This week’s Group of 8 meeting in Japan raises some important questions about Sen. John McCain’s approach to the art of diplomacy. McCain has suggested that Russia be kicked out of the G-8 because of its government’s retreat from democracy in recent years. This is the kind of proposal one might expect from a party candidate seeking to differentiate himself from the policies of an unpopular predecessor. It is not, however, a good idea.
The problem is not in McCain’s analysis but in his proposed remedy.
Yes, Russia has moved away from the principles that caused it to be invited to join what was the G-7 during the 1990s. Under the leadership of Russia’s former president and current prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, power has been centralized at the expense of the parliament, regional governments, the courts, the media and civil society. Russia goes through the motions of democracy, but the reality has been lost. The question is how the United States, and the West in general, should respond.
McCain favors booting Russia out of the wealthy-democracies forum, but he does not say what this would accomplish other than dramatizing, for a moment, our disappointment with Russia’s domestic policies.
In any case, the senator’s proposal is as unrealistic as it would be counterproductive because the United States does not wield a veto over G-8 membership. Next year’s G-8 host, Italy, and the following year’s, Canada, are unlikely to exclude Russia. To press for Russia’s exclusion will only divide us from our democratic allies in the G-8. It is also largely meaningless when it comes to shunning or shaming Moscow: Russia’s role as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council is both irrevocable and far more significant than its inclusion within the largely powerless G-8.
The truth is that we still have an abundant amount of diplomatic business to do with Russia. We have a common interest in fighting terrorism, preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons, securing nuclear materials everywhere, reducing nuclear stockpiles, maintaining stability in Afghanistan and Central Asia, developing new security arrangements in East Asia and improving prospects for peace in the Middle East. Russia must also be included in any comprehensive discussion of global energy and environmental issues.
The next U.S. president will have no choice but to seek Russia’s cooperation on a range of vital issues even while managing the differences that are sure to arise. We will have a far better chance of succeeding if our disagreements on matters of substance -- the future of NATO, for example -- are not aggravated unnecessarily by questions of symbolism and protocol. We cannot expect help from a government we are attempting to blackball, nor would it be in our interest to push Russia further in the direction of an alliance of autocracies with such countries as China and Iran.
As the recent apparent breakthroughs with North Korea bear witness, even the Bush administration has learned that effective diplomacy requires a willingness to sit down with hostile governments. During the Cold War, presidents from both political parties engaged in high-profile summitry with Soviet counterparts. Today’s Russia, though troublesome, is a far less destructive force in world affairs than its communist predecessor.
The cause of Russian democracy, meanwhile, may have been set back, but it is not yet defeated. It is hard to see how ending the Russian government’s exposure to the influence of the world’s leading democracies would improve either its handling of global concerns or its willingness to respect the rights of its people.
McCain is correct to be concerned about Russia’s leadership. He is wrong to think that withdrawing an invitation to G-8 meetings is the answer. We need more diplomatic engagement with Moscow, not less; more pressure from other democracies, not less; and more patience in forging a productive and sustainable relationship with Russia’s people, not an abrupt surrender that would be viewed by many Russians as an insult to their country.