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Russia’s v. America’s Records on Democracy and on Whistleblowers’ Safety

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There are multiple quantitative measures for a given nation’s degree of democracy, in comparison with that of other nations, but perhaps the best is the job-approval that the nation’s citizens give of the head-of-state. On that measure, Russia is far more of a democracy than is the U.S., and is second only to China worldwide. On 6 March 2016, the Washington Post bannered, “How to understand Putin’s jaw-droppingly high approval ratings”, and opened, “Russian President Vladimir Putin has an 83 percent approval rating.” It found a way to blame Russian culture for this, because they couldn’t find a way to deny that Putin is extremely favorably viewed by the Russian people, and the WP is rabidly against Russia’s Government; so, blaming Russia’s culture (essentially, blaming Russians) for the findings was the best they were able to do. Could Russia be a more democratic nation than America is? Could China be the world’s most democratic nation? An ordinary American with a closed mind would simply ignore these data, not even be puzzled by these persistent findings; but the answer is clearly yes — those countries might be more democratic than is America. A person who isn’t willing to consider that possibility would be merely time-wasting to read any further here.

Another reasonable way to measure democracy is by how low a percentage of the nation’s citizens are in prison. The nation with the world’s highest percentage of its population in prison is the United States. Only tiny Seychelles, whose total population is under 100,000 and which holds other countries’ convicts in its prisons, is technically the worst. U.S. has 693 prisoners per 100,000 population, whereas Seychelles has 799 per 100,000. Second-highest after U.S. was St. Kitts & Nevis, at 607. Third-highest is Turkmenistan, at 583. Fourth-highest, U.S. Virgin Islands, at 542. Fifth-highest, El Salvador, at 541. Sixth-highest, Cuba, 510. Seventh-highest, Guam, 469. Eighth-highest, Russia, 450. None of these countries would, on this measure, be a “democracy,” but (other than Seychelles) the U.S. would be the most dictatorial — a police-state, on this measure, it’s the very worst nation except perhaps Seychelles.

Another reasonable way of measuring whether a nation is a democracy is the degree of trust that its citizens have in their government. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that 44% of Russians trust their government, and 33% of Americans trust ours. The highest was the 84% of Chinese who trust theirs. 28 nations were ranked: China was #1, Russia #13, U.S. #21. But could China be the world’s most democratic nation? Of course, it could — not by the same means as some of ‘the democratic’ nations use, but more authentically democratic than they — that’s certainly possible. And, as we now see, important data indicate that it is also true.

Another reasonable way to measure democracy is by the population’s happiness (and another common phrase for the population’s happiness is “the general welfare” of the people). In Gallup’s World Happiness Report 2018, the U.S. ranked #18, Russia #59, and China #86, out of the 156 countries surveyed. The top 5 nations in order were: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. On the happiness measure, those five, at least, certainly are democracies. Are those five the world’s most democratic nations? And, even if they might not be, the residents in those countries still could be the most fortunate on the planet, because happiness is a goal everywhere. By contrast, democracy is usually viewed as being mainly instrumental toward achieving the public’s happiness. As the sovereignty clause — the opening, the Preamble — in America’s Constitution, says: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It — the statement of the Constitution’s goals — says nothing about “democracy,” but does mention, as a goal, to “promote the general Welfare,” and that’s just another way of saying, to promote happiness. The sovereignty clause also mentions “Liberty,” “the common defence,” and other things, but nowhere does it even so much as mention “democracy.” But what the sovereignty clause does say that’s the most important thing of all, is its opening seven words, which name what is the sovereign in this country; and, unlike in just about every other legal system, which identifies some god, or some king, as the sovereign, this Constitution was the world’s first which identifies, instead, “We the People of the United States” —- the residents here — as being the sovereign here. And, in line with that sovereignty, the only happiness that it is at all concerned about is “the general Welfare” and “our Posterity.” Repudiation of any aristocracy is thus implicit even in our Constitution’s opening. Perhaps America’s Founders equated disempowerment of the aristocracy as constituting what we today commonly think of as being “democracy.” But if that is what they thought, then this is no longer their country, and this Constitution is no longer America’s Constitution, and that’s just an empirical fact.

Some people would say that a democracy is a nation that trusts its news-media. Trust in Media

is the highest, #1, in China, 71%; and is 42% in #15 U.S.; and is 35% in #20 Russia. (A July 2017 Marist poll however found that only 30% of Americans trust the media. That’s a stunning 12% lower than the Edelman survey found.) In other words: Chinese people experience that what they encounter in their news-media becomes borne-out in retrospect as having been true, but only half of that percentage of Russians experience this; and U.S. scores nearer to Russia than to China on this matter. Simply based on the facts, Americans shouldn’t trust the nation’s media at all; the trust-level is unrealistically high in America, but the ’news’ media deceive the public to believe otherwise (that Americans trust the media too little, instead of too much). (And, then, to top it off, the major media, which had deceived Americans into invading Iraq in 2003, and invading Libya in 2011, etc., allege that the only media which pump fake ‘news’ are small or ‘alternative’ ones, and that the major ‘news’ media — which clearly did it, when it counted the most and so produced those evil horrendous invasions — don’t do it, at all. That’s the biggest lie, of all, incredibly counter-factual: the lie that the major media aren’t the real and most viciously dangerous problem of fake ‘news’ in America.)

A recent poll of Americans showed that “74% think America is a dictatorship; only 21% think it’s not.” Perhaps Americans are more realistic about the government than about the ‘news’ media.

Although one can reasonably debate the degree to which any nation is a democracy, the United States certainly stands rather low on that factor, and stands well below China, and perhaps is lower than Russia, but none of these countries is among the world’s worst — except, perhaps, the U.S., for its having the highest percentage of its people in prison. The percentage of the residents who are in prison is probably the best single commonly available measure of the extent to which a given nation isn’t a democracy. How could it even conceivably be ‘the land of the free’ if it’s got the world’s highest percentage of its people behind bars? The very idea that America is a democracy is, thus, simply ludicrous — on the basis of the data. And, the U.S. is, furthermore, the only country in the entire world where the hypothesis that the nation is a democracy was scientifically investigated and analyzed — and it was found definitely to be false here.

Consequently, whenever the U.S. Government condemns some other country for its ‘dictatorship’ or for its mistreatment of journalists, a pot is calling a kettle black, the statement is pure propaganda, unless the U.S. Government simultaneously admits that it’s a dictatorship — which the U.S. Government certainly is (the only nation that has been scientifically proven to be a dictatorship).

Some people say that Russia cannot possibly be more democratic than is the U.S., because in Russia, investigative journalists and whistleblowers are suppressed if not killed.

Gary Webb was a great American investigative journalist who was shot dead and the ‘news’media slammed and basically smeared him. He had exposed a CIA drug-running operation. His murderer was never identified. The ‘news’media do not honor him.

Phillip Marshal was a great American investigative journalist whose entire family (including himself) was shot dead, and this killing stopped his ongoing deep investigation into the people behind the 9/11 attacks. His murderer(s) was/were never identified. The ‘news’media do not honor him.

The greatest whistleblowers and investigative journalists are treated by the U.S. Government as mega-criminals: prominent examples of this are Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning. The U.S. Government has now caused Assange to be not only in solitary confinement but held entirely incommunicado, blocked from being able to communicate with the public in any way; his Wikileaks is now incapacitated except as its pre-existing online archive. If that’s not a regime which aspires to spread its dictatorship throughout all countries, then what is? How appropriate, then, is it, that this same Government places the world’s highest percentage of its own citizens into prison? And how appropriate is it that this Government furthermore proclaims itself to be the world’s model of ‘democracy’?

JFK (John Fitzgerald Kennedy) was a U.S. President who started turning against the military-industrial complex and was shot dead in a conspiracy in which Lee Harvey Oswald — someone who might have been a trigger-man in the assassination — got framed for the entire operation, as a ‘lone gunman’.

MLK (Martin Luther King) was America’s greatest orator and ethical leader, and was hated by the bigoted FBI Director, so got shot dead, and the FBI said that a lone gunman James Earl Ray did it, but MLK’s family and supporters believed that the FBI itself did it, perhaps with other government enforcers being involved.

Of course, there have been similar mysteries in Russia. Anna Politkovskaya was a great investigative journalist in Russia, who got murdered, but after many trials, no one has been convicted for it. And there are other instances (just as there are in America).

Unlike in America, no Russian head-of-state has been assassinated since Tzar Nicholas in 1917, when the communists took over Russia. And unlike JFK, who had the legitimacy of being elected to his post, the Tzar did not. Today’s Russian heads-of-state do have to explain themselves to the public and compete in elections, and none has yet been murdered, such as in the United States.

No scientific study has ever been published regarding whether or not Russia is authentically a democracy, nor of whether China is, but there has been one — and only one — scientific study of whether the U.S. is a democracy; and it established that, definitely, the U.S. is not a democracy. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter once even had the courage and honesty to say as much, but the myth goes on because the ‘news’ and ‘history’ about the matter continue to lie, so as to spread the myth — instead of to spread the news and the history — regarding this question, about the American Government, and about its stenographic ‘news’ media. For the U.S. Government to pontificate to the world about ‘democracy’ is an atrocity, because the U.S. itself definitely isn’t one. Americans have simply been deceived. And wherever the public have been deceived, democracy is impossible; only ‘democracy’ can result.

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010

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Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit

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biden-syria
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.

A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.

I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.

The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.

But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.

Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.

Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.

Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.

For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.

This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.

Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.

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Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

From our partner RIAC

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