Friday, July 14, 2017

The popular version of comparative politics, US-Russia version

I heard West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin on one of the news shows recently saying that the rule of law is what makes the United States different than everybody else.

This will be a surprise to much of the rest of the world, since all countries that I know of have the rule of law, at least in theory. And the next time an unarmed black man is gunned down by a cop somewhere in the United States, we might do well to stop and wonder how secure the rule of law is in practice in the United States. Sadly, we won't have to wait long for the next such incident, if recent years are any kind of indication.

This is the kind of self-referential claim that I sometimes try to explain to people from other countries. (Full disclosure: I associate regularly with foreign nationals. Particularly with the one to whom I'm married. Shocking, I know, but, yes, I do talk to furriners.)

So here is Joe Manchin claiming that the rule of law is distinctive to our own country. If you don't really have any experience in foreign countries, or don't travel abroad anywhere, or don't make any effort to find out about some other countries more than what you would get from watching TV news, you don't really have a comparison. So, saying we're superior to other countries because of X, Y or Z becomes just another way of saying, "America, f**k yeah! USA! USA!! USA!!!"

I thought of that when reading this Washington Post editorial, This is why Russia wanted to help Trump 07/12/2017. I don't speak Russian, I've never been to Russia. I have met Russians at times in my life, including sitting next to the Russian consul in San Francisco years ago at a Rotary Club lunch. I also went to a panel presented by Russian journalists at the Netroots Nation convention in 2014, journalists brought to the US by the State Department. I even chatted with one or two of them after the presentation. Oddly, these encounters stick in my memory. The Russians with whom members of the Trump campaign and transition teams were meeting seem to have been far more forgettable for the Americans in those meetings.

While I'm on the topic, I had several things in mind at the Russian journalists panel. They were brought here on a State Department program, so presumably the Obama Administration didn't regard them as uncritical defenders of Putin's government. And presumably Russian intelligence wanted to know what was happening on that trip, so one or more of the journalists may have been cooperating with them. Given the sponsorship, I also assumed that American intelligence was interested in what they might have to say. Given that the group was being sponsored by the US government and the audience was composed of blogger types with mobile phones and computers, I didn't assume any of the interactions were private. I don't remember if the convention was recording the panel, but they may have been.

None of those considerations required any specialized knowledge on my part. And I wasn't hesitant to attend the panel, because there was no reason to be. Now, if one of the panel members had taken me aside and whispered, "Hey, I've got some Kompromat on Person X that I want to share with you; meet me at the Sleazo Bar in two hours," I would have thought that was unusual. Especially if they had said they specifically wanted to give me the information to do something illegal. It doesn't require any specialized knowledge of Russia or the ability to speak Russian to make those kind of judgments. I'm just sayin'. And since I remember the panel anyway, I definitely would have remembered an offer to do something illegal!

Similarly, if we want to keep up with major foreign policy issues, we have to make some kind of evaluation coming to us from sources that we should expect to be reliable, or at least serious. Which brings me back to the WaPo editorial:

What makes Russia hostile is Mr. Putin’s adherence to, and dependence on, a set of values that are antithetical to what have been, at least until now, bedrock American values. He favors spheres of influence over self-determination; corruption over transparency; and repression over democracy. His antipathy toward Hillary Clinton was not personality-driven but based on her advocacy of values that would threaten his rule. [my emphasis]
I'll be generous and just observe that adherents of the foreign policy "realist" school would think concerns like maintaining national borders, secessionist nationalist movements and military basing considerations (like in Crimea) are more important in shaping Russian foreign policy under Putin than his rejection of the US "value" of disapproving of corruption.

Even saying that, though, brings up the obvious consideration: do Russians really think that US politics and business are free of corruption? Or that our business and political elites disapprove of it? And given the cosmic scale of corruption on which the Trump Family Business Administration operates, and the indifference with which his Republican Party regards it, can we really claim that anti-corruption is one of the "bedrock American values"? Even with WaPo's qualifier, "at least until now"?

And the WaPo editorialists claim that the United States values "self-determination" over "spheres of influence." Two words: Latin America. That doesn't mean that the US should not object to irregular annexations of territory on the part of Russia or other international actors. But the Russians hate us for our values? As Charlie Pierce sometimes says: honky, please!

They continue:

It’s sometimes hard for Americans to understand the gulf between the two nations because Mr. Putin has maintained the trappings of democracy — a parliament, national elections — even as he has made them meaningless by shuttering most independent media and eliminating most political opposition. The state now serves Mr. Putin and his cronies, who have become immensely wealthy, rather than the reverse. When people try to expose the corruption, they are imprisoned or killed (or both, as in the case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky). When Mr. Putin stakes out any position, the first question on his mind is not “Is this good for Russia?” but rather: “Will this help my regime to survive?” [my emphasis]
These kinds of claims are only meaningful in comparison. I think that what they claim about the nature of Putin's regime there is accurate. But our mainstream press - not even to speak of FOX News and Breitbart - do a poor job of providing good information and analysis on which to base such judgments.

They conclude their editorial, "So while the younger Mr. Trump may have seen advantage in accepting Russia’s help, Russia certainly would have seen an advantage in proffering it. Mr. Putin’s values are antithetical to American values, but the Russian dictator had good reason to hope that they would not be antithetical to the values of a Trump administration." Apart from the triumphalist "values" plug again, it's at best simplistic to characterize Putin as a "dictator." I would go with "authoritarian democracy" myself. I'll consider "illiberal democracy," but I've never much liked the term. But even relatively sophisticated and well-informed American readers are far too quick to believe that any non-American government is on the verge of being a dictatorship that doesn't accept our obviously superior Values.

This is not the most desirable state of affairs.

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