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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23 Responses to The Values Gap

  1. Very good post, Eugene!
    I agree with most of the points you make here.
    I actually did a similar exercise a few, calling it the Karlin Freedom Index. I don’t think that there is now a large gap between US and Russian freedom (as arbitrarily defined – but no less arbitrarily than Freedom House – by myself). 🙂

  2. Alex says:

    Well, Eugene – it is a very well designed & written piece, presenting a persuasively argued case (imho). I’ll have to read it again, though. On the one hand I do know first-hand how Anglo-Saxon culture uses “organizational values” (which are never defined) as a cover for clearly indecent actions and/or motives. On the other – few of your examples do touch my own reasonably well-defined moral values.. I’ll need to think about it. But, regardless, it was a good & interesting work. I definitely agree with the main line of your argument, though.

  3. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for your comments. We could spend hours comparing notes about prison conditions in both countries. Will I agree that by and large, those in Russia are worse than in the U.S.? Absolutely!
    But I’ll stand by my larger, more general, point: I see no VALUES GAP (at least to the extent preventing cooperation between the two countries) with regards to liberties and respect for human life. Country-specific differences, yes; values gap, no.

  4. Mark says:

    Very punchy post, Eugene! Inarguably, prison conditions are much worse in Russia than in the U.S. However, I’d remind that the purpose of incarceration is punishment, not rehabilitation, and that there is little evidence a prison term in the U.S. deters habitual reoffenders. Similarly, as Mike alludes above, there are quite a few in the USA who believe the present prison system coddles prisoners, and that the solution to overcrowded institutions is to make prison terms less a sweet deal that removes a good deal of the anxiety associated with making rent and grocery bills.
    Customarily those in the western press who argue about a “values gap” are attempting to lead the reader to the unavoidable conclusion that Russians have none, while Westerners do. This, of course, is not so.
    I daresay investigative journalists in the west would be a good deal less yappy if they did occupy a position on the danger list somewhere north of abortion doctors. At the very least, they’d stick more closely to reporting undisputed fact rather than detouring into indulgent speculation.

  5. Alex says:

    Organizational values are a fuzzy logic set of rules with overriding power. I.e. the organizational values in Anglo-Saxon culture can and do override outcome of any established formal bureaucratic or administrative procedure. The fuzzy logic properties mean that by definition the “values” cannot be anything but “positive” and are always “the truth”. A feature of all organizational values is that each “value” always contains two parts – one public and another classified. The latter is never disclosed to the public.
    The design rule for a generalized two-part organizational value follows Orwell’s scheme: “All animals are equal (the “public set”), “but some animals are more equal than others” (the “classified” set). Important in formulating the second set is the usage of such precise criteria as “some” and “more”.

  6. Sergey says:

    Круто, именно таких статей и не хватает! Большой плюс статьи в том, что она сплачивает два народа и при этом заставляет правильно задуматься и пересмотреть свой взгляд на мир рядовых американцев и русских. Гуд!

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    You’re spot on, but even your system doesn’t solve the major problem. Every year, Russia is being downgraded, and it’s already quite low on the ladder. So soon a moment will come when there is no more room to downgrade it further.
    I thus suggest that Kramer starts with a new initiative: to propose a special rating for Russia only, so that you can downgrade it indefinitely and in large increments: say, you arrested Ponomarev, -10; you arrested Nemtsov, -20. Etc.

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Спасибо большое за похвалу. Ценю, поскольку, если не изменяет память, на моем блоге это первый комментарий по-русски.
    С уважением,

  9. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks for your comments. Sure, I’ve overlooked a lot of potential “specific” gaps. You mention two points I completely agree with; other people highlighted more gaps in the prison systems.
    And yet, I’ll be sticking to my guns: where is a gap in “values”, a gap which is so “widening” that the two countries can’t work together on important issues.
    And I’m not naive not to know the answer. I mention David Kramer (“David the Reseterminator”) often in my posts, because he’s one of the most prominent inventors of reasons why the U.S. must not cooperate with Russia: values gap, Georgia, human rights issues, etc.

  10. Eugene Ivanov says:

    You’re right: our conservatives are too numerous to classify their reproduction as “inbred.” Trust the word of a guy with PhD in genetics 🙂

  11. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene (apologies for the delay – a bit busy at the moment).
    The promised POV (you asked for it, didn’t you? 🙂
    It seems, that at least in some cases, you compare a systemic and/or a deliberate abuse of the law enforcement system in Russia with accidental (by negligence) abuse in US.
    Eg. it is, probably, true that Magnitsky’s death was largely an accident. “Probably” and “largely” means that jailing him at the start of investigation was a deliberate action, designed to serve as a punishment for accusing MVD of crimes and intended to be used as a leverage to make him sign the documents the investigators wanted. This was a (corrupt) judicial system’s fault and conscious intention of corrupt MVD. Non-attendance to Magnitsky’s medical needs was in line with the administered “punishment” – it just happened to be too much. On the other hand, Montoya in US waited for his verdict being a free man and died later in the prison as the result of the negligence by the people who had no personal interest in increasing his suffering.
    Similarly (deliberate vs accidental) with Politkovskaya. There was no deliberate intent to kill people in issuing permit for AK-47 or in the fact of having a mentally unstable boy at school with others kids. But there was and is a systemic harassment and killing of journalists in Russia, especially those reporting on Chechya (scroll & read – or search for others, eg. Estemirova, Markelov).
    Where I completely agree with you is that values of the two societies – Russian and American – are indeed the same and I don’t think there is any gap, especially the widening one. Goals & methods are naturally, different, but not values. I don’t think that values of Obama and Medvedev/Putin deviate much from their respective societies either – neither wants people dying of pain (or otherwise tortured) in prisons, and most likely – they do not want them to be killed on the streets either. As you mentioned, what is indeed different is the efficiency of the “governance”. Perhaps – (some of ) the methods too. But, the “gap” in this is definitely narrowing, not widening – in fact, as the result of erosion of standards in America and improvement in Russia 

  12. Tim Kirby says:

    First off Forgive me if i veer slightly off the topic of the article.
    I think it is unwise to say that the US and Russia have a values gap when you are talking about mutual cooperation in terms of security. If the values gap between Russian the US is 10 feet wide then the gap between the US and the Taliban is a mile or more. If someone wants to exclude Russia they can just use this “values” argument as an excuse because no one understands anything about Russia nor do they want to, but they are naturally absolutely sure that it is inferior and borderline evil.
    Values is just a good word cause it is vague. But in order for Russia to learn and respect those values then the US must answer the question “Does the US follow those “values” consistently and to the letter?”

  13. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks very much for your comment. Completely agree with all your points.
    True, there are people who just hate any signs of improving U.S.-Russia relations, and the “values gap” is one of the few weapons they have to torpedo “reset.” Works well especially — as you point out — definitions are vague, leaving a lot of room for abuse.
    Absent fresh Russian “spies” or Victor Bout’s revelations, we’ll hear a lot about them in the near future.
    Best Regards,

  14. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene
    May I say it this way: whatever happens in Russian MVD, in no way represents “values” of the Russian society or its leaders. It is simply a (big) current problem of development, which is also (slowly) being solved.
    Your post highlighted a very important fault in “values gap” approach, my comment was essentially, about relatively minor technicality.
    On the other topic- you might want to consider changing blog template to nested comments format.Or,perhaps, even moving it to , say WordPress where it is defaul

  15. Better yet, Eugene and some others should be given good offers (the kind that are too generous to refuse) for column space at any number of relatively well established and high profile venues.
    The qualitative case for this thought is defintely there.

  16. Eugene Ivanov says:

    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.

  17. 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.

  18. Alex says:

    Eugene – this may take some time to sort out – imho – Russian MVD became an Independent Trust of (Small and Large) Private Businesses. Armed & with the right to shoot. It is recruited like that (with a perspective of business activities) & it functions (or more precisely – permitted to function) like that. All this is while it must be a simple SERVICE, and not to the selected few (whom they are still afraid – or pretend to be afraid), but a SERVICE to the public. It is the people who pay them, not the ones who are stealing from them playing the Government. Just yesterday I read how one policeman was annoyed that he needs to introduce himself and show his ID – that’s a telling attitude.
    Whatever some well-known people may claim, cutting, I am sorry, a male organ of the society, does not mean to make a cross-section of the whole of it. With all the consequences – eg. like who (XXXXXS) becomes the police as well as the only thing they can do – (to XXXX) normal citizens. In a variety of forms – money-wise or plain physically. When they feel exhausted or bored – with broomsticks or chair legs (who needs links to what this means – tell me). Not to mention Federal level – there they, apparently, have more rewarding entertainment – stealing public money on a galactic scale. With cart-blanch and without. Regularly and confidently. With others, being more afraid of these people than they are afraid of the President who orders to investigate their activities. Do they represent the society, an average Russian (not a businessman) or have anything to do with the (sorry to use the word) “values” of an average Russian? No, of course not. They are scum and must be disposed of as quickly as possible, before the people started to dispose of them en masse, perhaps, including the Government for a good measure.

  19. Eugene says:

    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,

  20. Every tragedy makes heroes of common people.

  21. случайный прохожий says:

    Уважаемый Евгений,спасибо Вам за статью и мнение в ней высказанное. Перевод статьи был опубликован и обсуждается российскими читателями. С Вами можно (и нужно) спорить в частностях, но в главном Вы правы – нет альтернативы сотрудничеству, любая конфронтация “беременна” последствиями и гибельна для мира. С уважением.

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