The Senate will vote today to grant permanent normal trade relations to Russia. The House already voted overwhelmingly to do so last month by a vote of 365-43. The Senate vote, followed by certain presidential signature, will enable the United States to take advantage of Russia’s WTO membership, which it secured last December after 18 years of negotiation. I’ve written before about why it took Congress so long to act on something despite its wide bipartisan support. The culprits include self-defeating election year politics and foreign policy timidity.
Substantively, the debate has been about how best to sanction human rights abuses in Russia and/or elsewhere. Should the bill impose financial and travel sanctions on Russian officials who’ve mistreated their people or on all foreign officials from all countries who we think have done so? The sanctions have nothing to do with trade but they seem relevant because granting PNTR requires Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that makes trade with the Soviet Union conditional on the latter not restricting Jewish emigration in 1970s.
But the bill would do more for human rights in Russia if it didn’t include any sanctions at all. Rather than cause trouble with Russia (which has said it will respond strongly to any sanctions), those in Congress wanting to look like they care about human rights could have simply and correctly pointed out the substantial benefits to the Russian people that come from freer trade with the United States.
Trade liberalization is, of course, not a panacea for corruption and official lawlessness in Russia, but it does actually and directly make the people of Russia more free. Moreover, a wealthier and more cosmopolitan population is more likely to demand accountability from its leaders. More trade on market terms will connect the Russian people with the world, increasing their expectations and exposing their plight.
WTO membership will require Russia to be more transparent and enable foreign countries to use law, rather than politics, to pressure Russia to further liberalize its economy. PNTR will ensure that the United States is a part of that effort. Poking Russian officials in the eye with sanctions is at best merely emotionally satisfying and at worst counterproductive to helping the Russian people hold their own officials accountable.