SPEECH: IRI Freedom Award Dinner
1) Creative Power of American Democracy
It is a great honor to be here with you tonight as the new chair of IRI.
I want to thank Dan for his energized leadership, the IRI Board, and so many of my Senate colleagues for being here tonight. And of course, the many supporters of IRI who have made this such a successful evening.
One of the honors of my lifetime was having John McCain as a friend and a mentor. Like most things with Senator McCain, it was not a subtle experience. In fact, a lot of the time I didn’t feel I had a choice in the matter.
And when he asked me to take over as chair of IRI—he, of course, wasn’t really asking. But I would have willingly done so, even if I had had a true choice.
So, tonight we celebrate freedom and recommit to the mission of IRI, which is more critical than ever.
This is so because when we look across the globe, one of the most challenging issues is a growing authoritarian movement.
The rise of authoritarian governments and the political organizations that support them have sown doubt about the strength of democratic institutions and of democracy itself.
Let’s face it, Democracy can be messy. Disagreement, sometimes ferocious disagreement, is the hallmark of representative government. And because of our transparency, it is there for all the world to see—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Yet, we know that such disagreements ultimately lead to a better tomorrow, of greater knowledge, compromise, and progress. We know this because it’s played out in our history time and again.
Other countries don’t always have that history to draw on. They see democracies as unworkable. They see efficiencies in authoritarian governments. Autocratic governments are able to act swiftly. They don’t have contentious city council meetings and community groups that band together—the magic, and sometimes the frustration inherent in our Democracy. If they need a road, a pipeline, a bridge, or an army, they just build it.
In times of turmoil, a top-down government in charge of all things can be tempting.
America is not immune to this. In the 1930s, many Americans and millions around the world were attracted to the communist authoritarian model of the Left, and the fascist model of the Right. Even today, the socialist temptation is making a comeback in the halls of Congress.
But we’ve also seen how these authoritarian models of government ultimately collapse on themselves, and can wreak death and destruction, especially for their own people. The last time authoritarian governments were on the march, the result was World War II.
That war taught us many lessons, but perhaps none as important as the lesson that President Truman underscored in 1945, in a speech after returning from the Potsdam Conference:
"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 is more powerful, more enduring, more creative than any other kind of society, however disciplined, however centralized. We know now that the basic proposition of the worth and dignity of man is not a sentimental aspiration or a vain hope or a piece of rhetoric. It is the strongest, most creative force present in this world."
President Truman was right, of course. Indeed, the creative power of American Democracy has done more to liberate men and women across the globe from tyranny and oppression—hundreds of millions of people—than any other force in human history.
2) Political Miracles
American democracy has many other attributes. It has a history of producing principled citizens, dedicated to liberty, some of whom we will celebrate tonight, like John McCain—a naval aviator with swagger and a love of liberty. A man who fell in love with his country as a prisoner in someone else’s.
And, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a stalwart believer in freedom who argued for dismantling the South African Apartheid regime in his maiden speech on the Senate floor.
But it isn’t just the famous men and women that our American democracy produces every day. I’ve had the honor of serving in the U.S. Marines for 26 years. I continue to marvel at the exceptional men and women from all across the country—different races, different creeds—who volunteer to support and defend the Constitution, knowing full well that doing so could mean sacrificing their own life for our liberty.
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 my Marine Corps drill instructor put it less eloquently and more forcefully on our 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 my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand that?”
American Democracy also produces mini-political miracles every day.
Let me transport you thousands of miles away, to an auditorium in Anchorage Alaska. A few weeks ago, a record 260 men and women—from 56 countries—raised their right hands, and pledged allegiance to the United States of America, in a naturalization ceremony.
This is a video I took from the stage at that event.
I go to these naturalization ceremonies often. If you want to stir your sense of patriotism and witness a miracle of American democracy, I encourage you to do so as well. Likely, there will be the equivalent of the young immigrant from the Philippines wearing his U.S. Army uniform who raised his arms-Rocky Balboa style, and shouted to the audience: “I love you, America!”
3) The Triumph of American Democracy
Finally, when needed, American Democracy can produce long-term strategies, with the consent of the people, that help ensure its own survival.
Little did President Truman know that after World War II, he was going to be facing another incredibly difficult challenge in the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
Our country was tired after the brutal war. It appeared that we weren’t up for the challenge.
But we were. President Truman’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, George Kennan laid out our strategy in his now-famous article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” where he encouraged America to enact a policy of “firm containment” that would “…increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate… and in this way promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”
In 1982, President Reagan helped reinvigorate this strategy of containment by launching the National Endowment for Democracy and IRI in his famous speech before the British Parliament.
Seven years later, the Berlin Wall came down, and just as Kennan predicted, the Soviet Union broke up, peacefully. A remarkable triumph of American democracy and strategy.
Let me conclude by noting that I believe we are now at a point in history analogous to the late 1940s, as the United States awakens to the challenges posed by the dramatic economic and military rise of Communist China.
China has demonstrated the ability to control its population, while significantly growing its economy—something the Soviet Union was incapable of.
China’s leaders aggressively tout their desire to export their authoritarian political model to countries around the world.
The good news is that America’s political leaders—Republicans and Democrats in the Congress—have awoken to this challenge, and recognize that the American ideal and the promotion of Democracy will be a critical component of our policies to address this.
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy also recognizes this.
As Vice President Mike Pence said recently in talking about the China challenges at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, “Nations in Asia that empower their citizens, nurture civil society, fight corruption, and guard their sovereignty are stronger homes for their people and better partners for the United States.”
In essence, the Vice President was describing the work of IRI. The important work we are here to celebrate tonight.
I am very confident, that as we have in the past, Americans will come together to safeguard our Democracy, and defend those of our allies, in the coming decades, regardless of threat or challenge.
Your support of IRI, which we appreciate greatly, will be critical in that regard.
Now, I want to welcome to the stage, my good friend, and another defender of liberty, Senator Lindsey Graham.
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