Dealing with authoritarian dictators

The concept of free trade is great. We should assume every bilateral relationship with other countries would be based on the ideal of free trade. Free trade provides an economic benefit to our citizens, in that it brings cheaper, or better-quality, goods to our citizens than we otherwise would have had. And in general, competition improves the products made by domestic manufacturers.

Take the American car industry for example. Without competition, American manufacturers had a virtual monopoly and were able to make cars with planned obsolescence. After a few years, your car would break down or rust out, and you'd need to buy a new one. Eventually foreign competition came in and broke that monopoly, and now we have higher-quality cars in general, including the ones made by American companies.

In retrospect, American car companies ruined their perfect world by greed. But maximizing profits is one of the basic tenets of capitalism, so we really shouldn't be surprised. This is one reason why having competition is so important and why it is illegal to restrict competition through collusion or mergers.

So I believe in free trade. But let's say "country X" used slave labor to make and export cars. Would we accept them into this country and would consumers buy them? When do the labor practices and even the politics of countries get factored into trade? If the Nazis had stopped at the English Channel and the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor, would we be buying German-Nazi products today?

We didn't like Saddam Hussein and used his production of Weapons of Mass Destruction as a reason for invading and regime change. Most think the cost America paid was too high, and the problems in that part of the world are too intractable for a successful military solution. So do we ignore brutal dictators who terrorize their own people because we don't interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign countries? At what point do we give ourselves permission to intervene? Must a country cross a red line of conduct, like storing WMDs, or invading a neighbor?

That brings me to an op/Ed in today's WSJ, discussing possible regime change in North Korea. The writer opined that there were two possible ways it could go. One was to replace the "totalitarian" regime with an "authoritarian" regime. (The second was to push for reunification with South Korea). The first option was perceived as being much more acceptable to China, which is North Korea's enabler.

China, of course, does not want a democratic North Korea because it is itself an authoritative regime. Why would China ever want to promote democracy?

China itself completely tramples on the rights of its people to speak, to elect their own representatives, and to determine their own fates. Like probably all Communist dictatorships, subverting their population is Rule Number One. Crushing any dissent is Number Two. Controlling the media is Number Three. And keeping the leadership in power is Number Four. (And I'm sure there are another 100 or 200 rules that follow....)

Are the rulers of China as bad as the Nazis? They could be, but we will never know, because their state controls all the information. Lack of data does not mean much when potential whistleblowers would be executed if they leak any info, and there are probably spies everywhere. The risk to an individual, and their family, is too high for any real dissent. The only reason "holocaust denial" is a joke is because we won the war and found the evidence.

Let's say the Chinese government decided that in order to boost economic production, they would force children to work in factories to make stuff, and that stuff would be exported to the West in exchange for hard currency. Would they be able to engineer such a scheme in a centrally planned economy and society? You bet. Would we continue to trade in such products if we knew? What do you think? We are probably doing so right now. Do you own a smartphone?

Then you have the lies and bad behavior. Kidnapping Hong Kong democracy dissenters; constructing military outposts on disputed shoals; trade and currency manipulation.

We also know Russia has turned its back on democracy by allowing Putin to consolidate power and by arresting and jailing dissenters. More examples of "internal affairs" that we should not concern ourselves with? Does lack of freedom and democracy with our "trading partners" ever come into play, or should it?

Somehow, while invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea is awful and deserves more of a response than the very limited sanctions we have applied to Russia so far, preventing a free election seems far worse for the Russian people. Shouldn't we have 10x the pressure on a government which does not (at least) allow free speech, dissent, and free elections?

Then you have their lies and bad behavior, like jailing or assassinating dissidents, or putting Russian troops into Ukraine and denying doing so, or occupying other countries with their troops. The lies seem never to be called out by our leaders. We have a "go along to get along" philosophy with all of these regimes, or so it seems.

How is Russia any better than an authoritative country like Iran which has a dictator overseeing an election of which all the candidates are selected by the dictator?

Venezuela is a total mess, and the regime there has illegally expanded its power...but at least (it appears) it was originally democratically elected. But at what point does a legitimate government become illegitimate, and then what should the U.S. do, if anything? Another "internal matter" that we can ignore? Do we also ignore the 50% inflation, the lack of food, and the refugees who are fleeing the country?

We seemed to have a policy based on such principles with Cuba, until President Obama unilaterally declared the problem solved and started to open up dealings with their regime again, but they haven't changed one iota. Yet our policy of a trade embargo didn't seem to solve the underlying issue nor help their people. Unless Cuba is an isolated example, we either didn't do it right or trade embargoes don't work.

It seems like we need something in between "business as usual" and "regime change" to more strongly encourage democratic values. Maybe a revision of our "most favored nation" trading status can be a start. If your country doesn't have a free press and free elections, then there is some type of economic repercussion which will not be waived for political purposes until those deficiencies have been fully corrected.

Do we favor American-style democracy just because that is what we practice, or should (must?) our ideals be copied everywhere? Or do we hold our noses and deal with these other countries as equals because whatever they do to their citizens is their concern and an internal matter?

Free trade helps both sides, otherwise the trade wouldn't happen. So by trading with these regimes, we are helping them. Is that our long-term goal? Are we in effect enabling their bad behavior? Should the U.S. develop a long-term plan versus just doing what is best for us in the short-term?

PART TWO: Here's an example of how the two systems clash in part two:

Subscribe to the Acton Forum and get our newsletters emailed to you -- FREE! Click on