The Importance of Speaking Truth to Tyrants

by Lindsay Lloyd

What the president of the United States says matters. Even during the realpolitik policies of détente under Richard Nixon, it was still clear that American policy was based on a set of core values. Nixon’s practical goals of reaching deals with America’s adversaries was never based on the “great chemistry” with himself or praising the Soviet or Communist Chinese leadership doing a “fantastic job.”

When the president aligns himself with the autocrats and dictators, he aligns America with their oppression. He sends a message that corruption and brutality are not our concern.

Contrast that with how Ronald Reagan defied much of world opinion in calling out the brutality of the Soviet system. Natan Sharansky, then a refusenik imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, later wrote for the Weekly Standard of his thoughts on Reagan’s pronouncement that the USSR was an evil empire:

“It was the great, brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. There was a long list of all the Western leaders who had lined up to condemn the evil Reagan for daring to call the great Soviet Union an evil empire right next to the front-page story about this dangerous, terrible man who wanted to take the world back to the dark days of the Cold War. This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally, a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell’s Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union. It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us.”

Reagan’s words empowered the downtrodden and the weak. By declaring the Soviet system bankrupt and evil, he robbed it of its claim to legitimacy and signaled that America was on the side of those who were suffering. In speaking truth to tyrants, Reagan spoke in the great tradition of two centuries of American policy and rhetoric. And his frankness didn’t stop him from negotiating historic agreements to reduce tension with the USSR.

President Reagan, like nearly all his predecessors and successors, deeply believed that America was good and was a force for good in the world. He chose to put America on the side of the prisoners in the gulag, rather than the regime that unjustly sent them there. And when the Soviet Union and its empire crumbled a few years later, we learned from Sharansky and others just how important American moral support was.

Likewise, when tyrants like Ferdinand Marcos and Augusto Pinochet finally and inevitably fell from power, Filipinos and Chileans remembered who sided with the tyrant and who sided with the people. So too will it be when Putin, Sisi, and Kim are no longer in power.

Of course, we don’t get to choose who rules Russia, Egypt, or North Korea. We must, as Reagan did in his day, deal with the world as it is. But as in Reagan’s time, we must remember what America stands for, even as we address the practical questions of policy. And America must always firmly and proudly speak out for the oppressed, not their oppressors.