchill’s memorable phrase, but actively harmful to the cause of freedom and human rights. Iran sits on the UN Commission for Women. Venezuela is on the UN Human Rights Council, as was Russia, until removed this April. And Russia still enjoys veto rights over all decisions of this organization.

Unfortunately, unlike in 1946, in 1991 instead of leaders, we had managers. Instead of looking to the future, they celebrated the present, praising themselves. Instead of investing the peace dividend in a new league of democracies, the old bureaucracies and tyrannies were allowed to fester, like weeds that had been cut back but not uprooted.

I have a consistent record of criticizing politicians of every stripe and party. I have called out six consecutive US presidents for their policies, occasionally in person, for their unwillingness to learn from their great predecessors. An America that does not defend liberty everywhere will see its decay at home as well, a process that is already underway.

We are paying the price for our apathy. Ukraine is paying the price in blood. The war in Ukraine did not begin on February 24 of this year. Not even on February 20, 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea. This war is decades in the making. 30 years of making concessions that were intended to keep the peace but only postponed the war. 20 years of pretending it was possible to separate business and politics, a fallacy that dictators like Putin never believed in themselves. And it was eight years of refusing to stand up to Putin in Ukraine, fearing escalation—which only guaranteed greater risks later when Putin inevitably escalated on his terms.

We were told by the great democratic powers that it was too risky, too expensive, to help Ukraine in 2014. Well, the cost of this new war is already estimated at nearly three trillion dollars, as food and fuel crises create shocks around the world. Putin has always used energy supplies for blackmail and, you might have heard, winter is coming!

In the 1930s, the appeasement mantra was peace at any cost. It was a brutal lesson to learn how high that cost could be. The modern appeasers said it was business at any cost. That economic engagement with authoritarian regimes would liberalize them, spread Western values, tie their success to ours. It failed. It failed completely.

The dictators engaged, that much is true. Then they took the free world’s billions and trillions and invested it in military spending and greater repression at home. They used the political capital from summits and meetings with free world leaders to crush domestic opposition. They use the pipelines and energy deals for blackmail, recently adding food supplies to this mafia extortion plan. I would very much like to hear from Chancellor Merkel and President Obama what they think of their legacies in this department. For so many years, we in the Russian opposition said that Putin was a Russian problem for Russians to deal with, but that with foreign money and political support, he would inescapably become everyone’s problem. And here we are.

There was an exchange of political beliefs and practices. But instead of liberal democracy and the rule of law flowing to the authoritarian regimes, their corruption and despotism flooded the free world. Cash, propaganda, and fraud have become the biggest exports of the unfree world, not oil and gas, not manufacturing. Oligarchs directly and indirectly tied to the world’s worst regimes buy Western companies, sports teams, entertainment stars, politicians, make donations to think tanks and universities—all tied to the power structure. Putin’s war has raised awareness of these hidden threats, but fighting corruption on the political and financial battlefield will be as difficult as the war on the ground.

We have the resources to fight and to win. And, thanks to the brave people and leaders of Ukraine, we now have the spirit to fight. Ukrainians have reminded us of what it looks like to sacrifice for your land, your family, your freedom. This was by no means a certainty. The US and NATO nations were not expecting Ukraine to survive more than a few days. But, from the most unexpected quarter, came a hero. Facing Putin’s blitzkrieg, President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, matched Churchill’s stirring, “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be” to Parliament on June 4th, 1940. When President Biden offered to evacuate Zelensky and the Ukrainian leadership, the immortal reply came quickly: “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition!”

And now, finally, years too late, he has ammunition. America is once again becoming the arsenal of democracy. Sleepy Europe is finally awake to the wolf, or Russian bear, at its door. Here I must not make the mistake of counting all of Europe as one bloc. Ukraine’s neighbors—or better put, Russia’s neighbors—have known the dangers all along. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland—they never doubted that Putin would continue his offensive if undeterred.

Meanwhile, the most powerful military coalition in history, NATO, and many of the largest economies in the world, still thought they would be able to do business with the mafia dictator in the Kremlin. This is why helping Ukraine has never been charity. It is a debt. Putin built his police state and his war machine with European money, even some American money. Ukraine is not a buffer state, as some cynical geopolitical strategists would make it. It is a sovereign nation. It has also become a shield, the front line in Putin’s much larger war against the modern world order.

Is it expensive? Yes. As I wrote so many years ago, the price of stopping a dictator always goes up. It may seem expensive today, but it’s only going to be more tomorrow. And who are we to complain about the price of gas when Ukrainians are paying in blood for our sins? We are the ones who had the ability to stop Putin in his tracks and we chose not to. We chose to believe Putin would go away if we made enough concessions. We chose to pass the buck—as Truman never did—to the next administration, avoiding the hard decisions. But dictators must always escalate, and so the time of hard decisions has come.

The brave people of Ukraine are fighting like hell and dying to remind us not to take liberty for granted. Putin, like every dictator before him, underestimated the will of free people. Ukrainians are fighting for all of us, and they deserve nothing less than every resource, every weapon, they need to win. For Ukraine to be whole and free.

The weapons are coming, and Ukraine is winning. It is still not enough, still not fast enough, but Ukraine is winning the war. Putin’s mobilization is best met by mobilizing the overwhelmingly superior forces of the free world to end this war quickly. We must stay focused and united on what victory means. It means restoring 100% of Ukrainian territory to Ukrainian control. It means accountability for the destruction and war crimes Russia has inflicted, from tribunals to reparations. If Russia is ever to join the family of civilized nations, it must be free of Putin’s mafia and cured of the imperialism virus that for centuries has caused so much damage to Russia’s neighbors—and to Russia itself. It is a long road and a hard road. But we must, as Churchill said, have an “all-over strategic concept.”

This is not chess, but we must look more than a few moves ahead. Our strategy must go beyond Ukraine, beyond Russia, and to building a secure and free world. It must be based on values, the values of human life and human freedom. In 1946, Churchill did not have to remind his audience what that meant. They had lived through that most horrible war against true evil. No one could doubt that evil existed, or that it had to be fought. Now we are seeing images from Ukraine that remind us of true evil, of civilians slaughtered on a madman’s whim. We said never again, and we cannot let those words ring hollow.

We have seen evil, that is clear. But what of good? How do we define these precious values when there is so much disagreement among us? In fact, disagreement is what defines free societies and democracies. Free elections, free choices, free people. It is tyranny, dictatorship, that says there can be no disagreement. So, while we will not agree on everything, what we must do is put aside our differences and unite when true evil threatens.

My work in recent years has been focused through the Human Rights Foundation and, more domestically, the Renew Democracy Initiative. Never would I have imagined just a decade ago that my fight for democracy would expand from Russia to the United States! But that is the situation, as the institutions that guarantee our rights are coming under attack. It turned out that many of the laws and norms we took for granted here were based on the honor system. That they were easily targeted and subverted by those who seek only power. Such people are thriving on every side of the political spectrum and on every side of the world today. To Americans and most Europeans, such forces are relatively new, or have previously been fringe or regional threats. No more. Today the radicals are advancing, and to fight them, you must learn from those who have experience.

I mentioned at the start that a few dissident heroes in a global army fighting for freedom are here today. They are living examples of how those fighting against dictatorship can unite, just as dictators do. They are also a refutation of the old saying “never meet your heroes.” It’s wonderful to meet your heroes if you can also work with them, discuss ideas with them, and go into battle with them!

Much like Ukraine, these voices of conscience, these freedom fighters from all over the world, they are not here to learn from the free world or to seek charity. They are here to teach us and to give us the gift of their moral clarity and their courage. Today the students must be the nations and people whom Churchill urged to unite in 1946. He repeatedly mentioned the “English-speaking” world, appropriate for an Englishman speaking in America. But I am a Russian speaker—and a Soviet-born Armenian Jew from Baku, no less!—here to say that America must still lead. And you can. But first you must learn, and relearn, these most important lessons.

Sir Winston would be quite surprised to hear his sentiments so boldly echoed by representatives of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and, God save the King, even Russia! But I am sure he would appreciate their courage all the more for their not having been born to freedom and prosperity. He would understand that, 76 years after his speech, the fires of freedom had dimmed in its traditional homes and required new ignition, new fuel.

These values, these people, these movements they are the new sinews of peace. Unlike in 1946, the free world has overwhelming advantages economically, militarily, and culturally. The world is connected in countless ways previously unimagined. We have the ability to spread the light of liberty into every corner of the globe, to illuminate the darkest prisons.

But will we? That is what I ask. Will we do what Truman and Churchill did? Will we build what needs to be built and fight the battles that must be won? Or will we allow domestic partisanship and fear of risk doom us to decline and fall? “Opportunity is here now, clear and shining,” as Churchill said. We must grasp this opportunity together.

An event like this always evokes memories and anniversaries, but there is one today you might have missed. Today, October 7, is the 70th birthday of Vladimir Putin. Yes, somewhere in Russia, deep in a bunker, the little dictator is celebrating what has become the most dangerous, difficult year of his life. The walls are closing in, and, like every dictator, he fears his own people more than anything. I bet he would not even allow there to be a knife in the room to cut the cake!

We can all agree that 70 is an ideal age for Putin to retire. I don’t think there are many places that will welcome him at this point. I doubt the detention center at The Hague is up to the standards of his yachts and palaces, but it may be the safest place for him soon enough. Being put on trial for war crimes is preferable to being stabbed in the back or dragged through the streets.

If this sounds too optimistic, I’ll repeat what I said in 2010 when I was asked by a reporter when Putin would leave office. “The bad news is, that I don’t know,” I said, “but the good news is, neither does he!” As all my dissident colleagues here understand, the work of fighting against dictatorship is like that of a stonemason. It’s not the last blow that cracks the mighty boulder, but the thousands of blows that came before, when there was no visible change. And so, we must keep hammering!

The ripples of Putin’s failure are already spreading. The winds of freedom are blowing from Ukraine, to uprisings in Iran and Dagestan and beyond. If Putin can be defeated by Ukraine, no dictator is invincible. For decades, Putin has been the spider in the center of the global web of tyranny, propping up murderous regimes all over the world.

China’s threat is growing, and it is a much more formidable adversary in many ways. But the Chinese leadership is also watching very carefully what happens in Ukraine and Russia. Taiwan is also watching, and both Koreas. Will Putin’s nuclear blackmail be allowed to work, leading to rapid nuclear proliferation? Or will the world’s democracies find the strength to finally squash the spider and send a message to all the world’s dictators and would-be dictators?

Ukraine is showing us the way. The dissidents and oppressed people of the world, from Uighurs in Xinjiang to the women in the streets of Tehran, they are showing us the way. They are reminding us that freedom is worth fighting for, that it must be fought for, or it will be lost. We must help them, yes, but it is also they who are helping us. We see their bravery and sacrifice and we see that we, too, must be brave and sacrifice for the rights we treasure.

And how easy we have it, in comparison! We do not risk being jailed for wanting to vote. We will not be beaten for holding up a sign, or for simply saying a forbidden word, like “war.” Let those fighting and dying for the rights we take for granted not sacrifice in vain. Let them inspire us to do what we can and to do what we must. We can speak, and so we must speak. We can act, and so we must act.

When we do, when we accept this great challenge, the hollow halls of dictatorship will tremble. So let us raise our voices. Let us unite. Let us share our wisdom, our love, and our courage. Thank you.”


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