Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I, PUTIN'S HENCHMAN

That's probably what a lot of TCS readers will think about me after reading my article "Putin the Great?" (not my title but I can see why they picked it). But my goal in the article was not to be a henchman but a peacemaker, to be a lone voice against a West-Russia confrontation that I think we would be better avoiding.

I should say that a centralization of power under Putin is not, I think, what Russia needs. I like Putin's first administration better than his second. It's important for there to be independent power bases in a society. Imprisoning Khodorkovsky was bad for Russia's medium-term interests. It's as if Bush had imprisoned McCain in 2001. It's a mistake because a guy like McCain can become your best ally in need, precisely because he's an independent voice with his own political capital.

But Western advice played out so badly in the 1990s that Russians have good reason not to listen to us now. Not that I pin most of the blame on naive Western advisers like Jeffery Sachs; most of it I put on naive Russians like Yeltsin who listened to the Western advisers. Russia should have pursued a more gradualist transition, finding a way to let liberalism grow up in the cracks in the Soviet system while keeping some elements of that system in place as long as possible. There is no progress without tradition.

Westerners are often blinded by ideology in foreign affairs. Not in the case of Iraq though: people everywhere may not dream of "liberty" as Americans conceive it, but people almost everywhere, and certainly in Iraq, hate murderous tyrants like Saddam Hussein. Overthrowing monsters like that is always a good cause. Actually, "blinded by ideology" is perhaps too uncharitable a phrase; our ideology blinds us to a lot of local realities, but it does embody some wisdom derived from our own unusually happy and successful national experience. It would be a good thing if Russians were to embrace some of the ideological bric-a-brac of Western democracy.

The trouble is that when it comes to Russia, the West is blinded not only by ideology but also by self-interest. For whose benefit do we want Russia to be democratic? For our own benefit: we would rest easier with a liberal democracy on NATO's border, since we know that democracies don't wage war on each other. If we were thinking about what is best for Russians, we might still make the argument for freedom, but we would be careful not to talk about "backsliding" from the 1990s, as if the 1990s in Russia were something good.

UPDATE: When I first heard Putin's remark about Russia "not wanting to be a democracy like Iraq" I was a bit annoyed at him because I thought it was a gratuitous jab. Apparently not:

During a joint news conference Saturday in St. Petersburg, Bush said he raised concerns about democracy in Russia during a frank discussion with the Russian leader.

"I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world, like Iraq where there's a free press and free religion, and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same," Bush said.

To that, Putin replied, "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy that they have in Iraq, quite honestly."


So it was Bush who brought up the Iraq analogy! This is such a bad way to make the case for democracy to Russians-- Russians have had a lot of violent instability in their history and they don't like it, thank you very much!-- that I wonder if Bush was being ironic. Sort of like, "I have to exert 'pressure' on you to democratize, to please the media back home, but just to signal to you that you don't have to listen to it, that I'm just kidding, I'll frame my exhortation in the most implausible possible language, so that you have an easy way out. Okay, now that that's out of the way, let's get down to business."

The other possibility is that Bush actually thinks Iraq is a desirable model for Russia. If that's the case, I'm glad that more solid people like Cheney and Condi have a lot of heft in this administration. The contemporary Iraq model-- a fledgling democracy superimposed on bloody chaos-- is desirable by comparison to the totalitarianism that preceded it, and possibly to some of Iraq's nasty neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran, but not compared to Putin's Russia.

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