Critics of the "reset" in U.S.-Russia relations often argue that a true strategic partnership between the two countries is impossible because Russia recognizes few, if any, geopolitical priorities of the United States and doesn't adhere to its "values." Writing for the January 2010 issue of The Washington Quarterly David Kramer, for instance, points to "a widening values gap between the two countries." He elaborates:
"[T]he current Russian leadership does not…share U.S. interests or threat perceptions, to say nothing of U.S. values. As long as that is the case, extensive cooperation and significantly improved relations will be difficult to achieve."
Arguments like Kramer's won't go well with many folks in Moscow used to viewing "values" in international relations as a Trojan Horse of sorts brought to their shores by the neocons. To those folks, I say, relax. "Values" are an important part of America's self-identity, and, as such, will always play a role in U.S. foreign policy. Russians who want to work on improving U.S.-Russia relations must learn to take "values" in stride, without suffering from debilitating bouts of heartburn.
And yet, I have a problem of my own with the "values gap" school of thought. Albeit the "values gap" between the United States and Russia is often invoked, it is never clearly defined, so one must figure out for themselves what exact "values" are being advanced, how the much-celebrated "gap" is formed, and why this "gap" is, if one is to believe Kramer, "widening." A discussion on this subject is urgently needed, and this post is my honest attempt at initiating such a discussion.
It's very common, in certain circles in the United States, to call Russia a "police state" while describing the U.S. as a "beacon of liberty." However, as a recent article in The Economist has reminded us, the United States leads the world in the number of incarcerated people. Roughly one in 100 adult Americans is behind bars (and this number is even higher for certain ethnic and age groups).
This is obviously not because America is an intrinsically criminal nation. Quite to the contrary, by and large Americans are very law-abiding citizens. It's overzealous prosecutors advancing their careers – and craving to look "tough on crime" politicians — whose actions result in the excessive locking up of ordinary folks, like the mentioned by The Economist George Norris of Spring, TX whose "crime" was sloppy paperwork in the process of importing orchids from Latin America. Facing a 10-year jail term, Mr. Norris pleaded guilty and was sentenced to "only" 17 months in prison.
But who cares about Mr. Norris when we have a Russian human rights activist, Lev Ponomarev, who was recently sentenced, by a Moscow court, to a three-day prison term? (Let me make it absolutely clear: in my opinion, Mr. Ponomarev, like Mr. Norris, has committed absolutely no crime. But in Russia, they too have overzealous police bosses loving to please their own, "tough on crime", nachal'stvo.) The logic of the "values gap" disciples would be that because Mr. Ponomarev is an opponent of the current Russian regime, the value of his liberty is higher than that of the people accused in "common" crimes in the United States. Well, try to explain this logic to Mr. Norris – and also to Heidi Halibor of Grafton, WI who was arrested for having forgotten to return two books to the local library. A beacon of liberty indeed!
Characteristically, The Economist's article puts the blame for the situation on "the system." In contrast, the disciples of the "values gap" show no restraint in calling names: they quickly accused directly Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Mr. Ponomarev's arrest. The logic of that is questionable. Why should Putin be blamed for every stupidity of the Moscow law enforcement authorities while no one is blaming President Obama for the jailing of a Florida man, Harry Bruder, who sent a Facebook "friend" request to his estranged wife?
While the United States leads the world in the incarceration rate (748 inmates per 100,000 population), it's trailed by Russia (600 inmates per 100,000 population). So I do see a numbers gap here, but I ain't see no values gap, dude.
For those who believe that only in Russia people die in prisons as a result of medical inattention, here is a storyof Adam Montoya who died in a federal prison in Pekin, IL of internal bleeding. For days preceding his death, Mr. Montoya pleaded with his guards to take him to the doctor. They refused. The only medication Mr. Montoya had in his prison cell was Tylenol. So far, no one has been charged with Mr. Montoya's death; we're told, however, that the Justice Department "is reviewing the case." I'm sure that the disciples of the "values gap" will argue that the value of life of "ordinary" criminals like Mr. Montoya is no match to that of, say, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for a well-connected American investment firm. Go and explain that to the relatives of Mr. Montoya!
It's hardly a secret to anyone that people get murdered in the United States too. True, investigative journalists usually don't become targets of such a crime. (Is it because their investigations don't threaten any powerful interests? Is it because they've got better protection from their employers?) You have a better chance to get killed if you're an abortion doctor; a high-school or a college student; or just happen to work alongside a crazie whose constitutional rights allow him to run around brandishing a personal AK-47. Go and explain to the parents of the Columbine High victims that the lives of their children were less valuable that the one of Anna Politkovskaya because the innocent kids weren't in opposition to any "regime"!
Speaking of issues of life and death, the United States is one of the world's countries still practicing the death penalty as a means of punishment in criminal cases (finding itself in a nice company of China, Iran, and North Korea). The death penalty was de facto outlawed in Russia in 1996 (as a precondition for Russia joining the Council of Europe), and no one has been executed since then. However, capital punishment is still formally on the books, partly because the majority of Russians — as the majority of Americans — support the death penalty. So I do see a governance gap here, but I ain't see no values gap, dude.
I'll talk about other aspects of the "values gap" issue in future posts.