The Let’s Pretend Game


This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “The Magnitsky Minstrelsy“:

The passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 last December sent US-Russia relations into a dramatic tailspin. To many, the law and its subsequent list would finally demonstrate that the world’s preeminent democracy had enough of Putin and his gang. Forget all about the “reset.” Enough with the US divorcing its “interests from values” in dealing with Russia. Putin, of course, wasn’t going to take the Magnitsky Law in silence. In addition to its usual charges of hypocrisy, Moscow responded by banning US adoptions of Russian orphans, a callous and misdirected act that left many wondering who exactly Putin intended to punish. Nevertheless, thanks to William Browder’s crusade and whatever he did to cajole Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to get them to “listen,” US-Russia relations are at a nadir. (I hope that one day an enterprising journalist will uncover exactly how Mr. Browder got so much pull with McCain and McGovern.) For years, pundits have proclaimed that US and Russia were steeped in a “new Cold War.” The Magnitsky Law is now a pivotal symptom in this diagnosis. Yes, four years after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her plastic “peregruzka” (sic) button to Sergei Lavrov, the reset now looks in rewind.

Maybe the reset is dead, maybe it’s not. Either way, we’ve witnessed this shuckin’ and jivin’ before. Rather than choreographing a new routine, the US and Russia seem satisfied with rerunning the same old minstrel. The US points its crooked finger at declares “Villain!” at Russia for its poor human rights record. Affronted, Russia cries “Pecksniffery!” followed by a laundry list of equitably egregious offenses. But really, it’s all a game. This is how the big geopolitical boys play in the sandbox. It’s what David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova call the “Let’s Pretend” game. This is where the West feigns caring about human rights to bolster its own sanctimonious image, but could really care less. For the West, and for the US in particular, human rights are a weapon, like a rhetorical Sword of Damocles, and when economic interests dictate, a casus beli against the baneful. Russia, thanks to the orientialist discourse, is forever cast as devil, a dark mirror against the occidential mirror of light. It plays its part well, even when it’s sincerely revolting against its subaltern status. Given this dance, is anyone surprised that the Magnitsky Law entered with a diplomatic bang, but the Magnitsky List resounded with a pitiful whimper? Every drama needs its rising action, climax, and falling action. When it comes to the US and Russia, however, the denouement is eternally postponed.