Back to basics? In memory of 78 years of Fulton speech

The global ideological confrontation between democracy and dictatorship first came to the fore of 20th century geopolitics after World War II, when the world, especially Europe, after suffering terrible destruction and loss of life, came to be separated into two distinctive ideological blocs: the free democratic West and the totalitarian communist East.

In fact, today, as almost 80 years ago, this confrontation still informs the key givens of contemporary world leaders. Through the ever-growing number of conflicts worldwide, pressure is put on the world’s strongest democracies to force them to retreat from what the dictatorships call their spheres of vital interests. As a result, less powerful democratic nations like Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, Georgia, or Moldova, similarly to the Central European states after World War II, became dependent on the ability of leading democratic powers to acknowledge their responsibility to defend the free democratic world.

Naturally, Ukraine and other democratic states living under war or under the direct threat of it are increasingly concerned with the credibility and practical value behind the repeated declarations of support. With this in mind, it is high time to revisit Sir Winston Churchill’s initial warning of the challenge of competition between the “free democratic world” and “totalitarian systems”, as he put it in his well-known Fulton speech on 5 March 1946. [1]

This speech is famous owing primarily to the striking and clear conceptualization of the “iron curtain”, a deep post-war divide between the free and democratic camp led by the USA and Great Britain, and the other led by the USSR (also called as Russia at that time).

In 1992, after the dissolution of the USSR, Francis Fukuyama came up with a vision of “the end of history”, which inferred that Churchill’s 1946 dictum of a confrontation between two ideological blocs had been over. The “free democratic world” had triumphed in the Cold War over the Soviet (Russian) led bloc of “tyranny”. The USSR (Russia) resigned, and the democratic alliance of the USA and its allies made themselves busy helping the new Russian state in jubilant hopes of supporting the newly born Russian “democracy”. 

However, over the next 30 years, world events, particularly in Ukraine and Israel, made many leaders in the West realize that the confrontation persisted, and that dictatorial regimes were still in place and getting even bolder and stronger. And the nature of the confrontation is essentially the same – it is still about the “free democratic world” (the West) against the “tyranny” (neo-dictatorial Russia).

More to the point, it is remarkable that many aspects of Churchill’s analysis now sound as revelations in light of the Russo-Ukrainian war… For instance, Churchill effectively predicted the current nuclear blackmail by Russia, implying that an atomic bomb in the possession of “some Communist or neo-Fascist State” “might easily have been used to enforce totalitarian systems upon the free democratic world”. Churchill also emphasized another factor universally recognized these days, that force is the only argument respected by Russians: “there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” Crucially, he vehemently insisted on the importance of what we are still trying to secure these days, i.e. on a “unity of Europe” as a key requirement for “the safety of the world”. [2] 

The lessons of the recent 30 years do prompt a bit broader and complex view than that of Churchill’s time. Nowadays, the democratic world lives in a different, post-industrial age. We can see on the global stage not only the familiar menaces of tyranny identified by Churchill, but also traces of weaknesses once again haunting the “free democratic world”, including counterproductive isolationism and excessive consumerism, to name a few.

Does it mean that the whole world, after a short thaw in the 1990s, is yet again moving towards a confrontation articulated by Churchill in Fulton on 5 March 1946?

This time, however, the stakes appear to be even.  The evil dark dictatorial regimes are jealous of successful democratic West and would spare no effort to undermine it. Nuclear deterrence will not stop the hordes of spies, illegal migrants, terrorists, drug dealers, hackers, and other proxies of the dictatorial regimes. 

Therefore, on the one hand, the world in the first quarter of the 21st century, similarly to the world in the middle of the 20th century, appears to be still divided into two major conflicting blocs – “free democratic world” versus “totalitarian system”.

On the other hand, the world of today is a different world. In the 1940s, the response to the Fulton speech appeal by Churchill “let us practice - what we preach” was straight and resolute. The democratic West created the democratic defence alliance NATO and prevailed in its competition with the Soviet dictatorship. However, today, the response by the free democratic world in terms of realizing the defence of democracy is somewhat less encouraging. Analyst James Sherr’s assessment of the contemporary West’s resolution is suggestive of its uncomfortable state. In his opinion, today’s Western ‘political realism’ “embraces a spectrum of views ranging from accommodation, appeasement and ‘grand bargains’ to isolationism, nativism and the disavowal of alliances.” [3] 

Any practical wavering on the part of the free world in terms of its security mission equates to the reduction of its “force”, while according to Churchill, force remains the only argument that Russia - and evidently other “tyrannies” - understand. What may be the consequences of this reduction? 

It appears that the best solution to the current global predicament is still to be found in the old Churchill’s adage from his Fulton speech “The safety of the world requires a new unity in Europe, from which no nation should be permanently outcast.” [4]

[1] "Sinews of Peace" (Iron Curtain Speech). America’s National Churchill Museum,…

[2]  Ibid

[3]  James Sherr. The moment of truth. International Centre for Defence and Security, Estonia, January 10, 2024,  

[4] Sinews of Peace (Iron Curtain Speech). America’s National Churchill Museum,…


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