U.S. Criticism Doesn’t Change Authoritarian Regimes’ Behavior
Hannah Thoburn protests what she considers to be an insufficient U.S. response to political repression in Russia. However, she spends much of her time imagining a connection between this and authoritarian tactics being used in many other countries:
As a Turkish protest movement has emerged in recent weeks, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has parroted a similar line, hinting that the protests were instigated by “foreign powers.” Erdogan has begun to look toward altering Turkey’s constitution to ensure the continuation of his rule; Putin’s constitutional changes have allowed him to prolong his tenure at Russia’s helm and inspired similar actions [bold mine-DL] by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The cases of these three countries are significantly different, but one thing Orban, Erdogan, and Putin all have in common is that they govern what have been or have recently become largely one-party states. In the Turkish and Hungarian examples, this one-party rule has come about through a combination of ruling party success and the utter collapse of the opposition, while in Russia no real competition to the ruling party has been permitted. One-party states and their leaders will tend to behave in similar ways when it comes to consolidating personal and party rule, and they will take advantage of the weakness of the political opposition to cement their control. They don’t do this because foreign governments are too quiet in their criticism of their actions, but because it is in the nature of one-party rulers to quash dissent, vilify internal opponents, and exploit nationalist sentiment in order to marginalize critics and rally popular support. Erdogan portrays his critics as being inspired by outside forces because that is what populist demagogues usually do when challenged, and it must flatter him to believe that only those backed by foreign governments could possibly object to his actions.
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the manner in which the U.S. criticizes the Russian government’s conduct has no effect on the behavior of leaders in Budapest and Ankara, or anywhere else for that matter. Washington could be denouncing Russian behavior every day, and it would mean nothing to governments in other countries. After all, strong public criticism of Russian behavior under the previous administration had no positive effect on what Russia did then or later, so why should there be any effect on how other governments behave? The Azerbaijan example was especially funny, since the Aliyevs have been ruling the country as their fiefdom for the last twenty years regardless of what U.S. policy towards Russia has been, and the U.S. has been only too happy to cultivate Azerbaijan as a client while Aliyev and his son have been ruling there.
If the authoritarian contagion thesis that Thoburn presents is so unconvincing, what is the point of framing the argument this way? It seems to me that there are two reasons. The first is to exaggerate the international significance of the U.S. response to Russian internal behavior. If we pretend that authoritarian habits are spreading to other countries as a result of insufficiently aggressive U.S. criticism of Russian authoritarianism, that will make this seem much more important than just another complaint about Russian authoritarianism. This is also supposed to exaggerate the ability of the U.S. to influence political events abroad by blaming the U.S. response to Russian behavior for encouraging similar behavior all over the world. According to this view, all these other governments would have somehow been discouraged from this kind of behavior if the U.S. had only responded more forcefully to Russian internal behavior. This makes a basic mistake of assuming that authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian regimes care that the U.S. objects to how they govern. As a general rule, they don’t, which is why they don’t respond constructively to criticism from Washington.
Suppose for a moment that the U.S. followed Thoburn’s recommendations and seriously downgraded the relationship with Russia to punish it for its internal conduct. What would be the result? Would one-party states elsewhere in the world “get the message” that the U.S. won’t tolerate that kind of behavior? Or would they reasonably conclude that Russia is being punished selectively for behavior practiced by many U.S. clients and allies around the world, and dismiss it as a nothing more than a ploy that they were free to ignore? The latter seems far more likely. Regime opponents inside Russia would not be treated any better, but would in all likelihood be harassed even more than they already are. Meanwhile, whatever benefit the U.S. and Russia’s neighbors derive from a less antagonistic U.S.-Russian relationship would vanish, and Russian cooperation on any number of issues would become even harder to obtain.