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Defying Dictatorships: An Interview with Garry Kasparov

Defying Dictatorships: An Interview with Garry Kasparov

. 8 min read

Garry Kasparov is the Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the Founder of the Renew Democracy Initiative. Kasparov is the author of several books, including “Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped“ and “Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins.” Previously, Kasparov was the World Chess Champion.

It is no secret that authoritarians are attempting to use the pandemic to strengthen their grip on power and advance their agendas. Which authoritarian actions amidst COVID-19 have been least noticed by the West, and how is the Human Rights Foundation working to combat them?

It’s not so much that the actions of dictatorships haven’t been noticed by the free world, but that there has been so little action in response. There are few places in the world where human rights violations can be hidden for long—even North Korea—and this is hardly new to the COVID-19 era. There is only acceleration, exploiting the West’s inattention due to the pandemic. The dictators are afraid of the pandemic, and their mishandling of it will lead to domestic uprisings. So, they are cracking down more, building up their surveillance apparatus and tightening the borders.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have much to fear from the West these days. They know the potential exists, but obviously it’s not enough to scare them anymore. And they support each other. Alexander Lukashenko, for example, probably would have fled Belarus by now if he and the security forces weren’t openly supported by Russian President Vladmir Putin. China’s Uyghur concentration camps have been exposed and what is the response? To boycott trade? To demand international investigations? No, Disney makes a movie right where the camps are and thanks the Chinese authorities! The National Basketball Association (NBA) issues a few press releases and limits its social justice calls to inside US borders.

On several occasions, you’ve called for an alliance among free nations—underpinned by a global Magna Carta—that would stand up to tyranny around the world. Can you elaborate on your vision? What events would need to occur for such an alliance to become a reality?

The United Nations was designed to freeze conflict, to prevent World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a messy bureaucracy, a “cockpit in the Tower of Babel,” as Churchill warned against in his famous Fulton speech in 1946, but you can say it helped achieve that goal. But after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) collapsed, it was time for a new vision, the way the UN and other institutions like NATO had been created after World War II.

The free world had a tremendous advantage when the USSR fell, and it squandered that instead of pressing the advantage. New dictatorships sprouted from the ashes of the Soviet Union, others dug in and benefited from the West’s engagement policies that offered all carrots, no sticks. Even today, the free world has economic, military, and cultural advantages it could leverage to better the lot of the billions of people who still live in authoritarian regimes.

For this to happen, countries that believe in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must unite to defend and promote those principles. It’s about having standards and living up to them and saying that you don’t get to join the club and reap all its benefits unless you move toward those standards. Instead, the world’s democracies have been corrupted by the dictatorships they hoped would liberalize via closer economic and political ties. Russian, Chinese, and Saudi money have flooded the democratic world, buying what they could never conquer.

You’re an outspoken proponent of sanctions against dictatorships. Can you give a recent example of an effective use of sanctions? How about an ineffective use? What other tools must sanctions be paired with in order to achieve their desired objective?

Effective sanctions are a way of limiting damage and achieving containment via deterrence. They shouldn’t be seen short-sightedly as punishment for crimes already committed because the leaders of sanctioned regimes cannot afford to look weak by caving in. The threat is the point, for dictators to know they could be subjected to sanctions that could cripple their ability to loot their countries and to fill the pockets of their cronies. Nor is there a way to know the counterfactual—what would have happened had sanctions not been applied. For example, the world reacted to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine far more strongly than he expected, considering how nothing was done after he invaded Georgia. Had strong sanctions not come quickly, I don’t doubt there would have been Russian tanks en route to Kyiv.

The problem comes when they are used as tit-for-tat and become seen as acceptable costs instead of an overwhelming threat. Dictators only care about their grasp on power. If sanctions don’t touch those levers, they are only for show. “We pretend to do something so we don’t look pathetic, you pretend to care.” This is why I favor targeted sanctions, Magnitsky sanctions, that go directly after individuals and their riches to show mafia-style bosses like Putin that they can’t provide total protection in exchange for loyalty. But, the West mostly continues to play the old games of diplomacy and broad sanctions that mean nothing to the modern dictators who only care about money.

You’ve likened Vladimir Putin to a poker player: someone who can bluff effectively but ultimately has a weak hand. Can you elaborate on this analogy? What is the best strategy to deal with an opponent like Putin? How does Russia’s ratification of the constitutional amendments allowing Putin to remain President until 2036 change that strategy, if at all?

Putin needs constant conflict to feed his propaganda machine at home, to look tough. But, he can’t afford an open conflict he might lose, which is how many dictators meet their fates. So, he hits weak spots like Ukraine, like Syria, unlikely to provoke a strong response from NATO, the EU, or the United States. Of course, it’s a bluff, but he reads people well, like a good poker player. For example, he backed Bashar al-Assad in Syria, sure that Obama would walk away from his “red line” about chemical weapons. Of course, the United States could have wiped Assad off the map, and should have, but former President Obama folded and Putin got to look like a big winner, standing up to the United States and keeping his mass-murdering pal Assad in charge.

Strategy means long-term planning, not “what do we do now?” after every new crisis. Build alliances, weaken dictatorships by refusing to rely on them for anything—oil, gas, manufacturing. It takes time and must be based on principles. And, those are in short supply.

Putin’s constitutional changes are confirming what we already knew, that Putin will be in power until he’s carried out of the Kremlin, one way or another. Dictatorships always have this devotion to paperwork, as if there is any respect for the rule of law in Putin’s Russia. There’s no opposition in the Duma, there’s no independent judiciary, and everyone in the world admits—finally!—that Putin is a dictator. But still he goes on with sham elections and referenda, because he is obsessed with the legitimacy that no dictator can ever really have.

Human rights abuses can be met with incredulity by citizens who are insulated from outside intervention and credible news sources. What strategies would you urge activists under totalitarian governments to take when protests are met with violence and a lack of credible information makes organization difficult?

The Human Rights Foundation holds the Oslo Freedom Forum every year to bring together dissidents from all over the world to share their stories and their tactics. It’s incredibly inspiring. There’s no magic wand, no secret strategy, other than separating the dictatorship from the people, so the people can eventually unite against the regime and seize their chance. There’s no guarantee of a good outcome when a dictator falls, but at least there’s hope, a chance, and everyone should have that.

I compare activism in authoritarian regimes to the work of a stonemason. You keep hitting his huge stone, chipping away, over and over, and one day it cracks, maybe even splits right down the middle. You don’t know which blow will do it, but you know it won’t happen if you don’t keep swinging the hammer.

What do you view the role of multinational tech giants in protecting democracy from the spread of disinformation? In your opinion, how well are they meeting that obligation?

Dictatorships use the technology developed in the free world to attack the free world. It’s sort of ironic, but it’s not surprising. Any relatively new tech, and social media is still quite new, is often weaponized before its power is understood and regulated. The big tech companies, and not only the social media giants, but also Apple and Google, should have a responsibility to limit their exploitation by dictatorship, both in foreign attacks and in internal repression. Collaborating with authoritarian regimes can be quite profitable, but why should American companies be excused for essentially arming despots to violate human rights? Tech firms are very quick to stand up for privacy rights and other such things in the West, but just as quick to cave in to pressure in dictatorships to keep the revenue flowing.

As for disinformation of all kinds, this is going to be a challenge for decades, not one a few new laws or a new piece of software is going to solve. Eventually a combination of tech and regulation will beat it back, the way spam email is practically eradicated these days when it used to be a huge problem. But, first, we have to agree that there is a problem, and it’s not clear that’s happening when so many people think they can use it to their advantage. The same stands for dark money in campaigns. If you think you’re winning that battle, you won’t fight to end it. This is yet another way how partisanship helps destroy democracy.

In your 2017 book “Deep Thinking,” you lay out how machine intelligence will enhance human labor as opposed to replacing it. How will COVID-19 impact the relationship between machine intelligence, human labor, and unemployment?

The COVID-19 crisis isn’t going to revolutionize or create, but it will accelerate some important trends and expose how slow we’ve been to develop others. Wouldn’t it be nice to have more robots in hospitals now? To have better AI analytics in healthcare, or better tracking that still maintained privacy? These things have been argued about for years, to the detriment of science and progress. When a crisis hits, you always wish you’d gone faster, not slower. For example, the Fukushima reactor was a direct consequence of ignoring the development of better, new reactors for years.

The more obvious things are already happening: working from home, or from anywhere, is taking a huge leap. I’ve already written about how the crisis is also improving the outlook for Universal Basic Income. This is not to say that this catastrophe is somehow good news because obviously it is also accelerating the negative effects on employment long before the new technologies and new industries can rise to replace the jobs lost.

Every crisis proves the importance of societal and corporate dynamics, the ability to adapt quickly to sudden change. Some countries will rebound much better than others, as will some companies. AI is a part of that, because smarter tools can be easier to repurpose, and easier for people to train to use. The crisis is making obvious what was inevitable, and forcing us to do it on the fly instead of with better preparation. If we learn this lesson we can come out stronger, knowing that we cannot slow down to avoid a crisis when all it does is leave us more vulnerable to the next one.