Team Putin’s Assault on Liberal Democracy

By Adam James

Updated 12/10/2017

It is forgivable to believe that liberal democracy has to do with Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. It is a term frequently confused in the United States where “liberal” is a political persuasion. But liberal democracy is a form of government, not a philosophy and it is a form of government we share with many of our geopolitical allies. In a liberal democracy “individual rights and freedoms are officially recognized and protected, and the exercise of political power is limited by the rule of law.”

The ascension of Donald Trump to the White House is most concerning not because of his pathological lying or his ineptitude. What is the most concerning is his presence on the world stage furthers the destabilization of the global community. And it is being fueled by the Russian Federation and its president/dictator, Vladimir Putin. The opportunity that Putin exploits is created through the injection of new cultures throughout Europe as refugees pour into Europe and in the United States, it is fueled by the efforts to create a more equal society. In an interview for the Council on Foreign Relations, Yascha Mounk explains,

There’s a similar rebellion against multi-ethnic democracy in the United States. White Americans had thought of blacks as their fellow citizens, but not as equal citizens. Here, there’s a rebellion not against pluralism itself, but rather against the fact that African-Americans want to be considered equals—that they might accede to the presidency or to the Supreme Court, or that they might be your boss.


The last great victory on the world stage was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; the P-5+1 coming to an agreement that prevented the Islamic Republic of Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. With Donald Trump’s hostility toward the agreement and the development of nuclear weapons by the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea and their aggressive posture, it is an excellent time to demonstrate the importance of stable liberal democracies. To accomplish this, let’s examine the Iran deal.


UN Security Council reached an agreement with Iran that allowed for support in Iran’s development of nuclear energy while preventing them from achieving a nuclear weapon. This agreement had to be a multilateral one for sanctions to be effective and because history between the United States and Iran is rife with intrigue and subterfuge. In 1953 (under President Eisenhower’s (R-TX) administration), “The CIA’s covert intervention—code name TPAJAX—preserved the Shah’s power and protected Western control of a hugely lucrative oil infrastructure. It also transformed a turbulent constitutional monarchy into an absolutist kingship and induced a succession of unintended consequences at least as far ahead as the Islamic revolution of 1979.”

Many years later,  it was Iran’s sponsorship of terrorists groups that made it difficult for the United States and Iran to have direct talks and as Daniel Byman of Brookings explains, the funding of terrorist groups is strategic and self preservation. “A military strike by Israel or the United States on Iran would probably prompt a more massive terrorism response. Tehran backs terrorist groups in part to keep its options open….Iran would probably attempt terrorist attacks around the world, using its own operatives, the Lebanese Hizballah, and other groups.”

Having been embroiled in more than a decade of war, public support in the US for war had been waning leaving the United States with 3 primary options:

1) Do nothing (or continue the status quo) and allow the Iranian military to develop nuclear weapons capability in short order.

2) Conduct Military Action by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. This would create a full scale war against a capable foe.

3) Use diplomacy to reach an agreement that delays Iran’s progress and deters Iran from pursuing nuclear capability.

For all of the obvious reasons, option 3 was chosen and acted upon. In preparing to negotiate, the president had to weigh many factors. Should the United States use its considerable military strength and sanctions to negotiate an agreement with Iran alone (unilaterally) or should they use the combined influence and resources of the United Nations to negotiate the deal even if some of their individual influence is ceded to other nations was perhaps the greatest question to ask. President Obama chose not to go it alone. He decided reaching a multilateral, enforceable agreement was the best course of action. So far. he’s been proven correct. When Donald Trump threatened to pull America out of the agreement, every other party (including Iran) objected and vowed to stay in. The United States must stay in the agreement and use Smart Power in the region to neutralize adversaries and ensure stability.

The use of Smart Power, gives diplomacy a stronger hand to play. “[Smart Power] is a form of statecraft that combined development, diplomacy, public-private partnerships and, yes, military power.” Diplomacy carries the benefit of acting without loss of life, as opposed to military options, but it most certainly should not be mistaken for weakness. Diplomacy allows, in this case, the US to bring to the table economic sanctions, or relief from sanction and smart power acknowledges the ability to use military force as a last resort. Whether dealing with Iran, or in the very near future, North Korea-Smart Power is the way to coerce hostile actors to uphold international norms.

As Kim Jung Un continues to thumb his nose at world powers, the credibility of the United States is vitally important. When the opportunity to strike a deal with Iran, President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton knew that it would be necessary to have the full faith of the international community, “We decided to use both engagement and pressure to present Iranian leaders with a hard choice…comply and reap the benefits of improved relations or refuse and face increased isolation and even more painful consequences,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained to CBS. In doing so, if Iran refused, they would also prove to allies “…that the Iranians were the intransigent ones, not [the US].”

This was a brilliant plan for Iran and it would work with North Korea if the right people are put in place at the State Department. If Iran surprised them and cooperated then they would be on their way to putting and end to Iran’s nuclear program. And by convincing the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany to unite to pass tough sanctions, Iran couldn’t ignore them and came to the negotiating table. Assembling this group and holding it together was especially impressive because, while the United States has strong friendships with France and Britain, their relationships in these matters with Russia and China often complicate matters.

The negotiations ended and the agreement was ratified in 2015. They faced opposition from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel that, frankly, probably lent more credibility to the US in making this deal in Tehran. Here is President Obama responding to that.  In the end the deal was negotiated by Clinton’s successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, so it also faced loud opposition from Congressional Republicans and even from some Congressional Democrats that sided with Netanyahu. Some couldn’t understand why the Obama would agree to allow nuclear power facilities to remain in Iran but the Nonproliferation Treaty allows Iran to operate nuclear programs for civilian use so the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program was never even on the table. In the case of North Korea “complete denuclearization” is probably never going to be on the table either. It’s time to negotiate a new deal with the hostile Kim regime.  

Vladimir Putin has skillfully exploited existing tensions and created new ones in liberal democracies across the globe with his greatest success being the installation of an American president. The Western world must reject this interference and restore faith in the institutions that have limited the world’s wars to isolated incidents and avoided the likes of a World War. The West has much introspection to do. Fascism creep threatens the whole of the globe.