The Values Gap

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.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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22 Responses to The Values Gap

  1. Hi Eugene
    Without meaning to take Kramer’s general line while taking an eclectic approach, I can see his comeback relating to a comparison of prison conditions in the US versus Russia – relating to an observation someone made about how prison conditions serve as a telling gauge on how a given country approaches human rights (in the opinion of the person saying such).
    Keeping in mind how a noticeable conservative element in the US feels that too much effort and money is spent on the improvement of prison life – with a more liberal view being of the belief that prison benefit perks (for lack of another term) serve to make for a better person upon his/her release.
    Awhile back, I recall a talk show host discussing how he was mugged by someone with “prison muscles.” This talk host suggested keeping weights out of prisons and a strict prison diet of potato salad and macaroni and cheese.
    The topic you raise arguably suggests that Medvedev is (realistically speaking) an appropriate presidential successor to Putin.
    Best,
    Mike

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks much Anatoly, appreciate your nice comment!
    I’d only add that the Freedom House’s definitions of freedoms in Russia aren’t arbitrary after all. They’re designed in such a “clever” way that no matter what happens in Russia, the next year ratings will always be lower than the previous🙂
    Best Regards,
    Eugene

  3. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Alex,
    Will be very much interested in your elaborating on some of your points. In particular, what is your definition of “organizational values”?
    Happy though that we’re agreeing on the major point.
    Cheers,
    Eugene

  4. @Eugene,
    I’ve always been under the impression Freedom House’s methodology looked something like this:
    Always fully Free if in “Western world”
    else
    Take (more or less objective) Freedom index
    +1 if pro-West
    -1 if anti-West
    -2 if and-West and has oil
    end

  5. Ivan says:

    спасибо за отличную статью!!!(читал ее в переводе)

  6. Dmitry says:

    Hey thanks for the post, I really liked your analysis!
    It looks like, though, you have overlooked two gaps that really exist in the police activity in Russia and the US:
    1) Perception of the Russian police’ work in Russia is much worse, compared to the US police perception in the States,
    2) Surprisingly, but the US law enforcement officers use force during arrest/ kill suspects much more easily than their Russian colleagues. Especially when it comes to dealing with minorities.

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mark,
    Thanks for your comments. Many things are worse in Russia than in the U.S.: prisons, court houses, hospitals, day-care centers, etc. Repeating my punch line: I do see a gap in prosperity and perhaps even careness. But I fail to immediately see a gap in values. For example, prisons are better (or at least, so they say) in Sweden and in The Netherlands. Does this mean that we have different values from the Swedes and the Dutch?
    You’re right: the implication of the “gap” is that Russian has none.
    Best Regards,
    Eugene
    p.s. On a completely unrelated (but relevant to “punishment”) subject: I read a while ago that a serious academic research on the hungover remedies has been traditionally opposed in the U.S. by social conservatives who beleive that folks MUST suffer from hungover as a punishment for bad behavior. You would assume that these folks will oppose any additional funding to U.S. prisons too, right?

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Alex,
    Your scheme reminds me of a nice joke of our youth (sorry for Russian, but it looks like pretty much everyone in this space can handle it):
    Все советские люди едят колбасу “Отдельная”, и только отдельные советские люди колбасу “Советская.”
    Best,
    Eugene

  9. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Спасибо, Сергей!
    Как только что написал Ивану, читать комментарии по-русски ОСОБЕННО приятно. И главное, Вы совершенно правильно меня поняли: я не хочу разбираться, кто лучше или хуже; я хочу понять, что нам мешает сотрудничать и как это преодолеть.
    С уважением,
    Евгений

  10. Mark says:

    Ha, ha! That’s funny about the conservative resistance to research on hangover remedies. It’s part and parcel of how conservatives are so easy to fool when election time rolls around – because the place they’re living in their minds is an America where you worked the same job for twenty years, got a gold watch from the company when you retired, and the boss made three or four times as much as you instead of three or four hundred times as much. An America where if a girl got pregnant but wasn’t married, she had to go to another state to have the baby while her family made up some transparent story about going to the bedside of a dying aunt. An America where, if two homosexuals had the nerve to try and get married and could find a preacher crazy enough to oversee the proceedings, a bolt of God’s Own Lightning would snake out of the vestry and fry all three of them in their shoes. An America where it did no harm to be polite to the nigras, because they knew their place. An America that last existed for real sometime in the 1950’s and had, for all its faults, an enduring, whimsical charm.
    Conservatives believe if you’re suffering from anything, you probably deserve it. You’d think they’d finally die out from inbreeding, but there are an astonishing number of them. And their vote is like money in the bank.
    Thanks for a good laugh; I needed that.

  11. The quote noted at this link relates to the kind of monitoring comparsions made by some:
    http://everything2.com/title/He+may+be+a+son-of-a-bitch%252C+but+he+is+our+son-of-a-bitch
    As I’ve noted elsewhere, (some establishment venues shy away from such thoughts – motivating me to repeat them), Carter’s administration trumped up human rights abuses in the USSR, while downlaying the greater abuses that were evident at the time in China and Romania. During this period, the Sino-Soviet rift was quite evident, with Romania serving as a convenient pest within the Warsaw Pact.
    In more recent times, the “humanitarian” bombing of Yugoslavia and non-bombing of Turkey is my answer to the idea that the West goes out of its way to dis the so-called “Muslim street.”
    On that last point and in relation to Freedom House, this is the most agreeable piece I’ve read from Adrian Karatnycky:
    http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9908/opinion/karatnycky.html
    It was my pleasure to discuss some other things with Mr. Karatnycky:
    http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/adrian-karatnycky/partition-ukraine-i-think-not
    Homerun hitters can’t hit homeruns sitting on the bench. (A pointed remark at some of the higher profile of venues.)
    Concerning the comment about Turkey:
    http://www.kevinmckiernan.com/doc.html

  12. Alex says:

    ..and a small addendum: I was not closely following the anti-abortionist activities in USA, but proper comparison with Politkovskaya would be a murder of someone WRITING in support of abortions. The doctors killed were physically performing actions. To become a comparable case, Politkovskaya should have been shooting Kadirovtsev personally.

  13. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Alex,
    Thanks for your great comment. Yes, I’ve asked for it and I’m not disappointed:)
    I couldn’t express my position better than you did in the last paragraph. I’m convinced — and EVERYTHING will change should I see evidence to the contrary — that the Kremlin doesn’t stand behind Politkovskaya’s killing or Magnitsky’s death (so tempting to call it murder too). However awkward Putin’s words were, his disdain with Politkovskaya’s death was clear. And Medvedev’s actions following Magnitsky’s death were quite telling too.
    I also have no doubt that the vast majority of ordinary Russians would condemn this too.
    But that’s exactly my point: what are “values” and who defines them? More specifically, can the actions of what you call corrupt MVD officials represent Russia’s “values” more than the words/actions of Russia’s leaders and the mode of its population?
    To your addendum: you might be right technically, but my point is that there are IDEOLOGICALLY motivated killings in the U.S. For you as for me, abortion is not an issue (at least not ideological). For many folks in the U.S., it is. So killing an abortion doctor is as a political statement as killing an opponent to a “regime.” At least that’s my take on that.
    Best,
    Eugene

  14. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Alex,
    To kick this dead horse one more time…
    Let’s split the difference: Russian MVD, very unfortunately, does represent Russian society — and, hence, its values. But the society and its leaders recognize the problem and try to do something about it.
    Where we seem to completely agree is that there is no “values gap” to such extent that Russia and the U.S. can’t work together.
    I’ll take a look at the settings with regards to comments. Moving this blog elsewhere sounds to me (with my computer literacy) like moving myself to another country:)
    Best,
    Eugene

  15. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    For as long as you, Alex, Mark, Tim, Anatoly and others come to this site, it represents sufficiently high profile venue for me.
    Thanks guys for the great discussion.
    Best,
    Eugene

  16. Eugene, consider my advocacy a form of intellectual expansionist imperialism – a sarcastic reply to Niall Ferguson’s views of some (stress some) empires and some (not all) of the propped folks at the more high profile of venues.
    Salut!
    Mike

  17. Futility says:

    While I most certainly enjoyed the article, Eugene, I’d say the whole line of reasoning is moot. The premise that values somehow matter in foreign relations is dispelled as soon as one considers the strategic partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia. Clearly, values gaps need not be a stumbling block.

  18. Eugene says:

    @Futility,
    The fact that you and I agree on the issue doesn’t make it moot. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had articles like the one I mentioned at the beginning of my piece.
    Best Regards,
    Eugene

  19. Every tragedy makes heroes of common people.

  20. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Глубокоуважаемый Случайный Прохожий!
    Спасибо большое за добрые слова и за ссылку. Очень приятно, что мои статьи кто-то читает в России.
    Дискуссия на этом сайте уже подошла к концу, и крайне удачно закончить ее Вашими словами: алтернативы диалогу и сотрудничеству нет. 100% с Вами согласен.
    Будете случайно проходить мимо, заходите🙂
    Евгений

  21. Merrill says:

    Finally i quit my regular job, now i earn a lot of money on-line you
    should try too, just type in google – slabs roulette system

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