Should This Man Lead the G8? Allowing Putin to Assume the Post Risks the Credibility of the G8 and a Bush Administration That's Staked Its Name on Promoting Democracy

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Byline: Jeffrey E. Garten (Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, held economic and foreign policy positions in the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton administrations.)

Russian president Vladimir Putin is now the world's most prominent backslider on political and economic liberalization. How should the West respond? The debate took fire recently when two heavyweight U.S. senators, John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, introduced a bipartisan resolution proposing that Russia be suspended from the G8, the club of leading industrial nations, if Putin doesn't change course. The Bush administration must decide what to do in the next few weeks.

This is a minefield. Some Russia hands argue that pressuring Moscow too hard will backfire, strengthening the hand of hard-line nationalists and discouraging reformers by signaling that Washington is giving up on them. Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of State and now president of the Brookings Institution, says the West should use "quiet, calibrated diplomacy" to encourage Russia to follow more progressive policies. Talbott believes that following Russia's scheduled assumption of the rotating leadership of the G8 this summer, there will be ample opportunity to prod the country over the course of the the next year, when Russia will be in the limelight and eager to avoid embarrassment.

However, allowing Putin to assume this post carries its own risks, both to the credibility of the G8 and to a Bush administration that has staked its name on promoting democracy. Russia is seriously out of step with the G8's push for more open political and economic societies. Putin has grabbed near-absolute political control of his vast country. He has crushed much of Russia's free media and replaced elected regional leaders with his own appointees. He has moved to re-nationalize the Russian oil sector in ways that raise serious questions about his commitment to the rule of law. He has meddled in presidential elections in Ukraine, and supports totalitarian leaders in Belarus and other former Soviet Republics. Indeed, it is but a slight exaggeration to say that allowing Moscow to lead the G8 would be akin to the United Nations having allowed the Sudan and Libya to lead its Human Rights Commission in recent years--a move that so undermined the good name of the commission, Kofi Annan has proposed overhauling it entirely.

I think the appropriately measured response to Putin's policies would fall short of suspending Russia from the G8. But President Bush should attempt to prevent Russia from being named the titular leader of the group this July and from hosting the G8 summit in the summer of 2006, now slated to take place in St. …