In his new book Red Notice, American-born investor Bill Browder recounts in detail the Kafkaesque ordeal of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a nightmare set in motion in 2006 after the 37-year-old Russian auditor uncovered a massive corruption scheme perpetrated by Russian Interior Ministry officials. In Browder’s account, Magnitsky was a man of determination and idealism, but also of exceptional and tragic naïveté. Magnitsky refused the advice of Browder and colleagues at Browder’s investment fund, Hermitage Capital, to leave Russia. At one point he actually returned to the Russian State Investigative Committee to offer a second sworn witness statement. Magnitsky was convinced that rule of law and due process would carry the day.
On November 16, 2009, following a severe beating—and months of untreated pancreatitis, gallstones, and cholecystitis—Magnitsky died in his cell at the notoriously over-crowded, disease-ridden Butyrka prison in central Moscow. After Magnitsky’s death, Browder began a crusade against the regime of Vladimir Putin, a campaign that resulted in the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, signed by President Obama in December 2012. The law sanctions Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s detention and murder as well as other human rights abusers in Russia. In April 2013, the Obama Administration released a list of 18 individuals affected by the Act. In September of that year, the Justice Department launched the first case under the law, aimed at seizing $24 million in New York real estate from a Russian criminal group alleged to have been involved in the original fraud case Magnitsky sought to uncover. As Lilia Shevtsova and David J. Kramer wrote here in December 2012, the purpose of the Magnitsky Act is to focus on “elites who use Western countries to secure their interests.”
Now a sequel is working its way though Congress: the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (S.284/H.R.624). Global Magnitsky bears the bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate of Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John McCain (R-AZ); its House sponsors are Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Jim McGovern (D-MA). The legislation builds on the previous Russia-specific sanctions and would authorize the Administration to identify on a global basis foreign nationals responsible for human rights abuses in order to prohibit or revoke U.S. entry visas and freeze financial assets in U.S. institutions.
Any step that takes concrete action against human rights abusers, making it harder for them to hide their wealth and conduct their business from the safety of the United States and other Western countries, is a welcome one. Systematic work is now being done in this area, including by the Kleptocracy Initiative (KI) at the Hudson Institute, a policy center that conducts independent research on the practices of authoritarian regimes that allow dictators to conceal misappropriated assets. (Disclosure: Charles Davidson, founder and executive director of KI, is also publisher of The American Interest).
This kind of work—and the likely passage of Global Magnitsky—offers an opportunity to consider (once again) how best to integrate the U.S. promotion of human rights and democracy with other interests and equities. It is not easy to get realists to think about democracy and human rights in our foreign policy (even if that great realist, Hans Morgenthau, conceded that issues of morality have consistently played a role in the foreign policy of democratic nations). Nor is it a simple matter to get democracy and human rights advocates to acknowledge that security, stability, trade, access to energy and the occasionally complex needs of our allies—as well as the actual circumstances inside a country—must temper our zeal for “doing the right thing.” The problem set posed by the tension between ideals and self-interest is real and perduring, which is why understanding the potential benefits of the new Magnitsky bill means also gauging its potential perils. Congress could pass the new law as a feel-good but ineffectual gesture; that would be a waste of an opportunity, as well as a mistake.
The Obama Administration’s unique disdain for both power and principle has had exceptionally deleterious effect on American credibility, with allies and adversaries alike. In January 2017, a new American President will face an enormous task in restoring that credibility and re-establishing a foreign policy that strikes a proper balance between interests and values. A properly crafted Global Magnitsky Act would be valuable toward this end. If presidential candidates and their advisers wish to understand why, they should consider two important reads, and derive from them four key lessons.
The first read is Jeane J. Kirkpatrick’s seminal 1979 Commentary essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” In the context of the threat posed by Soviet Communism, Kirkpatrick—then a Georgetown University professor (and American Enterprise Institute scholar) who later became Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to the United Nations—proposed that the U.S. government distinguish between hostile totalitarian regimes and sometimes friendly authoritarian regimes—the latter deserving different treatment, in her view, because they were generally less repressive, more capable of evolving toward democracy, and open to cooperating with the United States (including through voting with the United States in the UN).
Kirkpatrick used Nicaragua and Iran as examples of the Carter Administration’s naïveté and inability to make these distinctions. Indeed, in the case of Iran the United States under President Jimmy Carter helped to end the rule of the U.S.-friendly albeit authoritarian Shah, enabling a far worse and much more dangerous theocratic dictatorship to take its place. (Carter’s Ambassador in Teheran initially referred to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a “Gandhi-like” figure, and his UN Ambassador, Andrew Young, referred to him as a “saint.”) Apart from introducing new levels of repression at home, the Islamic Republic soon proved itself intent on fomenting revolution abroad, opposing American interests around the world, and destroying the state of Israel. Today, three and a half decades later, Iran’s mullahs are seeking nuclear weapons; if they obtain them, they will reshape the reality of the Middle East in ways manifestly inimical to American and Western interests.
Kirkpatrick made the case for double standards in U.S. foreign policy based on American strategic interests. But she also had a social scientist’s view of democratic development. “No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans”, she wrote in Commentary, “than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.” But while the basic yearning for freedom may be universal, democracy is no simple matter. It requires institutions, but also habits, values, and behaviors that take time to develop and grab hold. Wrote Kirkpatrick: “Democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.” She continued:
Democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government’s effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.
I recall a conversation I had a few years ago in Kabul with a young imam who told me that he vehemently opposed the viciousness and intolerance of the Taliban but could see little in the United States as a model for his country’s religious, traditional, and tribal culture. I also remember the case of a kidnapped Iraqi journalist in Baghdad in 2007, when I was President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The reporter was freed and left the country, choosing not to return because the male relatives on her father’s side were threatening her with an honor killing (they believed she had been sexually abused in captivity).
So, take-away number one: In democracy promotion, culture matters. That’s religion and tradition, tribalism and nationalism and all those other crucial things—including theories of conspiracy and narratives of grievance—that shape a society, contribute to identity, and impede compromise, as well as what we would consider simply rational discourse. This is not to suggest that we give in to the democracy pessimists. Japan and Germany became stunning democratic success stories in a short amount of time. Relatively speaking, the same applies to South Korea and Taiwan, Spain and Portugal, and a number of other important countries that have transitioned out of authoritarianism. But more often than not, democratic institutions and culture take a good deal of time to mature, and the process usually entails setbacks, some of which can be exceptionally severe and detrimental to American interests. Witness the so-called Arab Spring five years on.
Take-away number two: Know your allies from your adversaries and treat them accordingly. It’s naive to think we can only work with perfect liberal democracies in the pursuit and defense of our national interests. We must always press the case for decent, accountable government, rule of law, and human rights. But there are cases where our push for reform must not be allowed to morph into a reckless drive to destabilize countries and entire regions. Consider the case of Jordan, a key ally in the battle against ISIS, a country that is classified as “not free” by Freedom House. Or another U.S. ally, the thuggish regime of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, a country that sits on oil, is nestled between Iran and Russia, and that contends with its own Islamist extremism problem. Aliyev deserves U.S. pressure to ease up on civil society constraints and release political prisoners. But also remember Jimmy Carter and Iran—and Samuel Johnson’s justifiably famous quip about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.
The second useful read is Charles Krauthammer’s speech to the American Enterprise Institute in 2004. In the context of the threat posed by Islamist extremism, Krauthammer argued for a new “democratic realism” in American foreign policy. Among the four key schools of American foreign policy, Krauthammer dismissed isolationism (rendered obsolete by globalization and technology), rejected realism (“American cannot and will not live by realpolitik alone”) and savaged liberal internationalism (it limits “the pursuit of American national interests by making them subordinate to a myriad of other interests”). And while he sympathized with George W. Bush’s desire to spread freedom—”democracies are inherently more friendly to the United States, less belligerent to their neighbors, and generally more inclined to peace”—Krauthammer found fault with the irrational exuberance of what he saw as the fourth school—the democratic globalism of the Bush years. Democratic globalism fell short, argued Krauthammer, in its “open-ended” commitment to exporting democracy and its “inability to say no.” Wrote Krauthammer: “I believe [the spread of democracy] must be tempered in its universalistic aspirations and rhetoric from a democratic globalism to a democratic realism. It must be targeted, focused and limited.”
And so, where to intervene? Where to spread democracy? Where to “nation-build”, a term that nearly always really means “state-build”? For Krauthammer, the most compelling answer had to do with the most compelling and existential threat, namely that emanating from “Arab-Islamic totalitarianism.” The goal, according to Krauthammer, was to establish “civilized, decent, nonbelligerent, pro-Western polities in Afghanistan and Iraq and ultimately their key neighbors.” He continued: “You win by taking territory—and leaving something behind.”
That was the theory. Sadly, we’ve managed little of either. Dreadful miscalculations early on in Iraq, coupled with President Obama’s determination to wind down American efforts too quickly, created a power vacuum in Iraq filled by Sunni extremists and Iran.
Take-away number three: You can’t have democracy without order and security.
And back to the first take-away, experience, habits, values and behaviors of a society matter greatly, making democracy often much harder than we often think (read also Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order for insight into why democracy has trouble taking root in the Middle East).
The final take-away has to do with American power and purpose more generally: World order is now fraying in large part because we’ve forgotten the role we play in shaping the international environment. Both Kirkpatrick and Krauthammer grappled with the issue, understanding—albeit in different times and circumstances—that America has been and remains uniquely positioned to influence a liberal world order by virtue of the way we project power and advance our liberal principles.
American weakness has tempted Russia to re-assert itself in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, just as China is emboldened by our fecklessness, testing boundaries in the East and South China Seas (add Robert Kagan’s The World America Made and Henry Kissinger’s World Order to the reading list). A new President will face a formidable challenge in reversing these dangerous trends, which are likely to wind up even as the Obama Administration winds down.
This means that legislation like Global Magnitsky is particularly important right now, and so will be pushing it forward for at least the next twenty months. Let’s by all means bring culprits to justice when we can, or at least make it harder for human rights abusers to loot and oppress their own societies. But even larger questions loom if we want a secure and peaceful world in which, over time, freedom has a real chance to flourish.