SPEECH: IRI's 2021 Freedom Award Celebration

It is a great honor to be here with you tonight as the Chairman of IRI. I want to thank President Dan Twining for his exceptional 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.

Tonight we are here to celebrate democracy and its heroes, and to thank all those who work across the globe to counter one of the 21st century’s most significant challenges—the rise of powerful authoritarian governments.

The heroes we honor come from different continents, hold different religious beliefs, and celebrate different customs from different cultures.

But they have one thing in common: they believe that every individual should control his or her own destiny, and all people have the right to self-governance.

Tonight, we honor the people of Cuba who courageously took to the streets in defiance of a brutal dictatorship that has ruled by fear for over 60 years.

We honor the Burmese people who stood up and demonstrated to the world that a military junta cannot just be allowed to attack and replace a democratically elected government.

We honor the people of Lithuania—a nation that came to the aid of its neighbors, the Belarusians, who had been protesting the criminal and corrupt Lukashenka regime.

And we honor those who have directly confronted the global pandemic, threatening their personal and political freedom.

Over the past year, these and others have rallied to break the chains of oppression in their countries, and to provide a model—a light—in some of the darkest places in the world.

I would like to say a few words about another one of these lights—Taiwan—whose democracy is being threatened with extinction by an authoritarian government of immense power, ambition, and appetite.

Some see the defense of democratic values in places like Taiwan as a luxury we cannot afford in an age of sharpened geopolitical competition. I reject that view. Importantly, so does American law, particularly the Taiwan Relations Act which, among other things, states, “The Unites States will consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means… a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern.”

The free world cannot be neutral in the contest between freedom and authoritarianism that is underway in the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. American alliances, power, and ingenuity helped build a world that provided more freedom and prosperity to more people than ever before. In fact, United States democracy, bolstered by a strong military, has done more to liberate human kind from oppression and tyranny—literally hundreds of millions of people—than any other force in human history.

The Chinese Communist Party knows exactly what it wants to accomplish—to make the world safe for its authoritarian government, to export its dictatorship model to other countries, to separate America from our democratic allies, and to erode U.S. leadership. A world governed by Xi Jinping’s totalitarian vision would be a world unsafe for America and our friends, and unsafe for democracy.

That’s why Taiwan is so central to the future of the free world. It is a thriving, prosperous Chinese democracy that holds free elections and in which power is bounded by law. For that reason, it threatens the CCP’s central premise that one man ruling in perpetuity by crushing all dissent knows what is best for 1.4 billion people.

The Chinese Communist Party has already crushed Hong Kong, once a bastion of liberty, and the free world barely raised a finger in protest. Should America and the world stand by as China does something similar to Taiwan—a peaceful democracy of 25 million people who have voted for an entirely different future—that would not simply undermine the security of the Western Pacific, as the Taiwan Relations Act says. A violent, military takeover of Taiwan by the CCP would be a sea change in how the world is ordered. It would change the history of the 21st Century in ways that the guns of August of 1914 changed the 20th Century.

Taiwan is not some peripheral sideshow in terms of global great-power competition. It is the front line, between freedom and tyranny, like West Berlin during the height of the Cold War.

It is also an issue that has been weaved in and out of the careers and professions of countless Americans, including my own.

Over 25 years ago, in 1995 and 96, I was a Marine infantry officer deployed to the Taiwan Strait as part of a Marine Amphibious task force and two U.S. carrier strike groups, all in response to the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive military provocations on the eve of Presidential elections in Taiwan. The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, this period is now called.

This was an important and decisive demonstration of American commitment and resolve to an emerging democracy and partner that is still remembered to this day.

Twenty years later, on a CODEL to Taiwan, led by the Senator we celebrate tonight—John McCain—I was asked by the newly elected president whether I had ever been to Taiwan. I took a few seconds to answer and finally said, “Well yes, Madam President. I have been to Taiwan before. But not on land!”

More recently, I was part of another demonstration of American commitment and resolve when I traveled to Taiwan with Democratic Senators Tammy Duckworth and Chris Coons to provide vaccines—close to a million—for the Taiwanese people in the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive attempts to prevent the citizens of Taiwan from receiving this life-saving medicine.

American commitment and resolve for Taiwan has been part of our law, heritage, trade, economics, and military deployments for decades, and should be for decades to come.

Now is the time for all democracies to get off the fence, and for the free world to stand together to make sure that authoritarian aggression will fail in the 21st century—just as it ultimately failed in the 20th century.

It is our values—of freedom, innovation, individual rights, and openness—that the Chinese Communist Party is most afraid of. We must be ready—as democracies—to defend these values or risk a world increasingly governed by autocracy, surveillance, aggression, and permanent conflict. 

Let me conclude with a quote. In 1967, former President Ronald Reagan—the father of the National Endowment of Democracy and IRI—said this about freedom:

“Freedom is a fragile thing and it's never more than one generation away from extinction…it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. And those in world history who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”

We have so many allies in IRI’s just cause. And not just the citizens of fellow democracies, but literally billions of additional allies around the world: citizens on every continent and in every country, including China, chafing for greater freedom, dignity, and individual liberty. Thank you all for your great support for IRI.

Now we have a video presentation on our Democracy heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic.