Although his primary focus is on U.S. domestic issues, Grassley served on the Senate's delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in 2005-06. As a member of the delegation, he worked with European lawmakers on international security issues such as terrorism, nuclear arsenals, and global health threats. He spoke to correspondent Jeremy Bransten during a visit to RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters.
RFE/RL: Senator Grassley, you and your colleagues are on a regional tour that includes Turkey, Spain, and Morocco, in addition to the Czech Republic. Can you tell us about your trip and its objectives?
Senator Charles Grassley: I'd say the objective is probably three or four things. One would be to review, in some countries, our defense relationships, in other countries trade relationships, agricultural issues and just generally to have a dialogue with countries that for the most part are very close to the United States, and to do it in a way that has members of Congress -- being representatives of the people -- interacting with parliamentarians, who are representatives of the people, as opposed to having the chief executives of the two countries meeting, where there's maybe not as much of a grassroots relationship.
RFE/RL: You touched on the issue of democracy and legislators serving as representatives of the people. I’d like to ask about the United States and democracy promotion in general, because what we are seeing in many of the countries that we broadcast to -- in Russia for example -- is an attempt by leaders like President Vladimir Putin to say democracy means instability. And stability should be more prized. That message seems to resonate with many Russians, who are seeing a measure of economic prosperity and fear a return to the tumultuous '90s. What would you tell Russians who wonder whether Putin isn’t right -- whether democracy is a luxury they can’t afford?
Grassley: This may sound awfully theoretical but these are things that I say because they're things I believe. First of all, I think people -- wherever they live -- are basically born to be free and to use the ingenuity and the freedom they have to develop. And collectively, that develops a whole nation. I think it's as simple as people deciding: do they want to govern or help govern? Do they want to rule or help rule? And in representative and democracy-type governments, people have a chance to rule and help rule through the process of voting, through the process of influencing their government. I think this is all very important.
But also if you look at the economic well-being of people and if you want to enhance your standard of living, it seems to me that in areas where you have political freedom, you tend to have a greater amount of economic freedom. And so if you want to enhance your stature economically, to improve your livelihood, the extent to which you have political freedoms, and the marketplace can work and people’s ingenuity is rewarded, then it’s better. And that’s what people should want.
The economy of Russia is a lot better now than it was 10 years ago, mostly because the price of oil is up. Suppose the bottom were to drop out of the price of oil; people in Russia might return to the chaotic situation that they had, or at least to a lower standard of living. But even now, compared to a lot of economies, the Russian standard of living -- it’s high compared to what it was in the '90s or even during the Soviet era -- is surely not high compared to Portugal, as an example. And I pick Portugal out, because one time Putin was quoted as saying that it would be 10 years before the economy of Russia rose to the level of the little country of Portugal, as an example.
So I would plead with the people in Russia that they should desire more political freedom, that they should not choose short-term economic well-being and stability over the long-term good that political freedom will bring to enhance the economy.
Partner Or Foe?
RFE/RL: There’s been a chill in relations between Washington and Moscow lately -- partly because of what’s seen as President Putin’s backsliding on democracy. What kind of relations should the United States have with Russia? Do you see Moscow as a partner or foe?
Grassley: I don't see them as a foe today because I don't think they're strong enough to be a foe. And maybe during the time we considered them a foe, during the Soviet era -- particularly during the latter part of that era -- they were probably not as strong as we thought they were. And that's why when the pope and [Ronald] Reagan decided that they were going to take on the cause of democracy in Eastern Europe, as well as Russia, it may have brought down the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and the Soviet system faster that we thought they would.
But whatever it is, that relationship should be continued. But I don't think we should mislead Putin and other Russians that we're going to be satisfied with the re-Sovietization of the country. Because I think that a police state, in itself, is bad if you're fighting for civil rights, if you're fighting for liberty. And lastly, I think that we need to make clear that we're not going to be fooled by Putin as we were maybe when [U.S. President George W.] Bush first visited him. If I were to look in Putin’s eyes today, I would see the KGB and I would see the Soviet system evolving again.
RFE/RL: It seems everyone in the United States agrees on the importance of “soft power” in democracy promotion, to complement America’s military might. The war on terror, many believe, won’t be won on the battlefield alone -- hearts and minds have to be conquered too. But some people point out that when you look at the numbers, the dollars aren’t there to back the intentions. Almost all the money still gets spent on the military and when it comes to democracy promotion, be it in the form of foreign broadcasting, or opening U.S. cultural centers, or offering scholarships to foreign students, or boosting foreign language studies for Americans -- the funds are very low. Do you agree?
Grassley: If you look at the fact that we're spending so much on the military now and appropriations like Radio Free Europe have been flat for the last 10 years -- basically flat -- you're absolutely right. If we had not had the war on terror, if we had not had Iraq and Afghanistan, I don't know whether the disparity would be so bad. My next sentence is not to disagree with you, but to state a principle, which I very much believe in. When it comes to whether you have too much defense spending or not enough, everybody thinks in terms of defense spending being for war and the liking of war. I start out with the premise that our military budget is to defend our country and if you're strong to defend your country, you're going to have more peace. And the more peace you have, the more you're going to be able to spend on non-defense things, as a matter of resources.
That doesn't justify any [particular] level of defense expenditure. I'm not trying to say that. I'm just trying to say that you have to think about the No. 1 responsibility of the Federal government, which is peace.
Now, regarding things [other than defense] we spend on -- Radio Free Europe etc....are very much a part of it. When I look at the debate on Iran, for instance, are we spending enough there? Are we encouraging the young people enough to revolt, as an example? Because there’s a real philosophy that young people are very fed up, that they’re ready for something new and we aren’t doing enough to promote that through the soft approach. I’m not in the middle of that political debate in Washington, but quite frankly, I don’t think we’re doing enough. If we could spend another $100 million on a soft approach in Iran, it would probably take care of a lot of stuff we’re going to have to spend in the future militarily.