The Quixote, er, Magnitsky Act Kicks In

The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, a.k.a. the Magnistky Act, went live yesterday, when the U.S. government imposed visa bans and asset freezes on 18 Russian citizens, most of them government officials, over their alleged involvement in gross human-rights violations. Less than 24 hours later, the Russian government responded in kind, releasing its own list of American citizens who would be barred from entering its territory because they had been “implicated in human rights violations.”

I happen to think the Magnitsky Act is a mistake, a well-intentioned but quixotic and ultimately counterproductive attempt to express anger over the horrible things Russia’s sistema is doing to its own people.

If David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova are right, then my frustration with the Magnitsky Act makes me a “staunch supporter of Kissingerian-style realpolitik.” Last December, Kramer and Shevtsova wrote a piece for The American Interest endorsing the act and laying out the case for its importance and potential effectiveness.  They acknowledge that the Act’s chief aim is to express certain values, to reject the “transactional” version of international politics in favor of a “normative” politics grounded in universal human rights. At the same time, they also argue that, “by limiting their external resources and hindering their elites’ personal integration into the West,” the act can have some practical effect on the durability of Russia’s authoritarian regime. For this “Magnitsky factor” to kick in, Kramer and Shevtsova acknowledge, the European Union will have to adopt similar measures, “since Europe is the main recipient of Russia’s corrupt exports.” Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen, and I’m dubious that it will.

Even if that doesn’t happen, though, Kramer and Shevtsova believe the Act is a good thing because it pushes international relations in the correct direction.

Incorporating the Magnitsky approach into the West’s foreign policy does make it more complex. The West will have to abandon its traditional methods and stereotypes and move on to a multi-step diplomacy that may not yield immediate results. But this is no loss: current Western diplomacy no longer involves strategic thinking. The West may boast of its tactical successes, but these come at the expense of strategic failures. The question is whether Western diplomacy will be able to move on to normative politics.

As they see it, diplomacy should serve above all else as an instrument for affirming and promoting liberal democratic values—which, they presumably believe, are self evident and universal. To promote these universal values, Western diplomats should stop cooperating with corrupt autocrats and should instead reach out directly to other countries’ citizens, who, they argue, would welcome the West’s overt repudiations of their corrupt elites.

For the life of me, though, I simply can’t understand how this “normative politics” is actually supposed to work. Politics is the name we’ve given to the process of people trying to work out how to get along in shared spaces with mutually desired but finite resources. If everyone agreed on what the proper means and ends are, we wouldn’t need the word.

When people in that shared space disagree about how to accomplish a shared objective or, more fundamentally, what the proper objectives are, there aren’t a whole lot of options. Basically, you’ve got coercion, persuasion, transaction, or failure to cooperate, which could mean either walking away or fighting. The U.S. and Russian governments bump into each other in many issue spaces, and they don’t always agree on proper ends and means in those spaces. For the U.S. government, coercing Russia isn’t really an option, and persuasion doesn’t always work, either. That leaves bargaining or failure, and between those two, I prefer the former.

Kramer and Shevtsova apparently believe that this kind of transactional politics is the antipode of normative politics, but I don’t think that’s so. Steven Spielberg’s recent retelling of the passage of the 13th Amendment in Lincoln nicely illustrates what I have in mind. I don’t know the history well enough to vouch for its authenticity, but in Spielberg’s account, Lincoln engages in several forms of normatively sketchy politics to accomplish his larger objective. As an experienced politician, Lincoln knows he can’t simply will his way to the world he desires, so he makes difficult choices that involve trade-offs between competing goals. In his push to abolish slavery, Lincoln doles out government jobs, twists the arms of fence-sitters, and even stalls on talks to end the horribly bloody war. He does these things in pursuit of an objective that is morally just but, in his mind, also has its own instrumental purposes. There simply is no purely righteous path, no cost-free choice.

I think world politics works the same way. To say, as Kramer and Shevtsova do, that Americans must chose between having our government punish corrupt Russian elites or letting those elites act with impunity is a false choice. Like all things political, the relationship between the U.S. and Russian governments involves many things, and that relationship is just one of many relationships in international politics. Instead of expecting our government to prioritize the promotion of certain values above all else, I would prefer to see that government flexibly pursue a wider array of objectives, because we know that’s what it will take to get at least some of those things done. I welcome efforts to shame Russian authorities for the terrors and indignities they inflict, and to help Russian citizens who want to organize in an attempt to transform their country’s politics. I just happen to think those efforts are better pursued by non-governmental organizations, or through international legal structures to which the Russian government has willingly acceded.

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