What should the United States do about Russia’s longstanding application to become a member of the World Trade Organization, after the crude Aug. 7 Russian invasion of Georgia? The next US president will have to decide whether to use the proverbial carrot or stick. The carrot approach would seek to bring Russia into the WTO’s rules-based multilateral trading system, as an inducement to settle economic differences peacefully. But current emotions in Washington, D.C. are strongly in favor of using the stick: continue blocking Russia’s WTO accession as punishment for its bad behavior in Georgia. How long will the punishment last? Well, China didn’t get into the WTO until December 2001, twelve years after the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square.
The bottom line question that isn’t presently being asked in Washington, D.C. is: who stands to benefit, the longer the world’s 10th largest economy is excluded from the WTO? So far, thoughtful answers aren’t coming from either of the two American presidential candidates. When Russian tanks roll across the borders of small neighboring democracies, American voters don’t look for nuanced responses — they mainly want to know how tough the next commander in chief would be prepared to be. The candidate who promises to pick up the stick today will always beat down any candidate who would dare to suggest that the carrot approach might be wiser tomorrow or the next day. And on the 2008 campaign trail, the only difference between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama is over who would pick up the bigger anti-Russian stick.
Does continuing to frustrate Russia’s hopes to join the WTO help encourage the bear to behave more responsibly? There is a history here that suggests otherwise. Let’s take a look, both from the perspective of the American eagle and the Russian bear.