- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

During the Cold War, one of the overarching American foreign policy goals was the promotion of democracy abroad. The key assumption, upon which this policy was predicated, was the belief that democratically elected governments would pursue sound domestic and foreign policies. Specifically, Washington policy-makers expected that such governments would emphasize free market strategies and build civil societies. Moreover, despite an occasional disagreement or two, foreign democrats were supposed to carry out constructive foreign policies compatible with U.S. interests.

Unfortunately, post-Cold War realities have proved much more complex. While democracies are still more inclined to pursue moderate foreign policies than is the case with authoritarian or totalitarian countries, many world leaders, despite being democratically elected, advance foreign and domestic policy agendas that Washington finds wanting.

The unlikely duo of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Venezuela's President Hugo Frias Chavez is a good case in point. At first glance, the two presidents seem to have little in common. Mr. Putin is a rather dour product of the Soviet secret police. As is the case with most former Soviet officials, he does not espouse any particular ideology. By contrast, Mr. Chavez is a charismatic former military officer who waged an unsuccessful coup in l992. While he has often been described as a left-leaning ideologue, some observers believe that his ideology, if any, is much more eclectic. Mr. Chavez is also the more theatrical of the two. Amidst the backdrop of rising oil prices and popular discontent in European countries, Mr. Chavez has performed with evident flair his role as the host of the recent summit. While Mr. Putin's sense of drama and verve are not nearly as crisp, he clearly relishes his inclusion in the G-8 meetings.

However, once one moves beyond personal attributes and character features, considerable similarities between Messrs. Putin and Chavez become readily apparent. While Russia and Venezuela face very different challenges and problems, both appear to have the same broad policy agenda. They are both strong nationalists, which has been an important feature of their political identities. Indeed, to a great degree, Mr. Putin owes his political fortunes to an early recognition and adroit manipulation of Russia's wounded pride. His handling of the second Chechen war was certainly largely shaped by these domestic political imperatives. Similarly, Mr. Chavez took advantage of his country's grotesque internal political and economic decay, which eventually marginalized 80 percent of Venezuelans, leaving them to live in abject poverty.

Both Messrs. Putin and Chavez are eager to invigorate their countries' economies and have made it a centerpiece of their respective political campaigns. They are anxious to be acknowledged as world leaders. Both are probably quite sincere in their professed aspirations to eradicate domestic corruption and improve the quality of life for their people. Finally, while neither leader is consistently anti-American, both are not hesitant to challenge and criticize American policies. Indeed, both have even rejected specific American offers of assistance. For Mr. Putin, the occasion was the recent Kursk submarine tragedy; for Mr. Chavez, last winter's disastrous mudslides. Significantly, both leaders remain quite popular with their people.

On the foreign policy front, Mr. Chavez' international moves were designed to manifest his independence and willingness to stand up to the United States. While he appears to admire Cuba's educational and medical system, his overtures to Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein are mostly symbolic irritants. His attitudes toward the United States are an admixture of traditional Latin American leftist anti-Americanism and more updated concerns about America's global pre-eminence in the post-Cold War world.

Yet, Mr. Chavez's rhetoric aside, his opposition to Plan Colombia and other U.S. regional initiatives have created some problems for Washington.

The challenge posed by Mr. Putin's foreign policy is more serious. Indeed, while Russia's foreign policy moves have been less anti-American at the symbolic level, the substance of Moscow's foreign policy amounts to an effort to build an alliance with China, while driving a wedge between the United States and the Europeans. It remains to be seen of course, how successful these endeavors will turn out to be.

These specific problems aside, the broad underlying challenge posed by Messrs. Putin and Chavez is that the United States appears destined to deal with democratically-elected leaders, who rule in less than democratic ways and who often pursue foreign policies that, at least from the American perspective, are neither helpful nor constructive. Traditionally, the United States, while facing tough challenges from authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, has enjoyed generally harmonious relations with its democratic allies. Unfortunately, the magnitude of the problems posed by leaders such as Messrs. Chavez or Putin is much higher than the tensions we have with our traditional democratic allies.

Ironically, the very fact that such leaders enjoy the trappings of democratic legitimacy and are strongly supported by their people, makes it more difficult for the United States to engage them as forcefully as totalitarian dictators or traditional autocrats. How to handle this problem is a challenging new dilemma for American statecraft.

Paula J. Dobriansky is vice president/Washington director of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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