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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Values to True Dialogue

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In the past year or so, we have increasingly heard the argument that a growing clash between "values" and "interests" is leading to policy dilemmas for Europeans and Americans when dealing with Russia. According to this argument, the erosion of democratic institutions and re-assertion of state control over strategic economic sectors raises questions about Russia's commitment to becoming a market democracy closely aligned with Western interests. Many critics of Russian behavior assert that Russia's aggressive meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbors reflects neo-imperial tendencies that do not equate with acceptable modern Western "values" or norms of international behavior.

Yet the formulation of the problem as a conflict of values is not helpful and is even counterproductive. The term "values" has become a code word for describing what we perceive to be Russia's domestic deficiencies in democracy, rule of law and transparent market competition. These deficiencies are real, but to cast them as reflecting departures from Western values diminishes the effectiveness of our trying to convince Russian officials and policymakers that they exist.

Why does the West promote democracy and democratic institutions in the first place? Out of moral convictions about universal suffrage? Call me a cynic, but I do not think so. We practice and promote democracy because it works better and it serves our interests. How does it work better?

First, in a system with working democratic institutions, you are likely to have a more effective policymaking process, though it may look rather messy. Policy is likely to be more carefully vetted and alternative views taken into consideration through an independent parliament and press. What appears to be increasing dysfunction in Russian policymaking can be partially attributed to the weakening of other institutions like the State Duma, Federation Council, regional governors and independent national television.

Second, there seems be quite a strong correlation between democratic states and the unlikelihood that they will go to war with other democracies. It is not an iron-clad law -- such things don't exist in social science -- but there is preponderant evidence supporting this hypothesis.

Third, as the experience of political and economic transition has suggested over the last 15 years, there is a rather high correlation between countries with stronger democratic institutions and economic growth that does not disproportionately favor the few elites.

U.S. policy toward Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union has always been premised on the view that a successful transformation to a market democracy makes the likelihood of a major threat to U.S. security interests unlikely. In my view, this is about interests, not values.

When Western politicians and diplomats talk to Russians, they face a PR problem when they couch a policy dilemma as a clash between values and interests. Nobody likes to be informed that their values are inferior -- even, and especially if, it is true. Westerners come off sounding extremely condescending, especially when everything at home is not in order. When U.S. President George W. Bush took this tack with President Vladimir Putin, he got lectures about Florida voting machines and how Yukos is Enron. Such discussion does not go anywhere.

In sum, Europeans and Americans promote democracy and open markets not only because we strongly believe that these forms of political-economic organization will lead to greater prosperity and better governance and more benign foreign policy, but also because we are likely to have more influence through political, economic and security ties. We do this because it is in our interests in a variety of ways.

And sometimes, in some of those ways, our interests will bump up against those of Russia. The most obvious example of this came in Ukraine late last year. The Russian government, rightly or wrongly, decided that a Yushchenko victory was not in their interests. They decided, rightly or wrongly, that a Yanukovych victory would result in greater Russian influence in Ukraine. Talking about this and other phenomena principally in terms of a "values gap" creates a lot of heat but sheds little light -- in other words, it creates considerable controversy, polarizes positions and makes it more difficult to bridge the gap in interests.

When we look at Russia, we too often think that pushing for human rights and democracy must come at the expense of economic and security interests. This is probably not the case. Is Russian government cooperation on nonproliferation and counterterrorism dependent on or closely correlated to the U.S. policy of democracy promotion? Probably not, since Russians work with the West on these issues because they view it as in their interest. There are limits, of course. If the West were to openly declare that its principle policy interest in Russia was to promote revolution, this would obviously be counterproductive.

Let me make two broader historical points in conclusion. The first relates to accusations of Russia's newly aggressive neo-imperialism. It is true that Russian behavior in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia often runs counter to the interests of the United States, Europe and the governments of some of the states in question. But to jump to the conclusion that this is evidence of Russian neo-imperialism distorts history. Russia today continues to deal with a long historical trend of geo-political decline. The expansion of Western influence into territories previously under the direct or indirect dominion of Moscow continues -- with NATO and EU expansion being only the most obvious developments. This does not excuse Moscow for pursuing policies that should not be excused. Rather, it provides a better framework for understanding and talking with our Russian counterparts.

The last point also relates to historical perspective. This whole debate about values and interests has intensified during Putin's leadership, especially over the last two years in the wake of the erosion of already weak democratic institutions and the Yukos affair. If we compare Russia today with the Russia of 2000, there has been some backsliding -- but I would caution against overstatement. For instance, in the 1996 presidential election, "administrative resources" were probably more important for Boris Yeltsin's victory -- given that in January 1996 his popularity rating was less than 5 percent -- than for Putin's victories in either 2000 or 2004.

But more importantly, if we take a longer historical view -- for example, going back 20 years to the onset of perestroika -- then our conclusion is very different. There has been extraordinary progress toward a more pluralistic and democratic Russia. There have indeed been some setbacks in recent years, but it would be rather simplistic to believe that long-term historical trends develop in a linear fashion. Remember Lenin's saying about two steps forward and one step back. We are in the midst of the one step back.

When and how Russia will again make two steps forward is difficult to predict, but I am confident that, sooner or later, it will.

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.