The Magnitsky Bill: The Sources of America’s Obsession with Russia

Why this bizarre American obsession about Russia – a power that truly is not very pertinent to Washington’s strategic and security concerns? Considering, for example, what Obama and Romney talked about in their foreign policy debate, we see that Moscow hardly featured. I’m perplexed and all I can offer in explanation is a jumble of partly-baked theories.

Perhaps lefties dislike Russia because it rejected socialism; indeed the Soviet experience stands as an indictment against the whole scheme. If you believe more government is the solution, or that equality is the answer, Russia’s rejection of the Soviet experiment is a standing rebuke to your convictions.

Righties dislike Russia because, communist or not (and how many think it still is?) it’s still Russia. But why should they dislike Russia per se? Apart from the communist period, Russia has never been very germane to American concerns – not, at least, since the Alaska Purchase. And yet, as David Foglesong has argued, many Americans were obsessed about Russia long before the Bolsheviks. Russia was then seen as a sort of backwards twin brother. But Americans had a long obsession with China too: all the missionaries, the “who lost China” excitement in the 1950s. Why Russia still?

Another notion is that Americans have to have a rival, an opponent, a counter, an enemy even. It’s geopolitical chiaroscuro: the light can only shine against the darkness. Russia is large, significant and gives a contrast more substantial than, say, Venezuela would. But, best of all, unlike China, US-Russia trade is pretty inconsequential. So Russia is a low-cost opponent. It’s safe to abuse Russia; abusing China comes with a cost.

In periodic American fits of moral censure, Russia is a safe target. An issue as trivial as Pussy Riot can be played up as a momentous moral outrage. On the other hand, any sustained condemnation of the treatment in Saudi Arabia of Shiites or Pakistani and Filipino servants would come with a cost. Outrage against Russian “occupation” of parts of Georgia is one thing; outrage about Chinese occupation of Tibet would be something else. It is always pleasing to illustrate one’s moral superiority by manifesting outrage against someone else’s moral imperfections but a target that can bite back would cost more than the transitory satisfaction of being among the Saved Remnant. Russia’s sins are a perfect fit: pleasing moral superiority without uncomfortable consequences.

Or is Russia an ungrateful child? In the 1990s there was much talk about US aid and advice reforming Russia, the “end of history” and all that. Russia was, evidently, on the edge of becoming “just like us”. But it didn’t and such back-sliding cannot be forgiven.

Or is Russia just one of those unfortunate countries whose fate it is to be explained by foreigners after a two-week visit? A palimpsest on which to write the presumptions you brought? Martin Malia wrote a fascinating book showing how Westerners from Voltaire onwards found Russia to be the perfect exemplar of whatever it was that they wished it to be. So, in Russia you can find whatever you’re looking for: a “geostrategic foe”, for example.

So abusing Russia satisfies many political needs: a safe opponent; a contrast that can be painted as dark as you like; an object of feel-good moral righteousness; a sullen teenager who won’t listen to Daddy; a blank slate on which to write.

But best of all, something like the “Magnitskiy Bill” feels good and it doesn’t cost anything much. The geopolitical equivalent of banning Big Gulps in New York City.