Commentary

Should People in Democratic Glass Houses Throw Stones?

By Patrick Basham
This article appeared in Pravda on August 21, 2008.

The neoconservative call to ostracise Russia by kicking her out of the G8 and denying her membership in the World Trade Organisation is deeply mistaken. Washington’s desire to lash out economically and diplomatically at Russian misbehaviour in the Caucasus is trumping rational thinking on the future of a vital strategic relationship.

Washington’s fundamental error is to mislabel Russia as a democratic country in the 1990s that suddenly turned undemocratic during the past decade. It is mistakenly presumed, therefore, that Russia can be incentivised to appreciate the error of her recently authoritarian ways and sheepishly return to a state of democratic bliss and constructive multilateralism.

The trouble is that post-Communist Russia has never been democratic in the liberal, Western sense. Rather, in zigzag fashion the Russian political system has been slowly transitioning away from totalitarianism towards a democratic system compatible, one hopes, with Russian history and cultural traditions.

Consequently, asking in the wake of Russia’s intervention in Georgia, ‘Why did Russia go wrong?’ is the wrong question. The awkward question Americans should be asking, not of the Russians, but of themselves, is, ‘What can the West do to encourage and to sustain Russia’s political transition?’

The Bush administration needs to avoid a holier-than-thou attitude in these matters. Unless and until the U.S. revises its critique of Russian politics, it runs the risk of applying a democratic double standard to U.S.-Russia relations.

One observes, for example, the Bush administration’s marked impatience with the pace of Russian democratisation. Yet, it continues to exhibit tremendous patience with democratisation’s meandering (to put it charitably) pace in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the lengthy indulgence of Pakistan.

Economic development is the catalyst for Russia’s long-term political maturation, as it has proven to be in most countries. Hence, the best way to foster Russian democracy and, consequently, calm Moscow’s approach to international relations, is not to threaten Moscow but, less dramatically and more realistically, to help foster economic growth in Russia.

The larger irony is that the world’s greatest liberal democracy is itself becoming increasingly illiberal. Both domestically and internationally, there is a need to refocus on a broader definition of democracy than American politicians are comfortable employing in public, especially when lecturing their Russian counterparts.

In practice, a myriad of economic and personal freedoms form integral pillars of a strong and stable liberal democracy. Simply put, political freedom is not sustainable without the foundations supplied by economic and personal freedom.

Yet, American liberal democracy is in the process of being replaced by a bully-like Nanny State. Take, for example, health and environmental policy.

Here, one witnesses the rise of highly coercive, arguably fascistic, policies to control individual choices and restrict personal freedom over, for example, one’s diet and the consumption of a list of still-legal products, such as alcohol and tobacco.

More worrisome, perhaps, is the fact that U.S.-led international health and environmental organisations are initiating pseudo-scientific campaigns upon those middle-income countries with allegedly indulgent energy, and dangerous personal, consumption habits.

There are no prizes for guessing which former Eastern European superpower has been chosen as the World Health Organisation and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s next big juicy target. The Russians know this and, consequently, are circling the diplomatic wagons.

Going forward, the U.S. needs to work with Russia as her strategic partner rather than acting as her strategic adversary.

Unlike the cartoonish rhetoric of recent days, the American critique of Russian behaviour should be informed and it should be candid. Above all, it should be constructive, if Washington’s sincere goal is no more than the betterment of the Russian people.

The Russians do not think the U.S. is sincere. Rather, they believe the critique of Russia’s actions is merely an instrument of American foreign policy.

Absent a belated U-turn, American foreign policy – conducted by those living in an democratic glass house – will continue to throw ever-larger political stones in Russia’s direction. Policymakers in Washington shall discover that this course of action damages not only the stones’ intended target, but also the stone thrower, herself.

Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar.