Recalling the lesson of Jackson-Vanik

President Obama and Congress are moving to replace the landmark Jackson-Vanik law of 1974 – which conditioned U.S. trade with the Soviet bloc on its willingness to let Jews and other oppressed people emigrate – with a law to establish normal trade relations with what’s now Russia.

The effort is probably long overdue. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and Russia and the other nations that were established in its wake no longer refuse to allow Jews and others to emigrate. U.S. and Russian Jewish groups have called for replacing Jackson-Vanik with normal U.S.Russian trade relations.

Jackson-Vanik is worth another look, however, because it showcased how the United States could use its power and influence to advance human rights around the world. That’s a lesson worth remembering today.

In the early 1970s, President Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, were seeking warmer ties with Moscow through a policy of détente. Convinced that America was declining as a world power, and that the Soviet Union had become a more traditional and less expansionist nation-state under Leonid Brezhnev, they sought to work with Moscow on arms control and global stability.

Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the influential Democrat, vehemently disagreed. Convinced that Moscow had not changed, and committed to winning the Cold War rather than managing it, he led the effort to restore U.S. foreign policy to the robust anti-Soviet posture of such post-war Presidents as Truman and Kennedy.

In August 1972, Moscow announced that those seeking to leave the Soviet Union would have to pay an exorbitant “education reimbursement fee” – supposedly to reimburse the nation for the education they had received but, in reality, to give Moscow another tool to prevent a “brain drain” of home-grown talent.

In response, Jackson teamed with Rep. Charles A. Vanik on legislation to deny “most favored nation” status – in essence, normal trade relations with the United States – to “non-market economies” that denied their people the right to emigrate.

After the Soviets withdrew the fee in the face of global condemnation, Jackson and Vanik moved ahead anyway because Moscow continued to severely restrict Jewish and other emigration. To Jackson, Vanik, and other proponents, the issue was broader than the fee; it was the basic human right to emigrate.

Strongly opposed to Jackson-Vanik, Nixon and Kissinger warned that it would backfire by prompting Soviet leaders to restrict emigration further in order to show that Washington could not force Moscow to change its ways.

Also opposed were U.S. business leaders who hoped to expand trade with the Soviet bloc. At meetings with lawmakers that U.S. business groups had arranged, Soviet officials sought to weaken congressional support for Jackson-Vanik by explaining how America would benefit from expanded U.S.-Soviet trade.

In the short run, Nixon and Kissinger proved prophetic. Moscow responded to Jackson-Vanik by letting fewer Jews emigrate, not more. Jewish emigration, which had jumped from 8,000 between 1965 and 1970 to 35,000 in 1973 alone, fell to 21,000 in 1974 and 13,000 in 1975.

(Then, after rising in the late 1970s when Moscow sought U.S. ratification of the SALT II

Treaty, it fell to almost nothing in the early 1980s.)

Not until Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985, promoting glasnost and perestroika, did Jews enjoy the right to leave in great numbers for Israel, the United States, or elsewhere.

But, for its proponents, Jackson-Vanik was a key piece of a broader, longer-term initiative to undermine the legitimacy of Soviet rule. Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov viewed it that way, which explains why he issued an “open letter” to Congress in September 1973 to urge its adoption.

Sakharov turned Nixon and Kissinger’s pursuit of détente on its head, arguing that the “minimal right” of emigration was essential for “mutual trust” between the two superpowers. To reject Jackson-Vanik, he wrote, would amount to “a betrayal of the thousands of Jews and non-Jews who want to emigrate, of the hundreds in camps and mental hospitals, of the victims of the Berlin Wall.”

Years later, Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky argued that Jackson-Vanik played a major role in the Soviet collapse. In his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, he explained:

“Thanks to the Jackson amendment, the sands in the hourglass of the Soviet’s fear society were running out. The regime was again facing a lose-lose proposition. With each additional emigrant allowed to leave, the level of fear inside the Soviet Union fell. At the same time, every obstacle that the authorities placed in the path of free emigration was reducing the likelihood of an enervated fear society winning the fruits of cooperation with the West.

“The Soviet Union,” he went on, “was finally being unmasked before the eyes of the entire free world. They could continue to violate the rights of their own people, but it now would come with an expensive price tag.

In Washington, Jackson-Vanik’s proponents agreed. Richard Perle, the anti-Soviet hardliner who drafted the measure as a Jackson staffer, later called it “arguably the most important piece of legislation in the century,” noting its “galvanizing effect on millions of Soviet citizens – Jews and non-Jews – who understood that people in the West… were willing to stand with people seeking freedom.”

Today, we hear that the United States can no longer influence events around the world as it once could. Don’t believe it. The world still looks to America for leadership. Its words and actions matter in very tangible ways.

Jackson-Vanik may soon expire, but it leaves a legacy that we’d be wise to apply to human rights challenges that lie ahead.

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