The United States is entangled in foreign intrigue to an extent not seen since the Cold War. This might seem like an odd development for a country whose two leading political parties have taken a turn toward isolationism. But the foreign entanglements that currently consume our national discussions are utterly unlike those seen during our global conflict with the Soviet Union. The espionage of the Cold War era has been replaced by a series of scandals or controversies—some political, some commercial—in which American politicians and businesses entities have been exposed engaging in craven behavior involving parties abroad.
Foremost among our front-page political scandals is President Donald Trump’s odd stance toward the government of Ukraine. The case for impeaching the president rests on his allegedly having halted military aid to our Eastern European ally to coerce Kiev into investigating his political rival, former vice president Joe Biden. Biden, for his part, is contending with his own related political scandal. He has found himself under increased scrutiny for his son Hunter’s role on the boards of both a Ukrainian energy company and a Chinese banking firm during the elder Biden’s term as vice president.
Moving away from the strictly political, there is a different and far less critical controversy involving the National Basketball Association and the government of China. That sorry tale began on October 4, when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted out his support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong who had organized in opposition to Chinese authoritarianism. Soon after Morey’s tweet, the NBA’s official Chinese broadcast partner, a company called Tencent, announced it would suspend all business with the Rockets. There followed Chinese boycott campaigns and endorsement retractions aimed at punishing the team. It turns out that China, according to the New York Times, is the NBA’s “second-most important market” after the United States. And the Chinese response to Morey’s tweet could cost the Rockets as much as $25 million in sponsorships and other revenue.
Morey deleted the offending tweet while many in the league offered apologies of one sort or another. This included a tweet from Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, saying that “@dmorey does NOT speak for the @Houston Rockets.” Heaven forbid that a successful American enterprise be associated with the words “fight for freedom.”
A common thread connects our president’s dangling aid before an Eastern European leader in return for political favors, a vice president’s son who gets paid by Ukrainian and Chinese firms, and the NBA’s moral collapse before Beijing. That thread is part of a great unraveling—the loosening and fraying of our national purpose and resolve following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the wake of the Berlin Wall’s destruction, Americans sought to ramp up economic and political engagement with post-Soviet countries and China. Our reasons were both noble and self-interested—we could gain access to new markets and, by doing so, help to make these countries freer. The noble goal of expanding freedom made our self-interest all the more palatable.
But while this engagement has yielded some good, that’s not all it did. We barely noticed that the process meant the United States was growing more intertwined with kleptocracies. And in time, almost without realizing it, we ourselves would fall prey to some of the kleptocratic temptations and moral compromises that characterize such regimes.
We did make some countries better places. But, in the process, our own politics became a little more like theirs.
For many observers, the defeat of Communism in the Soviet Union and economic reforms in China spelled the beginning of a final global victory for Western liberalism. The most famous expositor of this idea was Francis Fukuyama, who argued in in his National Interest essay “The End of History?” in 1989 (and later in book form): “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Fukuyama never said that struggles would cease between nations. Rather, he asserted that in the realm of “consciousness,” Western liberal democracy had proved itself more enduring than its chief ideological competitors in the 20th century, fascism and Communism. We won. They lost.
For the United States, the main questions of foreign policy would no longer center on containing or defeating Communism but would rather be about how best to facilitate the large-scale shift toward liberty that was already under way. The answers revolved around directing economic aid and venture capital to the evolving markets in China and the former Soviet Union. Chinese market reforms and the reborn Russia provided openings for the U.S. to invest, literally, in the future freedom of these countries.
To do business with China or the former Soviet Union was to promote what President Bill Clinton called “market democracy.” One version or another of the libertarian notion that free markets create free people found purchase across the political spectrum. In a 1992 New York Times op-ed headlined “Help Russia. Help Ourselves,” the influential Democratic Representative Dick Gephardt wrote, “The U.S. must promote commercial ties with the Commonwealth of Independent States—an effort that will produce jobs and rising living standards in all nations. That means providing preferential trade status, using our oil industry to develop commonwealth energy resources, exporting computers and telecommunications products and aiding U.S. business investment in Russia and the other republics. Every day of delay endangers democratization and market development as well as costing American jobs and profits that will otherwise end up in Japan or Europe.” He ended his piece thus: “If we summon the idealism that enabled the Marshall Plan to succeed in the 1940’s, it would mean American jobs and greater security in the 1990’s, an outcome that sounds like ‘America first’ to me.”
A similar argument, pertaining to China, was stated plainly in 1999 by Henry S. Rowen of the conservative Hoover Institution: “Without exception, rich countries are democracies (more or less) and stay that way. Some poor countries are also democracies, but most are not. And few of the poor democracies stay democratic over time. Although the progression isn’t always smooth, the historical pattern is clear: As countries get richer, they become more democratic. The Asian nations are no exception.”
It’s been a long sad fall from that hopeful idea to our implicitly accepting Beijing’s authoritarian domination of Hong Kong as the price of doing business with China. But it’s not as if there were no warning signs. In fact, the U.S. began to lose its way almost as soon as it set out to write a new chapter in the history of global freedom. Bill Clinton was America’s first post–Cold War president, and we can trace many of our recent woes back to decisions made during his two terms in office.
American government and industry were supposed to make aid and business opportunities in China and the former Soviet Union contingent on further reforms and improvements in the countries that sought our help. That way, international engagement would improve the quality of life for those living in these countries while serving American national-security interests. This meant deeper involvement in the political affairs of slippery regimes. But those regimes proved uncommonly adept at hiding their transgressions—and once money started flowing back to the U.S., American businesses and administrations became uncommonly adept at looking the other way.
Bit by bit, instead of these foreign governments raising their standards, we lowered ours. This started long before Daryl Morey was headline news and before Twitter was even conceivable. When it comes to ignoring Chinese troublemaking, the Clinton administration has much to answer for. A few examples stand out.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, weapons proliferation was a chief national-security concern for the United States. Yet our enthusiastic policy of engagement soon found us making dangerous compromises. In 1992, China signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But two years later, the press began reporting that the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation was at work on a secret and proscribed nuclear reactor in Pakistan, selling Islamabad technology to make bomb-grade uranium, and had been contracted to build uranium plants for Iran. The Clinton administration grumbled and briefly halted $800 million in loans to the American companies Bechtel and Westinghouse, which were working on a reactor for the Chinese corporation. But after assurances from the Chinese government, the U.S. approved the loans and granted visas for engineers from the firm.
Then, in 1995, the Clinton administration struck a $500-million-plus deal with the Chinese Great Wall Industry Corp., a firm owned by the Chinese military, that guaranteed it bidding rights to work on the launch of U.S. satellites. This not only encouraged further Chinese proliferation; it gave China access to the technology that it would soon use to point missiles at Taiwan.
As for human rights in China, American contradictions were also visible from the outset. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order requiring that China ease up on its domestic repression if it wanted to continue enjoying its most-favored-nation trade status in the United States. But within a year, he went ahead and granted the Chinese most-favored-nation status while acknowledging that Beijing hadn’t met the demands he had made.
In 1998, not even a decade after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Clinton administration vowed not to criticize China at a UN human-rights meeting in Geneva. When Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng came to visit the U.S. that same year to speak about human-rights abuses in China, he evinced a keen understanding of American indifference. “I wouldn’t call the American attitude towards China abnormal,” he said. “Once a country achieves democracy and material wealth, it often finds it difficult to understand the problems of other societies. That is why we in China relied on ourselves to build democracy, rather than calling on the West for support.”
Things have remained more or less the same up to the present. Some American companies have struggled to find the right balance between doing business and doing good. The most emblematic example of American industry’s thorny position in regard to Chinese human-rights abuses comes from Google, whose founding motto—“Don’t be evil”—has since been abandoned. The Silicon Valley behemoth dove head-first into the Chinese market and soon came up against the jarring reality of government repression.
Chinese Google users were perpetually hacked and surveilled from inside China. Additionally, China regularly censored its Internet and blocked popular websites such as Facebook. At first, Google played along, censoring its own search results to satisfy Beijing. But in 2010, the company decided it could no longer be a party to these abuses and shut down its search site in China. It didn’t, however, pull its research-and-development teams from working there. In August 2018, news outlets reported that Google was at work on a new censored search engine called Dragonfly to be used in China. But four months later, the company abandoned the project after internal debates about the ethics of once again submitting to Chinese censorship. Like the U.S. more broadly, Google sought to do no evil in its business dealings with China and found it impossible. What it will do next is unknown, but it’s clear from the company’s persistent efforts that it will be itching to get back—somehow—into the lucrative Chinese search-engine market.
Other Silicon Valley companies, for all their professed idealism and messianic moralizing, seem entirely at ease with the reality of Chinese oppression. LinkedIn does big business in China by catering to censors’ whims. Apple doesn’t offer a Taiwan-flag emoji to users in mainland China lest the company upset the Chinese government, which doesn’t recognize Taiwanese independence. To make matters worse, as protesters marched for freedom in Hong Kong, the company decided to pull the Taiwanese flag from user keyboards there as well. During the same period, Paypal announced that it would enter the Chinese marketplace.
China is certainly less authoritarian than it was in 1989, but it is far more oppressive than most Americans care to admit. And Fukuyama was entirely too sanguine when he wrote in his seminal essay that “Chinese competitiveness and expansionism on the world scene have virtually disappeared.” In this century, China has been a consistent and dangerous bully in the South China Seas, a fierce competitor among great nations for power and profit across the globe, and the world’s number-one source of intellectual-property theft. Most important, the Chinese Communist Party has had no problem adapting its modes of oppression and aggression to fit the free market. And we’ve grown accustomed to it. The mixed motive behind our post–Cold War engagement with China—profit and democracy promotion—has become decidedly less mixed.
The countries of the former Soviet Union are very different from one another, but corruption is a mainstay of them all. Though Communism collapsed as the official economic and governing system, the unofficial system of graft, along with nontransparency and thuggery, lives on. As Michael Mandelbaum wrote in the American Interest, “in its political and economic consequences…large-scale corruption has the same effects as Communism, which, in the last century, fostered repressive governments and sub-optimal economic performances where Communists gained power.” One result of infusing corrupt countries with vast sums of money is that it enables unprincipled rulers to enjoy the popularity that comes from “economic growth,” leaving aside issues such as accountability and human freedom. Another is that wealth gets funneled to those who game the system. This is quite the opposite of what we’d hoped for in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, and it’s made Russia itself a booming kleptocracy.
Signs of the coming trouble, again, were visible in the 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States became the world’s largest private investor in Russia, with the overwhelming majority of that investment going into extracting Russian oil and gas. But the Russian energy industry was in the hands of well-connected, enterprising, and unscrupulous businessmen who worked hand-in-hand with Russian officials to make fortunes and then stashed their earnings outside of the country. It was in the 1990s that the term “oligarch” first came into popular usage.
Vice President Al Gore played a large and important role in defining Russian deviancy down while encouraging American investment in the former Soviet Union. Beginning in 1993, Gore, along with Russia’s then prime minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, co-chaired the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, which handled a good deal of U.S.–Russia trade and energy negotiations. Before becoming prime minister, Chernomyrdin was head of Gazprom, Russia’s mostly state-owned gas company. This put him in the orbit of the oligarchs, as Robert Bartley went on to note in the Wall Street Journal: “twice-yearly photo-ops with Mr. Gore and Mr. Chernomyrdin served to identify the ‘oligarchs’ with the U.S. and with capitalist reform.”
Optics were the least of it. For years, Russian officials failed to institute the kind of market reforms that the Clinton administration was hoping for, and for years, Washington turned its head. Unnamed C.I.A. officials told the New York Times that, in 1995, they gave Gore a dossier on Chernomyrdin and corruption only to have it returned with a “barnyard epithet” written on it. Corroborating accounts say the word was “bullshit,” written in Gore’s hand. In 1997, less than a year before Russia’s massive financial crisis, Gore predicted a “surge of investment” in the Russian market.
And that was all before the emergence of Vladimir Putin. Putin, the revanchist Russian strongman, in his effort to reclaim the countries in Russia’s “near abroad,” has “weaponized kleptocracy,” in the words of the Hudson Institute’s Marius Laurinavicˇius. As Joe Biden himself put it in 2015, “the Kremlin is working hard to buy off and co-opt European political forces, funding both right-wing and left-wing anti-systemic parties throughout Europe.”
Has Putin aimed his kleptocracy gun at the United States? Yes. And how has the U.S. responded? In certain key instances, very poorly. This is most evident in the tangle of suspicious or downright dirty deals closely associated with figures connected to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and involved in the early days of his administration. This includes, most notably, the case of Paul Manafort.
A seasoned Republican political operative, Manafort is the American poster boy for cashing in on post-Soviet lucre. Prior to joining the Trump campaign, Manafort made millions of dollars advising Victor Yanukovych, who served as Ukraine’s president from 2010 to 2014. Yanukovych, a consummate political thug, attempted to steal an election and likely poisoned one political opponent. He was also staunchly pro-Russia and a devoted ally of Vladimir Putin’s. After Yanukovych was ousted from office, Manafort worked to rehabilitate the kleptocrat’s image both in Eastern Europe and the West. During this period, according to documents found in Kiev, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions paid Manafort some $12.7 million dollars in cash.
In 2017, Manafort was indicted on multiple charges connected to his time working for Yanukovych and his laundering of the vast off-the-books sums he received. In March 2019, he was sentenced to 47 months in prison. He pled guilty to, among other things, two charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States.
What is perhaps more concerning than Manafort’s overt crime is the effect that his pro-Yanukovych/pro-Russia work has had on American politics. Documents newly released by the FBI show that it was Manafort who pushed the idea that Russia’s 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee email servers was actually a Ukrainian operation. When Trump moved to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine, lest we forget, the president made it clear to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he wanted Ukraine to look into this very conspiracy theory. If there was, in fact, a quid pro quo under way, this constituted half of the quid.
Another prominent Trump figure who advanced the theory that Ukraine was responsible for the DNC hack, according to the FBI, was Michael Flynn, who has his own unfortunate monetary connection to Vladimir Putin. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who had been head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under Barack Obama, served briefly as Trump’s first national-security adviser. In 2015, Flynn sat next to Vladimir Putin at a gala dinner in Moscow in honor of Russia’s state-owned RT television network. At the event, Flynn gave a speech for which he was paid $45,000. He resigned as national-security adviser in February 2017 amid reports that he’d misled the FBI about his communication with Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. In December of that year, as part of a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to “willfully and knowingly” making “false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements” to the FBI.
Mike Flynn is no Russian operative. And I think far too much has been made of his case. But a generation ago, someone in his position would never have taken a cent to appear alongside the Russian strongman in Moscow. It would have been, and still should be, an assault on his own dignity. But influential Americans have become so routinized in such dealings that they hardly trouble our consciences at all.
Similarly, someone in Joe Biden’s position, in an earlier age, would have known that his son’s getting $50,000 a month to serve on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm was, at least, unseemly. The same goes for Hunter Biden’s time on the board of BHR Equity Investment Fund Management Co., whose largest shareholder is the state-controlled Bank of China.
None of this is to say that, on balance, the American urge, after the Cold War, to nurture freedom and good governance abroad was wrong. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a better alternative. We can’t know what China or former Soviet states would look like today had we taken a more reticent approach to their economic and political development. The persistence of Chinese aggression and censorship and post-Soviet corruption indicates, however, that no magical hands-free transformation was ever in the offing.
As with all policies, the American push for market democracy had unintended consequences—consequences that aim right at the heart of our sense of the United States as a freedom-loving nation of laws. This is not to say that the U.S. is “just like everybody else” now. Paul Manafort is in jail for his crimes, and Joe Biden has to reckon with his son’s cashing in. But we’ve picked up a few bad habits from those we’d hoped to help, and those habits have taken a toll, not least psychologically, on the nation.
It is often said that democracy and good governance can’t be exported just anywhere, that they’re too fragile and require special conditions to survive. But there’s a corollary to this: Corruption and the abuse of power are not easily contained. They’ll find purchase where they can. The result is this strange epilogue to the “end of history.” There’s still no worthy ideological rival to Western liberalism, but we’ve managed to make the victory feel far less glorious than it once did.