Squeal Like a Pig

Why Putin actually loves tweaking the United States over Edward Snowden, and why China’s too smart to bother.

There must be a Mandarin equivalent to the Russian adage President Vladimir Putin used to explain why keeping Edward Snowden wasn't worth the cost to Russia's relations with the United States -- "it's like shearing a pig: there's lots of squealing and little fleece." (How about: "It's like deep-frying a cricket: a nice snack, but you can't feed your family"?) Still, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the Chinese leadership, stayed mum when Snowden passed through their hands. The Chinese, unlike the Russians, do not like to give the impression that they take pleasure in watching America squeal.

The Snowden affair has offered a strange experiment in which a U.S. hostage to fortune has been delivered, first to China, and then to Russia. Each has the United States over a barrel. Or rather, each has had a pig to shear, if they cared to. And what they do with that pig tells you something about how they think about their relationship with Washington. It hasn't been pretty, of course, and the White House has gotten very hot under the collar. But they've behaved better than they could have, and better than they would have a generation ago.

First, a caveat: Snowden passed through the hands of Hong Kong, not Chinese authorities. This may be one and the same thing. Last Sunday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the Obama administration was "just not buying" that the decision to let Snowden travel onwards, rather than to turn him over to American authorities, was made by local officials rather than by Beijing. When I asked National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden if the White House had specific evidence of a backstage Chinese role, she responded that Carney "was referencing China's traditional role in Hong Kong's foreign affairs." Snowden's Hong Kong lawyer has said that a Chinese "intermediary" visited Snowden and told him that he was not welcome to stay. But Beijing has denied playing a role, and at least claims to resent the White House tongue-lashing.

China's call, if it was China's call, was unambiguous: Get rid of him. "What was clear," a State Department official told me, "was that both China and Hong Kong, but especially China, wanted to have done with this." Turning Snowden over to the United States, as an ally would have done, was unthinkable: Imagine the United States doing the same with a Chinese fugitive. At the same time, granting Snowden the asylum he sought in Hong Kong -- and which both local and Chinese public opinion seemed to favor -- would have been the overtly hostile act of an adversary. Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, points out that Xi had just conducted his confab with Barack Obama at Sunnylands, which in turn teed up the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. This was, Lieberthal notes, "the last thing in the world they wanted in their lap." It also makes Lieberthal wonder why the White House was hurling rhetorical thunderbolts at Beijing.

Snowden apparently now dwells in the limbo of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport transit lounge. He has expressed no desire to stay in Russia; the era when "defectors" fled to the West's ideological rivals is long gone, and of course you would have to be mighty fervid to trade Honolulu for Moscow. In any case, Putin, too, appears to want him gone. "The sooner he chooses his final destination," the Russian president said, "the better it is for him and Russia." Putin also has a relationship -- albeit a tattered one -- to protect. Having just held his extremely uncomfortable first bilateral with Obama, Putin "does not want to throw the relationship into the toilet," as Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, puts it. Of course, the fact that Snowden hasn't gone anywhere, yet, casts some doubt on Moscow's eagerness to have him gone.

Critics on the right are forever urging policymakers to throw off the fiction of common interests. A recent piece about U.S.-China relations in The National Interest claims that, "Pretending to have a partnership and shared interests can only lead to growing frustration in the relationship." Well, no. Allies have a "partnership." But states that participate in the global commons of the market system do, indeed, have "shared interests." China may try to rig the system on its behalf, whether hacking the computers of foreign corporations or subsidizing domestic industries, but it must accept the fundamental rules of the game in order to win. China tried playing a different game for 40 years, and realized that it was losing. That's why China now has too much fish to fry with the West to waste time shearing pigs.

The situation is different with Russia. Putin channels Russia's sullen resentment at its second-class status. Maximizing Russia's economic opportunities may matter less to him than catering to, and exploiting, the national sense of wounded pride. And since Russia has so little trade with the United States, poking Washington carries only modest economic risks. Not for nothing has he made Secretary of State John Kerry wait for three hours, and Obama for 30 minutes. More important, Putin has backed Syria's Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, though doing so has wrecked Russia's reputation in much of the Arab world; he wants to hold on to an important client, but he is also determined to make the United States and the West pay the highest possible price for meddling with that relationship.

Russia, for all its weakness, seems more dangerous than China, precisely because Putin has turned the zero-sum calculus into a matter of supreme national interest. He doesn't need the fleece, but he clearly does enjoy making the pig squeal. And as a European diplomat said to me the other day, Russia loves a self-destructive hero. Putin may well be torn between disposing of Snowden as swiftly as possible and milking, or shearing, the situation for all it's worth. He has to continue delivering prosperity, or at least security, and he has good reason to worry that falling oil prices, dismal productivity, and non-existent innovation threaten his popularity, and his legacy.

Who wants to take Snowden? Cuba, Venezuela, maybe Ecuador -- or maybe not. Insignificant countries may reasonably calculate that they get more mileage from defying Washington than they do from cooperating, since the currency of anti-Americanism glitters more brightly for them than does actual currency. (And Venezuela has the oil wealth to underwrite its gestures.) But Washington can live with enemies like that. And it's reasonable to hope that such self-defeating states will eventually come to their senses.

The United States does have a formidable enemy -- but we can see it in the mirror. China's aggression toward its neighbors in the South China Sea, or its assault on the computers of U.S. companies, poses less of a threat to U.S. interests than does America's own failure to educate its citizens or build and repair vital infrastructure -- both of which China is doing, legally and openly, at an astonishingly rapid clip. The United States doesn't really have enemies any more. It has rivals -- lots and lots of rivals. And right now, it's defeating itself.


Terms of Engagement

The Tyranny of the Majority

How John Quincy Adams explains the protests in Turkey and Brazil.

It's been quite a week for the abuse of democratic principles by putatively democratic leaders. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used riot police to clear Istanbul's Taksim Square of peaceful demonstrators, whom he has denounced as "a few looters" and "a few bums." Egypt's upper house passed a law restricting the operation of non-government organizations which Egyptian civil society groups assert "lays the foundation for a new police state" by the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsy. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest practically everything -- though there the government has professed bafflement rather than outrage.

What the events in Egypt and Turkey have in common is a particular kind of perversion of democracy -- electoral authoritarianism. Both Erdogan and Morsy treat their followers -- who probably do not in either case constitute an absolute majority of the country -- as "the people" in whose name they rule, while treating their opponents as enemies, flotsam, non-citizens beholden to foreign ideas or foreign sponsors. And they are hardly alone. Russia's Vladimir Putin has installed a dictatorship on behalf of his nationalistic electoral base, as did Venezuela's Hugo Chávez before his death. The difference is that no one mistakes Russia or Venezuela for democracies; the tumult in Turkey and Egypt threatens something precious, or at least hopeful.

Neither Erdogan nor Morsy have gone remotely as far as Putin or Chávez, though Morsy came close when he issued an edict last November exempting his own decisions from judicial review, and thus temporarily combining all executive, legislative, and judicial power in his own hands. (He was forced to backtrack the following month.) But both men seem sincerely persuaded that they, and they alone, incarnate the will of the people. "[They say] Tayyip Erdogan is a dictator," the Turkish prime minister said of himself in the third person in a televised speech. "If they call one who serves the people a dictator, I cannot say anything." Playing with populist fire -- but very adroitly -- Erdogan provoked pro-regime demonstrations even bigger than the ones in Taksim Square where opponents assailed him as a budding autocrat.

Erdogan and Morsy, Chávez and Putin -- all are megalomaniacs who cannot or will not distinguish between "the people's will" and their own. But this is also a disease of young democracies, where the stakes are so high that both ruler and opposition often see compromise as a betrayal of the national interest. This was true even in the first decades of the American republic. John Adams's rivals accused him of trying to restore monarchic rule; and when Adams's son, John Quincy Adams, served as president, both his great rival, Andrew Jackson, and Vice President John C. Calhoun insisted that he was planning to subvert the Constitution and impose dictatorial rule. Adams and his allies were convinced with almost equal certainty that Jackson, if elected, would destroy the Union. The concept of legitimate difference of opinion was very slow to take hold.

Nations lucky enough to have a Nelson Mandela or a George Washington receive a lasting lesson in the democratic uses of power. And when, as in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracies emerge from a series of bargains between reformers and the ruling elite, everyone gets the chance to learn the arts of compromise. But when power must be seized through revolutionary action, as in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, the one rule people know is that the winner takes all. How, then, do leaders learn to represent a whole people rather than just the faction that elected them?

They don't, naturally -- but voters can teach them a lesson. Serbs united in 2000 to defeat the authoritarian populist Slobodan Milosevic, who had forged a political majority out of virulent nationalism. But this requires a united and purposeful opposition, which cannot be said either of Turkey's old-line pro-Ataturk Republican People's Party or the deeply fragmented opposition to Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood. It's not just the ruling party, but the entire political culture, of new democracies which often enables electoral authoritarianism.

Culture matters; and so do rules. In Patterns of Democracy, political scientist Arend Lijphart argues that democratic governments come in two basic models: majoritarian, like the British, with strong single-party cabinets dominating decision-making, or "consensual," with power exercised through coalitions. Lijphart observes that while in homogeneous societies all citizens can feel reasonably represented in a majoritarian system, the same model in nations deeply divided by class or identity "spells majoritarian dictatorship and civil strife." He argues for electoral rules which guarantee a measure of proportional representation, coalition governments, an empowered and truly bicameral legislature, decentralization. Lijphart claims that the consensual model maximizes democratic legitimacy without sacrificing effectiveness.

Electoral rules help explain the difference between the way Turkey and Brazil, two dynamic young democracies, have reacted to mass street protest. While Erdogan has demonized his foes, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has praised protestors for waking the country to its shortcomings. Brazil, too, faces a crisis, but not a crisis of representation, as Turkey does. Larry Diamond, a leading democracy scholar at Stanford, points out that both Rousseff and her Erdogan-like predecessor, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, had to do far more political bargaining than Erdogan because they rule through coalitions while Erdogan controls a parliamentary majority. And the reason for this, in turn, is that Turkish law excludes parties from parliament which do not win more than 10 percent of the national vote. The Turkish system enables Erdogan's worst impulses. Working with rival parties might force him to learn a few hard lessons.

Democracies become consolidated through some combination of good rules and good habits -- constitutions and culture. But they often fail before they reach that point, and a whole subset of the academic literature anatomizes cases of backsliding. (Mali would be the most recent example.) It's hardly impossible to imagine a scenario in Egypt in which the army re-takes command after the non-stop conflict between Morsy, the secular opposition, and the judiciary provokes even more chaos, violence, and economic paralysis than it already has. In effect, everyone's high-handed behavior licenses everyone else's high-handed behavior, democracy fails and Egypt's returns to a new version of the status quo ante -- as Pakistan, for example, has done several times.

But that's not the likeliest scenario in Egypt, and certainly not in Turkey. The era in which citizens will accept a return to autocracy, much less clamor for it, is drawing to a close. What we really see in the mass demonstrations in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere is an unwillingness to accept an implicit compact in which democratic citizenship is limited to voting -- and a paralyzed political class which does not know how to respond to these demands. "Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes it choice," Erdogan lectured his people. Wrong. Electoral authoritarianism won't work the way it used to because too many people won't accept that transaction. The dictatorship of the majority, or the hypothetical majority, will continue in a few places, like Russia. But its days are numbered in Venezuela, and I can't see it happening in Turkey.

The real problem is that unresponsive democracies will provoke more protest, which will provoke more reaction, and the sense of hopefulness and common purpose in nations like Brazil and Turkey will give way to rancor and division, leading to a drop in investment and productivity, and thus more rancor and division. In the Arab world, only Tunisia seems to be bridging the divides among groups to forge a workable new order; Egypt and Libya are heading for different forms of democratic dysfunction. These countries need time to learn new habits, and to devise better rules. The political thinker Samuel Huntington observed that democracy in the United States wasn't fully consolidated until the Republican Adams lost to the Democrat Jackson, after which the Jacksonians in turn gave way to the Whigs. Change of regime is tonic for a democracy. And that, we hope, is where Erdogan and Morsy will prove that they are not Putin or Chávez.