If US troops can march across Red Square during the traditional Russian Victory Day parade, then a significant number of legislators and policymakers in Washington think it’s time to rethink the relevance of the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
The amendment, which became law in 1975, was designed to use punitive trade measures to force the then-Soviet Union to expand its human rights framework, especially in easing emigration restrictions. The Cold War may have ended almost two decades ago, but this particular legacy of superpower confrontation remains on the books.
During Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Washington in early April, he expressed a desire to see Jackson-Vanik repealed. On April 27, members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe boosted Medvedev’s hopes that his wish might be granted, holding a hearing to examine the merits of repeal.
These days, the amendment -- named after its sponsors, Sen. Henry Jackson and Rep. Charles Vanik -- has little practical effect on US-Russian relations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, US presidents have annually found the Russian Federation to be in compliance with Jackson-Vanik’s provisions, thus enabling the maintenance of normal, bilateral trade relations. Russian leaders nevertheless are eager to officially remove the amendment’s stigma.
Speakers at the April 27 House hearing, regardless of party affiliation, generally believed the amendment had outlived its usefulness. William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, stressed “the need to sustain and enhance the positive trends that have developed over the past year” in Russian-American relations, which he described as greater Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, the new START Treaty, and the improvement in Russian public attitudes about the United States.
Advocates of repeal described the amendment as an anachronism, given the changes in Russian policy since the mid-1970s. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, urged his congressional colleagues to discard what he described as an “ancient relic of the Cold War.”
“If we are to have peace in this world …we have got to have a good relationship with Russia,” Rohrabacher added.
Stephen Sestanovich, a former American diplomat and currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the amendment “has a proud and honorable past, but it has sunk into a state of purposelessness and confusion.” He said that it was now primarily maintained as a “trade weapon” because “many Members of Congress seem to believe that by keeping the amendment in force, [the United States] can assure better treatment of American products in the Russian market.” Sestanovich suggested other techniques would likely prove more effective in achieving the same end.
Some of those present at the hearing suggested the amendment could still be used as leverage against Russia. Rep. Brad J. Sherman, a California Democrat, said that in return for the repeal of the amendment, Washington should get “explicit clear agreements for meaningful steps taken by Russia.” Some speakers, as well as members of Congress and business representatives, expressed a desire to link repeal to further Russian trade concessions, such as expanded access for American agricultural products, or improved protection for US intellectual property.
Delahunt countered that conditioning the repeal of Jackson-Vanik could undermine diplomatic relations. “We should not move the goal post and ask for further concessions that are irrelevant to the amendment,” he said. “Changes [to] the rules of the game” would undermine US credibility and breed Russian resentment, he added.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.