The Magazine

Putin's Authoritarian Soul

From the February 28, 2005 issue: The first test for Bush's liberty doctrine.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By JAMES M. GOLDGEIER and MICHAEL MCFAUL
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IN HIS SECOND INAUGURAL ADDRESS, George W. Bush made a full-throated, unabashed pledge to promote liberty throughout the world. Bush had barely stepped down from the podium, however, when "senior administration officials" began to caution that the president's speech did not signal a change in policy. Television talking heads and newspaper columnists joined the chorus of dismissal, arguing that words don't matter. The president, evidently, was simply performing an empty ceremony when he called for the spread of freedom.

Words by themselves, it is true, are never enough. To make his commitment credible, Bush must now execute a strategy for achieving his noble end. Yet words do matter, especially when spoken by the president of the United States. When chosen carefully and reiterated consistently, a president's words can be part of a strategy for promoting freedom. Autocrats around the world listen and get nervous. Democrats around the world listen and get inspired.

Words are especially meaningful when they are hard to say. The first big test of Bush's commitment to his liberty doctrine will come when he meets Russian president Vladimir Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, on February 24. Calling for freedom's advance on Inauguration Day is one thing; saying the same to Putin a month later is another, and a much more difficult, thing.

In previous meetings, Putin and Bush seem not to have spent much time discussing liberty. Before the recent inauguration, this omission had a strategic justification, however flawed. Throughout Bush's first term, "realists" on his team claimed that Russian-American relations were best served when we checked our values at the door. Our relations with Russia, so the argument went, were so important to our vital security interests that President Bush should avoid talking about freedom and democracy when meeting with his Kremlin counterpart and instead focus the dialogue on the global war on terror or nonproliferation.

This argument was shortsighted and flawed. In the long run--even in the medium run--coddling dictators backfires. Only a democratic Russia will be a reliable partner for either U.S. foreign policymakers or American businesses. Only a democratic Russia will be able to build a legitimate state capable of fighting terrorism on Russian soil and thereby contributing to the global war on terrorism. Only a democratic Russia will stop threatening young democracies nearby in Ukraine and Georgia.

But now, after Bush's speech, the "realist" argument for ignoring Putin's rollback of democratic practices in the name of national security interests can only undermine Bush's credibility. Bush made clear that he planned to promote liberty in every pocket of the world--surely including the largest country of all.

If Bush goes to Bratislava and fails to reiterate the sentiments of his inaugural address in public appearances with Putin, then the critics were right and authoritarian leaders everywhere can sleep easy. If the president neglects to affirm his commitment to freedom with Putin at his side, Bush will be signaling that his words don't count.

Bush cannot begin an effective campaign to spread liberty this way. In this pivotal first meeting of his second term with a faltering democrat, Bush has to let Putin know that he understands, and worries about, Russia's autocratic drift over the last several years. In fact, Russia is the only major country in the world to experience significant democratic backsliding during Bush's first term. Arguably, Russia's increasing authoritarianism is the greatest setback to the third wave of democratization since it began in Portugal in 1974. For a president committed to liberty's advance, these facts cannot be ignored. The truth has to be told in Bratislava.

Making democracy a focus of the Slovak summit, however, does not require Bush to sever ties with his friend Putin or downgrade other aspects of U.S.-Russian relations. Indeed, Bush might bone up on Ronald Reagan's second-term approach toward the Soviet Union and pursue a dual-track strategy, simultaneously engaging both the Russian state and Russian society. Paradoxical though it might seem, a more substantive agenda at the state-to-state level would create more permissive conditions for Western engagement of Russian society. This is precisely what happened in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan offered the Soviet regime serious cooperation on strategic matters even as he stood up for America's democratic principles.