As I pointed out on Friday, the revolutions in the Middle East emphasize that our focus on human rights is selective: we pay attention to places that threaten us and places that we are suddenly abashed at having worked with, but we ignore the much wider range of dictatorships where we have few if any interests at stake. That is not surprising: the State Department is programmed to work with whoever is in power, and our capacity for caring is not unlimited. But it is discrediting and wrong nonetheless.
Russia, I acknowledge, is not one of those places we can afford to dismiss diplomatically. Nuclear weapons and oil aside — and that is pretty much all Russia has going for it in the great power sweepstakes — Russia has a UN veto and an almost infinite capacity to make trouble, not least for our supply lines into Afghanistan. But it is one thing to recognize that, in the world as it is, we are sometimes going to have to work with places like Putin’s Russia, and quite another thing to kid ourselves about what they are. This is just another of our ways of ignoring dictatorships.
Take the announcement from the State Department of a U.S.-Russian dialogue on press freedom. Russia has nothing to contribute to a serious discussion of press freedom, and it is an insult to the concept and to the First Amendment to pretend that it does. But yet we are devoting what likely amounts to several million dollars of public diplomacy funding to engage in the farce of pretending that the U.S. and Russia can have a meaningful “dialogue” on the subject.
Worse, the topics for this “dialogue” appear to have been selected with a view to outraging common sense. There’s the “Business of Media” — which in Putin’s Russia is to be controlled by the state. There’s the “Evolving Profession of Journalism” — that must be hard in Russia, given the regularity with which troublesome Russian journalists end up dead. The fact that the “dialogue” is part of the administration’s non-strategy for Internet freedom — note that, as I predicted, the U.S. and Russia will be discussing “New Media Technologies” and “the freedom to connect” — just adds insult to injury.
All this, of course, is part of the “reset” policy predicated on the notion that Russia can be a reliable partner if only we wish it hard enough. Though sometimes described as realism, in that it ignores human rights, it does not even rise to that level: at least realists care about power. It is a fantasy that demeans us. We have to deal with Russia, but we don’t have to hold public events in which we pretend to respect its nonexistent devotion to freedom.