Politics & Policy

The Power of Freedom

What Soviet dissidents, Scoop Jackson, and Reagan understood.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series of excerpts from The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer. They are taken from the book’s introduction.

How was one Soviet dissident able to see what legions of analysts and policymakers in the West were blind to? Did Amalrik have access to more information than they did? Was he smarter than all the Sovietologists put together? Of course not. Amalrik was neither better informed nor more intelligent than those who had failed to predict the demise of the USSR. But unlike them, he understood the awesome power of freedom.

Dissidents understood the power of freedom because it had already transformed our own lives. It liberated us the day we stopped living in a world where “truth” and “falsehood” were, like everything else, the property of the State. And for the most part, this liberation did not stop when we were sentenced to prison. Having already removed the shackles that imprisoned our minds, our physical confinement could not dull the sense of freedom that coursed through our veins.

We perceived the Soviet Union as a wooden house riddled with termites. From the outside, it might appear strong and sturdy. But inside it was rotting. The Soviets had enough nuclear missiles to destroy the world ten times over. Over 30 percent of the earth’s surface was under communist rule and the Soviets possessed enormous natural resources. Its people were highly educated, and its children second to none in mathematic and scientific achievement. But forced to devote an increasing share of its energies to controlling its own people, the USSR was decaying from within. The peoples behind the Iron Curtain yearned to be free, to speak their minds, to publish their thoughts, and most of all, to think for themselves. While a few dissidents had the courage to express those yearnings openly, most were simply afraid. We dissidents were certain, however, that freedom would be seized by the masses at the first opportunity because we understood that fear and a deep desire for liberty are not mutually exclusive.

Fortunately there were a few leaders in the West who could look beyond the facade of Soviet power to see the fundamental weakness of a state that denied its citizens freedom. Western policies of accommodation, regardless of their intent, were effectively propping up the Soviet’s tiring arms. Had that accommodation continued, the USSR might have survived for decades longer. By adopting a policy of confrontation instead, an enervated Soviet regime was further burdened. Amalrik’s analysis of Soviet weakness was correct because he understood the inherent instability of totalitarian rule. But the timing of his prediction proved accurate only because people both inside and outside the Soviet Union who understood the power of freedom were determined to harness that power.

For me, and for many other dissidents, the two men leading the forces of confrontation in America were Senator Henry Jackson and President Ronald Reagan. One a Democrat, the other a Republican, their shared conviction that the individual’s desire for freedom was an unstoppable force convinced them of the possibility of a democratic transformation inside the Soviet Union. Crucially, they also believed that the free world had a critical role to play in accelerating this transformation. Their efforts to press for democratic reform did not stem solely from humanitarian considerations. Like Sakharov, these men understood that the spread of human rights and democracy among their enemies was essential to their own nation’s security.

Had Reagan and Jackson listened to their critics, who called them dangerous warmongers, I am convinced that hundreds of millions of people would still be living under totalitarian rule. Instead, they ignored the critics and doggedly pursued an activist policy that linked the Soviet Union’s international standing to the regime’s treatment of its own people.

The logic of linkage was simple. The Soviets needed things from the West–legitimacy, economic benefits, technology, etc. To get them, leaders like Reagan and Jackson demanded that the Soviets change their behavior toward their own people. For all it simplicity, this was nothing less than a revolution in diplomatic thinking. Whereas statesmen before them had tried to link their countries’ foreign policies to a rival regime’s international conduct, Jackson and Reagan would link America’s policies to the Soviet’s domestic conduct.

In pursing this linkage, Jackson, Reagan, and those who supported them found the Achilles heel of their enemies. Beset on the inside by dissidents demanding the regime live up to its international commitments and pressed on the outside by leaders willing to link their diplomacy to internal Soviet changes, Soviet leaders were forced to lower their arms. The spark of freedom that was unleashed spread like a brushfire to burn down an empire. As a dumbfounded West watched in awe, the people of the East taught them a lesson in the power of freedom.

Dazzled by success, policymakers in the West quickly forgot what had provided the basis for it. Astonishingly, the lessons of the West’s spectacular victory in which an empire crumbled without a shot fired or a missile launched were neglected. More than fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the free world continues to underestimate the universal appeal of its own ideas. Rather than place its faith in the power of freedom to rapidly transform authoritarian states, it is eager once again to achieve “peaceful coexistence” and “détente” with dictatorial regimes.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, is author of the memoir Fear No Evil and currently serves as the Israeli minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs. Ron Dermer is a political consultant and former columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

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