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Soft power is no weapon against tanks and missiles

We are watching the erosion of the liberal world order with the United States at its helm. The way to restore it can only be through a display of moral courage and strength.

Leipzig, Germany, February 24th 2022: A solidarity demonstration for the Ukraine. Credit: Zuttmann Benoelken/Shutterstock.
Leipzig, Germany, February 24th 2022: A solidarity demonstration for the Ukraine. Credit: Zuttmann Benoelken/Shutterstock.
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern is the founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a think tank that specializes in the Middle East. She is the author of Saudi Arabia and the Global Terrorist Network (2011).  

If we have learned anything from the events of the past week in Ukraine, it is that diplomacy without the credible threat of military force becomes a weapon in the hands of the most ruthless. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also proven that diplomacy, even with the threat of strong sanctions, is meaningless to the deranged psyche of megalomaniac despots and dictators. The soft power of sanctions and diplomacy is not a weapon against tanks and missiles in the hands of a madman.

This has been a jarring wake-up call for many in the American foreign-policy establishment, who have been deep in slumber since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. Unfortunately, we in the West have enjoyed many halcyon days of the post-Cold War order. Simultaneously, we have proven time and again that we have an amazing capacity to delude ourselves into the belief that this is a Kantian world in which human reason leads us to a just, moral world. Unfortunately, Putin has proven that for some political actors, it is a Hobbesian world where he is determined to make life for his fellow man “nasty, brutish and short.”

The Ukrainian people have proven to be remarkably valiant in the face of this horrific ongoing Russian onslaught and are putting up a significant fight. The scenes of bombed-out buildings, men who have never before held a weapon lining up for arms, civilians schooling themselves in the art of making Molotov cocktails in their kitchens or people rushing into the subway holding children in their arms are reminiscent of World War II. They are bone-chilling.

The list of countries that have supported this Russian onslaught is as predictable as it is short. China (which claims to regard “sovereignty” as a regnant value though deeply despises America); North Korea (which has ravenous eyes towards Seoul); Belarus (which is shivering in its shoes, wondering if it is next, and allows Russian troops on its soil); Venezuela (whose immense hatred of the U.S. predetermines its knee-jerk reactions); Syria (whose leader Bashar Assad’s very life was saved by Putin); and the Islamic Republic of Iran (which looks at the globe with the same hegemonic eyes, coupled with a toxic mix of religious zealotry).

All of which leads me to remind us that while all of this is taking place in Eastern Europe, not too very far away in Vienna, where international negotiators carry this same naive Western mindset into the room and who have assured us that they are about to sign a deal with Iran. These are people that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned us about when she said: “We in the West make a grave mistake when we transpose our values onto the rest of the world.”

Coupling one set of foreign-policy failures with what might be another equally pernicious one, word has leaked out that the Americans are willing to give the Iranians a multi-billion-dollar signing bonus. The Iranians are also looking for agreements that America will never back out of the deal—something that cannot be assured unless this deal becomes a treaty that requires two-thirds of the Senate to ratify. With the breakdown of the Senate as it stands today, that is not likely to happen. However, the P5+1, (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia) are working assiduously to get to a deal within the next few days.

This mentality, so desperate for a diplomatic victory and the opportunity to wave a piece of paper, Neville Chamberlain-like, in the air and declare “peace in our time.” These are people who have decided to willfully blind themselves to the tremendous violations of the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), ignoring the fact that there are approximately two tons of highly enriched uranium at the 60 percent level, which is a far cry from the 3.65 percent level specified in the deal and an easy glide to the 90 percent level necessary for a nuclear bomb. They have ignored the countless times the International Atomic Energy Inspectors have been turned away from suspicious sites. They have ignored the fact that the regime has built nuclear sites, such as Fordow, well-hidden in the mountainside, near the holy city of Qom. Why hide their nuclear facilities if there is nothing to hide? And they have ignored the fact that last December, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired 16 missiles in a military exercise as a “threat to the Zionist regime.”

And to our great peril, they have ignored the fact that Iran has developed a global network of Hezbollah cells throughout the Middle East, Africa and especially in Latin America, in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil—right under our noses—and that Iran has been giving attack drone technology to the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Most significantly, however, they have ignored the countless voices of the Iranian dissident population who have pleaded with us not to lift the sanctions. Fully three-quarters of the Iranian population have been born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and despise the regime. The cases of human-rights abuses are as endless as they are sobering to read. Just last month, human-rights activist Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to 74 lashes and an additional six years in prison, after having already served 11. Women are arrested and flogged for rape, but never men. Religious minorities, such as Baháʼís, have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured. LGBTQ individuals are hung from the public square. Sentences are completely arbitrary, including extrajudicial killings, and there is no serious habeas corpus.

We need to work with these brave dissident groups and give them the tools they need to overthrow the regime they so desperately detest. We need to restore our moral credibility to the world by showing that we protect the most vulnerable, who are crying out for democracy and freedom, such as those valiant fighters in Ukraine and those desperate dissidents in Iran. And that only happens through a display of force.

As the great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov once said: “If you want to know a nation’s foreign policy, look at the way they treat their dissident population.”

After all these years of slumber, we are watching the erosion of the liberal world order, with the U.S. at its helm. The way to restore it can only be through a display of moral courage and strength. We owe it to the courageous dissidents of Iran and to the valiant fighters of Ukraine.

Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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