Sullivan Delivers Speech at 2024 International Republican Institute Freedom Award Celebration

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), chairman of the International Republican Institute (IRI), delivered a speech last week championing President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy of peace through strength and its enduring lessons as the world enters a “new era of authoritarian aggression.” Sen. Sullivan made the remarks at IRI’s Freedom Award celebration, which honored Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Nicaragua for his dedication to the pursuit of religious freedom in South America and across the globe.

Click here or the image above to watch Sen. Sullivan’s remarks.

Below is a full transcript of Senator Sullivan’s speech as delivered.

I. Introduction

Well good evening everybody and what a great evening it is. Look at this unbelievable turnout. It’s like a rock concert. Standing room only. We want to thank all of you tonight. Dan thanked many of you already and I’ll repeat some of them: 

Thank you to Shannon Kellogg for serving as the Chair of this year’s Freedom Award celebration; all the great supporters; the great staff of IRI; our Board Members; our team; some of my Senate colleagues. As Chairman of this great organization, I can’t thank all of you enough.

I also want to thank Dan personally. By the way, a round of applause for Dan Twining. His leadership is really exceptional.

I appreciated the acknowledgement of my recent retirement after 30 years being in the Marine Corps. When you serve in the military, from day one, you begin to understand true equality, immortalized in the words of Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal.”

Or, as a tough Marine Corps drill instructor put it less eloquently and more forcefully to his recruits on the first day of boot camp:

“In my eyes you are all equally worthless! My orders are to weed out all non-hackers who cannot serve in my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand this?”

But more seriously, for the 30 years I served in the Marines, I continually marveled at the exceptional men and women from all across our great nation—different races, different creeds—who volunteer to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, knowing full well that doing so could mean sacrificing their own life in service of our liberty.

I know that we have many veterans and military members in the audience tonight and I want to thank all of them and their families with a round of applause.

II. Westminster Speech

So, I just read a great book—I’m sure some of you have read it—by William Inboden, who is actually a really good friend of IRI. It’s called “The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, The Cold War, and the World on the Brink.” It’s a remarkable account of President Reagan’s policies which helped drive the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy expansion across the globe, and most importantly, a generation of peace and prosperity that touched so many parts of the world.

The book highlights that the outcome of the Cold War was certainly not pre-ordained. Indeed, when Reagan came into office, the Soviet Union was at the apex of its military power. Communist regimes controlled a vast swath of Eastern and Central Europe, and they were on the march in Latin America, Afghanistan, Africa and Asia.

In our own country, we were facing economic stagnation, deep political divisions, and a crisis of confidence in our own institutions—including in the presidency.

The tide began to turn on June 8, 1982, when President Reagan stood at the podium of Westminster Palace to address both Houses of Parliament and laid the foundation for the contest of ideas in which the United States would ultimately prevail. 

Freedom versus tyranny. Religious liberty versus persecution. In his words, “a test of moral will and faith” between these two countries.

Reagan’s Westminster speech is one of my favorites because it highlights a brilliant insight that is as relevant today as it was in 1982 when the speech was given, and it’s this: Our ideals, particularly our commitment to liberty, are the most powerful weapon in America’s arsenal because the desire for freedom lies within the heart of every human being.

Despite this, President Reagan noted in his speech that democracies were sometimes reluctant to promote our own values. “Let us be shy no longer,” President Reagan declared to the assembled British parliamentarians. “The objective I propose is quite simple: to foster the infrastructure of democracy…Let us now begin a major effort—a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generations.”

That effort of course resulted in the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, ofIRI, of NDI—I know we have NDI officials here tonight as well. These dynamic organizations, all of which we celebrate tonight, continue to shine the light of freedom in more than 100 countries around the world. 

Reagan’s Westminster speech plays the starring role in Inboden’s book. At the time, however, the western media dismissed it as unimportant. More Ronald Reagan bluster.

But you know who didn’t dismiss it? The Soviet Union’s leaders. To the contrary, at the Reykjavik Summit with Reagan, four years after the Westminster address, Gorbachev himself specifically railed against this speech and its ideas, directly to Ronald Reagan.

Why? Gorbachev knew that the ideas that speech espoused represented a dagger aimed at the heart of his failing, brittle, and bankrupt Communist regime.

And this is an important lesson for all of us today—the mere idea of dictators losing their monopoly on power and giving a real voice to their citizens hits directly at the fragility of all authoritarian regimes, whether the Soviet Union in the 1980s, or the Chinese Communist Party today.

III. New Era of Authoritarian Aggression

Ladies and gentlemen, the United States prevailed in the Cold War with the Soviet Union through the principle of peace through strength, building allies and partners, and a commitment to individual and religious liberty.

But in Reagan’s words, “the work of freedom is never done.”

Indeed, the dark clouds of dictatorship are gathering once again.

From Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, Iran and its terrorist proxies seeking to wipe Israel off the map, and China’s growing threats against Taiwan, we have returned to an era of authoritarian aggression.

This represents a generational threat to the free world.

These dictatorships, including North Korea, are all working together. But they also share the same vulnerability and fatal weakness—they fear their own people.

Putin wants to destroy Ukraine’s democracy to ensure that Russians do not do what Ukrainians have already done: peacefully overthrow a corrupt dictator and try to build an open society. Iran wants to exterminate Israel, the Jewish homeland and the only democracy in the Middle East, and use its proxies to terrorize moderate Arab nations into submission.

The brave Iranian women we honored here last year at this event, who have boldly taken to the streets proclaiming, “Women, Life, Freedom,” have driven fear into the corrupt Iranian ayatollahs. How do we know? Because they have executed over 500 Iranian protestors and imprisoned over 22,000 more.

Xi Jinping is terrified by Taiwan’s democracy with its free media, vibrant civil society, freedom of religion and competitive elections. Why? Because Taiwan and its free elections threaten the CCP’s central premise: That one man ruling in perpetuity by crushing all dissent knows what is best for 1.4 billion Chinese mainland citizens.

This fear is why these countries—as well as so many authoritarian regimes around the world—claim to be “democracies.” It’s almost comical.

Russia and Iran just conducted sham elections, and even their own citizens know that these are sham elections. The “People’s Republic of China” is no republic. Like Xi Jinping’s claim to preside over a “Chinese-style democracy,” these ploys to try to fool their citizens into believing that they have some say over their own government, which of course they don’t.

The United States and our allies have many strategic advantages when it comes to prevailing in this new era of authoritarian aggression—but none are more potent and enduring than our commitment to liberty.

“Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root,” President Reagan famously said.

We know this, and the authoritarian regimes we confront today inherently know this as well. They know that this is one of their biggest vulnerabilities.

We need to continue to exploit this weakness in the years and decades ahead and remember with confidence what President Truman told us after World War II. Returning from the Potsdam Conference, he said this:

"The war has shown us that we have tremendous resources to make all the materials for war. It has shown us that we have skillful workers and managers and able generals, and a brave people capable of bearing arms. All these things we knew before. The new thing--the thing which we had not known--the thing we have learned now and should never forget, is this: that a society of self-governing men [and women] is more powerful, more enduring, more creative than any other kind of society, however disciplined, however centralized. We now know that the basic proposition of the worth and dignity of [the individual] is not a sentimental aspiration or a vain hope or a piece of rhetoric. It is the strongest, most creative force present in [the] world."

President Truman was right. Indeed, the creative power of democracy, in particular, American democracy backed by a strong military, has done more to liberate men and women across the globe from tyranny and oppression—literally hundreds of millions of people—than any other force in human history.

And, of course, this is the important work of IRI—the very important work we celebrate tonight.

America will work with all nations that want to preserve the free world in the face of authoritarian aggression. During the Cold War, important U.S. allies like South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines blossomed into full-blown democracies under the American security umbrella and American encouragement.

In doing so, they became better allies. A world led by the United States helps create the security and prosperity that enable people to choose freedom. A world led by China would lead to authoritarianism and crush the hope of all people to control their own destiny. We offer ideals that allow people to flourish. They offer surveillance states that stymie souls.

IV. Bishop Alvarez/Religious Freedom

We also need not be shy in proclaiming that religious freedom is an essential element to all other freedoms. Indeed, it is enshrined in the first sentence of our Bill of Rights.

If we support democratic governments and the expansion of free societies, it is imperative that we also prioritize religious liberty when we’re talking about these important issues.

China, for instance, is systemcally repressing hundreds of millions of people of faith, detaining Muslim Uyghurs in concentration camps, crushing the faith and way of life of Buddhists in Tibet, and making it impossible for as many as 100 million Christians to worship freely.

The Middle East is where Christianity was born, but dictators there have chased most Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities out of their ancestral homes. Latin American dictatorships, like Cuba and Nicaragua, fiercely persecute Catholic leaders who won’t yield to the whims of despots in the defense of their faith.

One particular individual who has fought courageously is Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Nicaragua, this year’s IRI Freedom Award honoree. I look forward to my friend and colleague, Senator Rubio, speaking about Bishop Alvarez’s struggle for religious freedom tonight. Know this: Bishop Alverez is not only fighting for the rights of people of faith in his own country, but people of faith across the globe.

President Reagan said that the fundamental distinction between the East and the West, between communism and democracy, was spiritual.

“The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship. The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship an affront,” he said.

That’s why Pope John Paul II was such an invaluable partner to Reagan in liberating Europe from Soviet tyranny. Freedom of conscience was anathema to communism. The humble power of a Polish man of God ultimately triumphed over the godless Soviet Union in determining the fate of Eastern Europe.

I particularly love this photo. Alaskans love this photo, because we believe the strategy to end the entire Cold War was actually hatched in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1984, when the Pope and Reagan famously met in the great city of Fairbanks.

Let me conclude with this: During the last Cold War, the front lines of freedom were in Europe. We have learned many lessons from that struggle. Today, one of the most important front lines is in Taiwan, where a brave and inspiring people builds a future of freedom in the shadow of China’s growing and menacing authoritarian power. Taiwan today is like West Berlin during the Cold War—a bastion of the free world that we must resolutely stand by.

I am so pleased that we will next be hearing from a friend to many of us here: Taiwan’s former ambassador to Washington and now Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-Khim.

I once again want to thank everybody here tonight for all your great support and IRI’s intrepid team all over the world. We’re going to have a great evening, but without your support, we cannot do our mission. Thank you again. We really appreciate it.