Speech: Four Words to Change History


[ Below is the full text of Garry’s speech at the Aspen Institute Berlin’s 2nd Transatlantic Conference on October 14, 2015. Video will be added here when available. ]


Thank you and my thanks to Rudy Lentz and all of the organizers of the conference for inviting me to this important event at this critical time. Berlin has been a nexus of world history many times over. Many great speeches have been made here in this city as well. Several American presidents have spoken some of their most famous words in Berlin, words that are still relevant to the topics we are here to discuss.

You do not need many words to change the world. Sometimes just four words is enough. In 1987, Ronald Reagan came to Berlin to tell Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. Four words that took aim at the nerve center of the Cold War. John F. Kennedy came here in 1963 to express solidarity with “ich bin ein Berliner”. Four words that showed the American dedication to freedom. In 1948, facing no less a foe than Josef Stalin, President Harry Truman, never a man of many words, said his four words, although from Washington, four words that saved West Berlin: “We shall stay. Period.


In 2008, another American president used the stage of unified Berlin to express his message of hope and change. Barack Obama came here to campaign not only for the American presidency, but to share his vision for a world of peace and cooperation, a world where more walls would fall. Obama gave a great speech, as usual, and he also had some memorable four-word arrangements. “This is our time” and “America cannot turn inward,” for example. In Obama’s dream, America would clean up its mistakes, make peace with every enemy, and the world would continue moving toward the end of history after the unfortunate interruption of the 9-11 attacks and the George W. Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was an optimistic speech from an optimistic man for an optimistic time. Unfortunately, the times have changed since 2008, while the man and his speeches have not.

I was already less optimistic about candidate Obama’s vision at the time. He spoke about helping Burma and Zimbabwe from here in Germany, quite a different proposition than Truman, JFK, and Reagan confronting the mighty Soviet Union! Extending an open hand and being a good example may be enough if history is over and flowing on its own toward democracy. But the example of liberalism and liberty is exactly what some forces in the world are fighting against, and nothing good comes from extending an open hand to evil.

I am aware that “evil” is an unfashionable word today, as is the word “enemy”. But you must excuse this retired chessplayer from believing that some things in the real world are also black and white! The value we put on individual freedom and the value we put on human life defines us. We walk a very dangerous path when we find excuses to blur these fundamental values. We cannot convince others that our way is the right way, the best way, if we do not believe it ourselves. We cannot defend our values if we do not believe in every way that they are worth defending.

Do not tell me the world cannot move backwards. Like some of you here, I lived the joy of revolution and liberty when the Wall fell and the evil empire I was born in collapsed. And yet, just nine years later, a KGB agent became the Russian president and today Russia has returned to dictatorship while terrorizing its neighbors and snarling on the world stage once more.

The tide of history does not move on its own. It is moved by human decisions, one after another, every day and every hour. You choose to speak, and what to say. You choose to act, and what to do. Obviously, not every moment or every decision is equal. In the vocabulary of chess we speak of quiet positions and sharp positions. A very sharp position is one in which the result can change on every move. Confusion increases and the possibility of making a mistake is greater, and the consequences of any mistake are also greater. A winning position can become a losing one with a single error and tactical reactions are paramount. In quiet positions, the demand is to think strategically about long-term considerations and finding the best places for your pieces, preparing for the eventual direct clash of forces. Much of this is true in the real world as well, and today the world’s position is becoming very sharp.


Of course the real world – politics, business, war – is far more complex than chess. And in the real world there is an option that doesn’t exist in chess: to make no move at all. But to do nothing is also a choice, and declining to act can have as much impact as any bold advance. The world does not wait for us; it does not stop moving if we don’t act. You can either shape the world with your presence, or it will be shaped in your absence. In fact, it will be shaped by your absence.

History does not have strict laws. There is no way to know the exact consequences of our actions or of our inaction. But from experience we can operate with what we might call certain laws of physics. One law is that power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If we abdicate our role, other actors take the quickly stage. We see that very clearly today in the Middle East, where the vacuum left by the reduction in American and NATO forces is quickly being filled by ISIS, Iran, and now, by Putin’s Russia. There is no way to know exactly what the outcome of this transition will be, no way to know exactly how many lives will be lost, and how many more refugees will be created. But we do know that the new power-brokers do not share our values and that their objectives are very different from ours.

Does it matter? I say yes. We must combat the moral relativism that tells us there is no difference, no right and wrong, no good or evil. We must distinguish between those for whom bombing a hospital is a tragedy – and those for whom it is a strategy. We cannot give up fighting for our values in the face of tragedy or there will only be many more innocent lives to mourn. Instead of giving up, we must do better.

The dictatorships of Russia and Iran and the murderous forces of Bashar Assad and ISIS are all very different creatures, but they share a fear and hatred of modernity. I use this term, “modernity,” instead of “Western values” because, while we all know what that phrase means, it has become outdated. Individual freedom, democracy, and the value of human life are also the values of many dozens of countries across the East and the South. They are Brazilian values and Japanese values as well as American and German values.

This is a great achievement for humankind, but we cannot rest on our laurels [LORE-els]. The enemies of the free world want to turn back the clock on modernity because it threatens their way of life. They use violence and hatred because they cannot compete for the minds and souls of their people without it. These “time-travelers,” as I call them, want to turn back to hold on to their power. The radical Islamists want to return to the Dark Ages, while at the same time skillfully employing modern technologies invented by the free world they are attempting to destroy. Vladimir Putin wants to return to the Great Power era of regional domination by force, using modern propaganda tools as well as old-fashioned bombs. In the past, these malign forces could exist in their darkness and isolation. But in today’s globalized world they are in constant contact with free society and therefore they are under threat. The time travelers cannot compete with the innovative ideas and prosperity of the free world, so they use the only weapons they have: radical ideology and brutality.

As Europe and America and the rest of the world is finding out, these weapons are very effective if left unopposed. The people of Ukraine fought bravely for their freedom and have been rewarded by being treated by Europe as a buffer against Putin’s aggression. The people of Syria can either fight, flee, or die in their homes, and they have been doing all three by the millions. Most citizens of North Korea are barely aware of the outside world at all. And yet, despite these horrors that exist today, right now in the 21st century, it is far easier to criticize those who say something should be done than to criticize those who do nothing.

The free world today has a huge advantage economically and militarily, and yet its own open and peaceful nature cripples these advantages. It is easy to paint the critics of nearly any diplomatic process as warmongers. The language of peace and diplomacy is soothing and positive. If we just talk a little longer, if we just delay a little more, if we just concede a little more… It is easy to say that a situation is too complicated to act until it becomes impossible to act. Every outbreak of violence large or small can be blamed on the failure of the diplomats to talk, delay, and concede more.

The vocabulary of negotiation is a pleasant and comforting one, especially to a war-weary world. It’s difficult to argue against civilized concepts like diplomacy and engagement. In contrast, deterrence and isolation are harsh, negative themes that evoke the dark time of the Cold War and its constant shadow of nuclear confrontation. No one would like less a return to those days than me or anyone else born and raised behind the Iron Curtain. The question is how best to avoid such a return.

The favorite straw man of the “peacemongers” is that the only alternative to appeasement is war, which makes no sense when there is already an escalating war in progress. The alternative to diplomacy isn’t war when it prolongs or worsens existing conflicts and gives the real warmongers a free hand. In world history, appeasement has killed far more people than deterrence. No one starts a war if they don’t believe they can win, so giving confidence to an aggressor by making concessions is the worst thing we can do. I would like to live in the world of diplomacy and the rule of law that Chancellor Merkel and President Obama seem to believe we inhabit, but unfortunately we do not. If we want peace it will take more than simply talking about peace. Power and action still matter, and in places like Ukraine and Syria and Iraq you cannot have power without action.

Unfortunately, the mechanisms we rely on to maintain stability are ineffective against primitive action. Russia has a veto on the United Nations Security Council while it is invading a European nation and annexing its territory. Saudi Arabia was just elected as the chair of a UN human rights panel while it is crucifying and beheading teenagers and dissidents at home. If we are to defend our values, and our territory, and our lives, we need capable institutions.

In the past two years, Vladimir Putin has exposed the United Nations as an obsolete organization for global stability. His recent speech at the General Assembly showed that the UN has become a spotlight for dictators to spout hatred and lies. The UN was designed to maintain the super-power balance after World War II and during the Cold War. It has no ability to respond to new threats. We need a new coalition, a League of Democracies that will defend our most cherished values. Germany and Japan became two of the strongest pillars for global peace and prosperity in the second half of the 20th century. It is time for them to step forward and lead in the 21st century.

The greatest danger today isn’t in confronting Assad, or Putin, or ISIS. The greater danger is in waiting so long to do so that the stakes will be far higher. They will not go away on their own. If there is anything we know for sure about aggressive dictatorships is that the price of stopping them always goes up. We must fight and we must start now, because the price will only be higher tomorrow. The alternative is not to avoid conflict, because conflict is unavoidable. It is already here. This battle is for our values. This battle is for the modern world we have built on those values.

Four words. Four words can move the world, but not always for the better. As famous as “tear down this wall” and “ich bin ein Berliner” are, even more infamous is “peace for our time”. “Peace for our time,” Neville Chamberlain’s desperate plea for mercy and harmony in the face of ultimate evil after returning from Munich in 1938 became synonymous with weakness and appeasement. In some ways this is unfair, because at least Chamberlain had no way to know what was to come.

But today we know. Today we know that an aggressive dictatorship that conquers territory does not stop on its own; it only stops when it is stopped. Today we know that murderous ideology does not fade away once it has acquired a taste for blood. And knowing, we must act. It is very dangerous to forget these lessons of history – lessons we have paid such a high price to learn.

We must remember that societies do not have values, people have values. If we want our values to succeed we must protect the people who hold them – wherever they are, whoever they are. And, if I may finish with my own four words here today: fight – for – our – values!



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