published Monday, August 27th, 2012

New connections to Russia

U.S. foreign policy, as any student of political science and history knows, is nothing if not fluid. It has to be to adapt to a world of constantly shifting allegiances, alliances and leaders. Such change is most obvious in the nation's relationship with what was once the Soviet Union and now is Russia. Not so long ago, there was little nuance to U.S. foreign policy in that realm. It was them against us. Nowadays, things are markedly different. It is often in the United States' best interest to work with its former nemesis rather than against it.

That does not mean, however, that the ties between nations are always cozy. Far from it. While there are topics on which the nations agree or at least work cooperatively, there are some decidedly prickly issues that make for an uncomfortable relationship. On-going human rights violations and interference in the electoral process are contemporary cases in point.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for both. He claims to be in favor of democratic government but his ham-handed intervention in recent parliamentary elections contradict that proclamation. He says he favors free speech and dissent but the arrest and subsequent two-year jail sentence for members of Pussy Riot, a female punk band, following a performance of an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral belies that.

The United States has duly noted those contradictions and has made its objections to both the political crackdown and human rights violations known. Even so, those issues do not require disengagement between the United States and Russia. It is possible to maintain a cordial diplomatic relationship with a foreign power at one level even as displeasure with some of its actions is registered at another.

Indeed, that is the case at the moment. There is, for example, a strong movement in Congress to normalize trade relationships with Russia despite official criticism of some of its actions. Technically, restoration of normal trade is not legally possible at the moment. Legislation approved in 1974 and still on the books prohibits it, though the policies and events in the old Soviet Union that a precipitated the trade restrictions no longer exist. Both House and Senate committees, in fact, have approved repeal of the old, restrictive legislation.

That's an appropriate path to take. Stronger trade ties between the United States and Russia will be mutually beneficial. An updated agreement would open new markets to U.S. manufacturers and entrepreneurs even as it provides support for what is slowly becoming a more Western-style economic-political model in Russia. It should be approved.

The sensible, mostly bipartisan congressional effort to normalize trade is accompanied by a parallel determination to enact laws that would sanction officials in Russia (and elsewhere) who willfully violate human rights. The penalties attached to those laws, if affirmed, would be personal -- the freezing of assets and denial of visas -- rather than governmental. That targeted approach is better than one that punishes a nation for the transgressions of a few of its leaders.

Whatever Putin's antics, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should continue to pursue a dual policy that includes normalization of trade relations as well as pointed criticism of events within Russia when necessary. Doing so honors the U.S. commitment to human rights and democratic government even as it acknowledges the reality of national need and global politics.

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