The United States Congress is about to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War relic attached to the 1974 Trade Act which was primarily designed to encourage the Soviet Union to allow Jewish citizens to emigrate, the possibility of which is considered a fundamental human right. It barred the Soviet Union from having favourable and open trade relations with the U.S. until such a time as emigration restrictions were lifted - and it later applied to other countries without market economies that applied similar restrictions. Despite being proposed by Democratic lawmakers Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Charles Vanik, the amendment is part of the intellectual and political lineage of neoconservatism - so much so that the British neoconservative association is called the Henry Jackson Society.

The amendment was passed by Congress originally for three main reasons. The first was the blatant abuse of rights being carried out in the Soviet Union, where emigration - especially by non-Russians - was regarded as tantamount to treason, especially if one had benefited from an expensive state education. The restrictions began as a "diploma tax" on people who had been to university and wanted to emigrate, and was designed to counter a brain drain that was taking place from the USSR. The main target for the taxes were Jews.

The second reason for the amendment was a desire to embarrass and punish the Soviet Union by factions in American politics - including neocons, who were a slightly different animal back then - who were critical of the soft stance being taken towards the Soviet Union by the two successive Republican administrations of the early 1970s, those of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. These two presidents, along with their chief foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger, had embarked on a process called detente, which consisted of trying to improve cooperation with the Soviet Union in the hope this might make it improve its behaviour abroad and improve human rights at home. Critics of the approach said it was appeasement, and Ronald Reagan dramatically rejected this approach when he branded the USSR an "Evil Empire". Jackson and Vanik weren't happy about it either.

Thirdly - and the clue is that both proponents of the amendment were Democrats - the idea of locking the Soviet Union out of the international trade system played well with labour unions and blue-collar voters who were understandably not overly pleased about the possibility of having to compete with cheap (or, as the phrase went, slave) labour in the Soviet Union. A similar debate over competition with cheap Chinese labour led to an endless battle over whether Jackson-Vanik ought to apply to China too, especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. This debate only came to an end when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, meaning both that the U.S. was legally obliged to have open trade relations with the country and that these long-running fears were about to come true.

It is the similar fact that Russia is about to join the WTO that is going to lead to the repeal of the amendment. Were it not repealed, the U.S. would be in violation of its WTO agreements, and a trade war with Russia would ensue.

Jackson-Vanik didn't really work like it was intended. It actually led to a decline in the number of Soviet Jews being granted exit visas in the years after it was passed, because all it did was piss the Soviets off and make them act out. Kissinger had been working behind the scenes to get the Soviets to ease exit restrictions in secret as a show of good faith towards the U.S., but when the whole spat went so massively public, this process stopped. This was bad in the short-term but arguably, in the longer term, Jackson-Vanik became another pressure point that helped cause the Soviet Union to lose legitimacy and crumble.

Kissinger's approach to the world was based on the idea the Soviet Union would be around for ever and the West - and Soviet citizens - had to learn to deal with it. Jackson-Vanik was based on the that idea another world was possible. But the Kissinger approach had its part to play in the fall of the Soviet Union, too. In 1975 - the same year as the amendment - the Helsinki Accords were signed by the Soviet Union, committing the USSR to respect the fundamental human rights of its citizens in exchange for the U.S. kindly admitting that the Soviet Union had a right to exist. The Helsinki Accords became a rallying point for Soviet dissidents and those seeking political reform within the Soviet Union - after all, they could now say to their bosses in Moscow, you agreed to this.

In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to finally comply with the Helsinki Accords and, a little later, that wall came tumbling down. Since then, Jackson-Vanik has remained on the books, and even though a special waiver is granted each year to stop trade restrictions actually being imposed on Russia, its continued existence is something of a sore point for a country seeking respect as a great power in its own right. That sore point is about to be removed, and frankly anyone who wants to keep pressure on the Russkies for whatever reason ought to be glad of the opportunity to design a slightly more up-to-date way of doing it.

As for passing judgement on Jackson-Vanik, it sort of worked and sort of didn't work - but together with everything else the U.S. did, it was part of a strategy that was ultimately successful. In all the boisterous chaos of a democracy making foreign policy, that ain't half bad.

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