Global Political Expert and Author Dr. Brian Klaas

The political expert and author discusses his latest book, The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy.

Dr. Brian Klaas is an expert on global democracy, democratic transitions, American politics, Western foreign policy, political violence, and elections -- and the security and economic risks of all these challenges. Klaas is the author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy. He is a Fellow in Global and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. Klaas has advised governments, US political campaigns, the European Union, multi-billion dollar investors, international NGOs, and international politicians.

Follow @BrianKlaas on Twitter.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with scholar Brian Klaas about his new book, “The Despot’s Accomplice”. He’ll also weigh in on the G20 summit and the latest allegations of yet another Trump administration connection to Russia.

Then we’ll speak with activist Gail Walker who’s continuing her father’s humanitarian efforts in Cuba through a special ministry called “Pastors for Peace”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Brian Klaas and Gail Walker coming up in just a moment.

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Brian Klaas is a Fellow in Global and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. His new text is called “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy”. Brian, good to have you on the program.

Brian Klaas: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: When I was going over this text over the weekend, I was [laugh] struck by your suggestion that the west is aiding and abetting the decline of democracy, and then President Trump shows up to give a speech and questions whether or not the west has the will to survive. What did you make of that question from the president?

Klaas: Well, I think that he’s misdiagnosed the problem in a few ways. One is that his definition of the west took on an extremely cultural and even religious overtone. He seemed to make this about Christianity. Poland, by the way, is one of the key culprits of what political scientists call democratic backsliding, going away from liberal democracy.

But also beyond that, he’s splintering the west. He’s creating a model that does not look attractive to other countries. He’s alienating allies. So when other countries in the developing world are trying to figure out which blueprint to follow, it used to be that it was America. It used to be that Washington was, as Reagan used to say, “the city upon a hill”.

And now it’s not and the countries in the developing world are looking much more to China as a viable model and much less to Washington. I think that’s something that’s really sad to see, that we are actually undercutting the allure of democracy because our system is broken.

Tavis: That notion, again, that he advanced, President Trump, of whether or not the west had the will to survive, was that then just hyperbole? Was it just his being ill-informed yet again? Or was there something more dangerous and more sinister about his raising that notion?

Klaas: I think it was dangerous in the way he characterized the west because he talked a little bit about values, but they tended not to be things like democracy, which was absent from the speech. I mean, you think about past presidents.

Ronald Reagan would have been rolling in his grave to have a U.S. president in Poland, a country that transitioned to democracy partly because of the U.S.’s role in defeating communism, and have the president not mention democracy.

That was the achievement of the west. It was to turn Eastern Europe into a democratic alliance, part of the EU, part of the west. So when you talk about the survival of the west, you have to think about the ideas that made the west special, and democracy is the very core of that.

That’s why I’m worried about it being, you know, put into this broader context about religious or cultural identity, especially because one of the foundational principles of democracy under assault under President Trump is the free press.

And Poland has been attacking the free press so much that western watchdog groups have downgraded Poland’s freedom of the press status from free to partly free in the last couple of years. So to hold this up as the pedestal of democracy, the pedestal of the west, is in my opinion a very grave error and one that will alienate a lot of Western European allies.

Tavis: As you talk more tonight, now we understand why Poland was just rolling out the red carpet as if the president was going to — in fact, did receive. But they rolled out the red carpet for a hero’s welcome to Poland for Donald Trump.

Klaas: He was, and this is where the illiberal forces in the world love Donald Trump. This is where he is very popular in Russia. He’s very popular in Poland among supporters of the ruling party who are sliding away from democracy.

So the country’s that are committed to democracy, the countries that share the values that the U.S. has stood for for most of its existence, those countries are alienated by Trump. We’ve seen in recent surveys confidence in the U.S. leader down 75% in Germany, 70% in France, 57% in the UK, up 42% in Russia.

This is partly because he is not only emulated and actually put on a pedestal in these countries that are liberal, but he’s actively acting like a cheerleader for despots around the world. This is something that I point out in the book about how western democracies have behaved and particularly the United States.

We used to be a force that had a somewhat two-faced approach to the world. We used to have mostly support for democracy, but we had a few blind spots where we turned our eye on Saudi Arabia, etc. But now it’s consistent in the wrong way. It’s consistent on the side of despots. He’s praised Erdoğan. He congratulated on a referendum for…

Tavis: President of Turkey, yeah.

Klaas: Democracy in Turkey. He praised President Duterte of the Philippines who’s running a death squad that’s killed up to 7,000 people already. He praised Putin. The pattern is really alarming because the U.S. used to only turn a blind eye to some key strategic relationships. Now it’s the principle of democracy doesn’t even seem to be factoring into U.S. foreign policy.

Tavis: So do you regard what you’ve just laid out as some new sort of Trump doctrine? I hesitated to use that phrase. Is this what the Trump doctrine is going to be, or is he just ignorant of the facts?

Klaas: The Trump doctrine of America First is basically just shortsighted foreign policy. It’s a transactional view of the world. It’s the who pays what and when, right? Now the problem with that, there’s a few things. One is that democracy and values actually matter. When we invest in those things, we get dividends down the road. We might not get them immediately, but they do pay off.

And the best example of this is the Marshall Plan after World War II where the U.S. rebuilt Europe. In a transactional world, they view that as a waste of money. We’re throwing billions of dollars at Western Europe. Why would we possibly do that?

And the answer is because those countries became the countries we traded with. Those are the countries that spilled blood with us in war. They’re the people that we can count on, and it’s because we invested in a long-term vision of value-oriented foreign policy that promoted democracy.

Now we’re thinking about just transactional dollars and cents. How many weapons will Saudi Arabia buy? Will Russia help us with this thing? So can we give them a free pass on something else? Do we like President Duterte because he said nice things about Donald Trump in the Philippines, right?

This is where I think we have a real problem. As long as you’re only looking a year or two into the future, you’re going to have a counterproductive foreign policy, and that’s what the Trump doctrine really is. It’s trading long-term vision and values for short-term transactions.

Tavis: How do you regard — or may not regard — his walking back of — I’m trying to find the right word and trying to be kind to the president. But it was just bizarre that he would say, “Well, I asked Putin whether he did that. I asked him. He said no.”

Because he asked him and he said no, he just believed him and then he starts tweeting about this cyber security collaboration that we’re going to engage in with Russia. Within 24 hours, he, of course, has started to walk that back. How did you read that bizarre sort of…

Klaas: Well, I think it’s dangerous. You know, trying to form a cyber security initiative with Russia is like trying to form a counterterrorism initiative with ISIS. I mean, it is a counterproductive approach. It’s an insane way to formulate national security policy.

And the reason he had to walk it back is because anybody who understands the basics of U.S. national security knew that was a nonstarter. You can’t possibly collaborate with the number one foreign adversary and the number one culprit of cyber attacks against the U.S.

We had a report out this week that Russia may have been involved in attacking with cyber weapons again U.S. nuclear power plants. So even if there are people out there who don’t think the collusion narrative of 2016 was a big deal, our infrastructure is vulnerable.

And the question is what message does the United States send to Russia to say you cannot do this again? And what came out of that meeting was almost an invitation. I mean, it was not only weak, but it was saying let’s just move on.

If you say let’s just move on after a crime is committed, the criminal will do it again. And I think that’s what I worry about looking at 2018 is what is deterring Putin from doing exactly what he did in 2016 one more time to help the Republicans in 2018?

Tavis: So how would you grade Mr. Trump’s G20 performance?

Klaas: Unfortunately, I think it was an F. The only thing that was positive that came out of this was Britain felt hopeful about the fact that he talked about a trade agreement with them. So there was a little bit of plaudits in Britain.

But beyond that, the rest of the world was really alienated by this. This was the first time where the G20, which used to be led by the United States, had to make a statement that was G19 plus one about climate. On trade, it’s G19 plus one.

And the more that we’re the plus one, the sideshow, the more that the U.S. is weakened because we can’t dictate to other people what to do when everybody else disagrees with us. You can’t use foreign policy pressure when you’re the pariah. So when you’re advocating positions that are so out of step with the global leaders, you cease becoming a global leader.

Tavis: So the Trump show is making us a sideshow, yeah.

Klaas: Yeah, unfortunately, I think so, yeah.

Tavis: You earlier in this conversation, Brian, suggested that you didn’t like the way President Trump defined the west in his remarks in Poland, so let me ask how you define the west and why and how is the west aiding and abetting the decline of democracy?

Klaas: Sure. So what I define the west, I think it’s about ideas and values. The west stands for a really revolutionary idea which is that people should have the ability to have input in how they’re governed. That was the revolutionary idea that created the west. It’s why Japan is often referred to in the west as well because it also has this value, right?

So I think when you think about that idea, that was something that was core to western nations for a very long time in their foreign policies. But what’s happened over the longer term is that the west has lost sight of that in its foreign policy.

So in the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy basically picked sides with whoever was our friend, right? It was often not about democracy. There were coups that were instigated by America against democratic governments, but then after the Cold War ended, the U.S. was the sole super power.

It was free to actually act on principle to back democratic countries for the sake of democracy. And a lot of the time, we actually did that. Now that’s changed over time and it’s started to become much more about hardnosed foreign policy reality and short-term strategic goals rather than a long-term vision.

Now beyond that, you also have the problem that the west is not acting like a model. So if you don’t have this pedestal to put America on, then everyone starts to look at China and think, you know, that country’s authoritarian, but they get results.

And they’re being used as a pretext in developing world countries like in Africa, for example, where people are saying we don’t need elections because China doesn’t have them and they’re succeeding. But the problem is China has some things that African countries don’t, like a functioning technocracy that can run the government effectively.

So it’s the worst of both worlds where people are gravitating away from Washington towards Beijing, but not implementing the strengths of Beijing and simply just having an autocracy that doesn’t deliver for the people, which is the worst of every world.

I think there’s a very simple core idea to the west that is, as I said, governments should be responsive to people and that means that democracy is at the pinnacle of our ambitions as a society. That is where I was really alarmed that he didn’t even mention democracy in that speech in Poland.

Tavis: At this point, what agency do the American people have to pull the president’s coattail, as it were, on not just the speech, but the behavior?

Klaas: Well, this is where I think the fundamental aspect of American democracy that needs to be fixed is gerrymandering.

Tavis: We agree on that, brother [laugh].

Klaas: I mean, when you look at the number of incumbents that lost in 2016 in the House, it was eight. The average margin of victory in the House in 2016 was 37%, right? Everybody in Congress is worried about a primary challenger, not a general election opponent. And the more that that happens, the more that sane people will behave in insane ways, and that’s what we have with President Trump.

A lot of the people behind closed doors in the Republican Party are appalled by this behavior, but they won’t do anything because the only consequence they could possibly face is a primary challenger. They know they’re going to win 80-20 in the general, so why would they stand up to Trump? Because all that does is funnel the extremes of their party against them, and that’s the real danger.

So until we fix that problem with districting and until we create competitive elections in the United States, we’re going to have a dysfunctional democracy and it’s not going to deliver for the people and will increase polarization.

Tavis: As we say in the Black church, amen to that [laugh]. I’ve been saying that for years on this program that gerrymandering is the number one thing wrong with our democracy. We got to get it fixed at some point. Of course, the problem is that the folk who have to fix that are the fold who are in Congress, and there’s your dilemma.

Klaas: Yes.

Tavis: The book is called “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy” written by Brian Klaas. Brian, thanks for your insight. Thanks for the text.

Klaas: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: My pleasure. Up next, activist Gail Walker, on her way to Cuba. You’ll want to hear about this. Stay with us.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: July 11, 2017 at 1:03 pm