Cold War Leftovers

No new administration is done with its foreign-policy housecleaning until it confronts that cold war fossil, the Jackson-Vanik amendment. First enacted in 1974, it made normal trade relations with the Soviet Union contingent on free emigration. Russia has now allowed such freedom for years, and a law that once embodied the importance of human rights in East-West relations remains in force merely to provide Congress with leverage in trade negotiations.

By discarding this outdated, meaningless policy, President Obama can help define a much-needed new strategy toward Russia. But getting rid of Jackson-Vanik has proved difficult. Bill Clinton, in 1994, affirmed that Moscow was in full compliance with the amendment and yet never managed to free Russia from its provisions permanently. George W. Bush also tried and failed.

Like his predecessors, the president will find his efforts stymied by Congress. Russia is in the last phase of negotiations to join the World Trade Organization — a process that has already dragged on for 16 years. By keeping Jackson-Vanik on the books until the process is complete, Congress expects to be able to demand more favorable treatment for American goods in the Russian market. Lawmakers who invoke this amendment nowadays aren’t thinking about human rights, but about DVD piracy and chicken exports.

The Bush administration saw what it was up against when Russia tightened meat and poultry import quotas for the United States in 2003 — and provoked a Congressional rebellion in response. Thirty-eight states, with their 76 senators, had a stake in these sales. The message to Mr. Bush was that Jackson-Vanik had to stay on the books until Russia’s W.T.O. membership, and all the petty haggling associated with it, was finally wrapped up.

If President Obama wants members of Congress to act sooner — and he should — he will need to make a better case than his predecessors.

Economic reasons are the least likely to carry the day. Although American companies may complain about the obstacles they face doing business in Russia, trade is booming. American exports to Russia have tripled since 2004, and our own imports from Russia have more than doubled. Russia remains the world’s single largest importer of American poultry, and in 2008 its pork imports from the United States were up 94 percent from the year before. Russian-American trade relations are not exactly “normal” with Jackson-Vanik on the books, but the economic cost is actually zero.

A political rationale might carry slightly more weight on Capitol Hill. Despite its negligible impact on trade, Russians still consider the law a bone in their throat. As Boris Yeltsin once joked, “Every single kid in Russia knows who these people are, Jackson and this guy Vanik,” referring to Senator Henry Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik, the amendment’s co-sponsors. Repealing this law would re-affirm (as presidents never tire of doing) that the cold war really is over. Doing so might also shift attention to Russian foreign-policy attitudes, which remain more obsessively focused on the past than do ours.

Yet the best reason for scrapping Jackson-Vanik is to fashion a more up-to-date way of addressing the concerns that gave rise to it in the first place. In the years since George W. Bush’s efforts to deal with the amendment, American confidence that Russia is moving in a democratic direction has dropped sharply. Our confidence that we have any leverage over the process, or that we know how to use it, has also declined. Leaving this symbol of long-gone issues on the books keeps us from thinking clearly about today’s concerns.

Russian human-rights advocates and their Western supporters want to understand how, once Jackson-Vanik is put to rest, the United States will view and respond to Russia’s internal evolution. No one wants President Obama to pursue the same unsuccessful strategy — by turns lecturing and fawning — as his predecessor. But they do want to know whether he has a strategy.

Without saying much on the subject, President Obama has already suggested that he does. In their first meeting, he surprised the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, by asking about the beating of a famous human-rights advocate in Moscow a day earlier, telegraphing a concern that few Russians had expected — and that George W. Bush had long since ceased to express.

Mr. Medvedev’s unorthodox politics themselves invite a renewed dialogue on these issues. Free of the defensiveness of his own predecessor, Vladimir Putin, he has said that Russia cannot enjoy the respect of other countries until it establishes the rule of law at home. He calls it “dangerous” that Russian officials see civic advocates as “enemies of the state,” and insists that in addressing the nation’s problems “nothing can replace” political competition. No Russian leader has talked like this in 20 years.

Jackson-Vanik once played an important role in defining American policy toward the Soviet Union. The Obama administration’s task is to make putting it aside just as important to our relations with Russia.

Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He was the American ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.