Are Children Today's Iron Ore? Russia's Adoption Ban and International Diplomacy

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media during his visit to Britain's Prime Minister David cameron at 10 Downin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks to the media during his visit to Britain's Prime Minister David cameron at 10 Downing Street in London, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan, Pool)

With the ban on adoptions by Americans, Putin and the Russian Parliament placed the child trade where it deserves to be: on the desks of foreign policy makers. Nobody should be surprised. Now that Russians as well as Americans have expressed their justified outrage at children being held hostage to Russia's retaliation for the U.S.'s Magnitsky Act, which sanctions human rights violators, shouldn't we ask why Russia's move makes sense? That way, next time ordinary people's ordinary lives precipitate a front-page diplomatic crisis, policy makers will be prepared. Along with trade and war, everyday life is rapidly becoming the stuff of international diplomacy.

Russia's new ban on U.S. adoptions violates international treaties. But proponents of the ban have been less worried about infringing international law than eager to benefit from manipulating the child trade. They are right -- the transfer of children from their orphanages to our families provides enormous leverage. And, using that leverage comes with low costs to Russia.

Think of children as human iron ore: If you were holding ten percent of a country's supply, wouldn't you use it to negotiate a better deal on, say, inward-directed foreign investment? That is exactly Russia's situation with respect to the American demand for foreign adoptions. Of course, children are not iron ore, and human rights violators are not factory owners eager for dollars. But Americans are amongst the world's largest consumers of the worldwide supply of children for adoption, and Russia is one of their primary sources. In 2011, Russian children accounted for 970 of 9,320 U.S. foreign adoptions. That's still a distant second to China (2,589), but ahead of South Korea (736) and well beyond any other competitor. From Russia's point of view, there's strength in that number.

Russia is also the United States' second-greatest supplier of iron ore: in 2010, Canada provided over half the country's imports while Russia's share accounted for just under one tenth, according to indexmundi. But a Russian embargo on iron ore sales to the U.S. would be costly; the loss of revenues would certainly impact domestic constituencies, and the U.S. might table a dispute before the World Trade Organization -- an organization with some teeth. The ban on adoptions, however, affects relatively weak Russian constituencies -- the children themselves and the middlemen who broker their transfer. And there are benefits: The institutions in which those children are housed will likely do well by maintaining their headcount. More importantly, keeping Russian children in Russia (and Russian) appeals to national (and nationalist) sentiment. Never mind that Russians have been slow to adopt their own. According to UNICEF, 740,000 Russian children are growing up without parents but only 18,000 Russian families are currently waiting to adopt a child. In the last two decades, U.S. families have adopted 60,000 Russian children. Some Duma parliamentarians claim the ban will prompt more Russians to come forward. And then there's the poetic justice of this particular tit-for-tat. The U.S. accuses Russians of being human rights violators? Russia doesn't think so highly of the U.S.'s treatment of children, with lawmakers arguing they're safer in local orphanages than in the care of Americans who might leave them to die in car parks (as happened to a young boy in 2008) or even ship them back as damaged goods, as one woman did in 2010.

The costs are the children's and Americans.' Herein lies Russia's power. In the U.S., the costs will be borne by the families adopting the 46 children whom Russia may now refuse to expatriate. It's not such a large number, but it speaks for thousands of families to whom accessing the child trade has come to seem a normal -- indeed, sometimes, philanthropic -- strategy of family formation. Faced with fertility difficulties, Americans both adopt and reproduce abroad, crossing borders to buy eggs and sperm, have them blended and hire gestational carriers. Technological advances in reproductive medicine and communications have combined with the other factors driving globalization to shape robust international markets. So, Americans frequently go abroad to fulfill one of the basic tasks of everyday life: reproduction. They also go abroad to study, access health care, live out retirements, find sexual partners, marry.

Carried out overseas, each activity comes with its own complications. Children cannot simply be ferried across national lines; their exit and entrance must comport with the rules of surrendering and acquiring states. That requires coordinating the adoption and other filiation procedures on whose basis identity documents can be issued, immigration visas provided and eventually citizenship granted. Similarly, access to educational institutions depends on the recognition of credentials: a U.S. high school diploma will not grant access to most European universities. A routine check-up may cost much less in Lyons than Chicago, but that does not mean that an insurance contract issued in Chicago insurance will cover it. A New Yorker who retires to Italy's Riviera might as well leave her living will in a drawer in New York -- there's almost no chance it will be honored. And, a Bostonian who marries his same-sex partner in Amsterdam cannot expect the INS to issue his spouse an immigration visa based on family status, even though the marriage could have been validly celebrated in Massachusetts.

So far, these issues have largely been the stuff consular nightmares are made of. Ambassadorial dreams are disturbed by threats of war and enlivened by promises of commerce. But as the lives of Americans -- and almost everyone else -- become increasingly transnational, states will realize that they can negotiate over children, students, lovers, the ailing and the elderly just as profitably as they have always done over arms and chicken feed. Sounding the clarion call of human rights helps mobilize shame, but the issue here is contractual power. Russia is teaching a lesson other countries will soon learn. We should too.