The case for pragmatism: a view from Estonia

The complex realities of international politics make a wise and patient foreign-policy approach the only sensible one - especially for Russia’s smaller neighbours, says Rein Müllerson.
Rein Müllerson
18 February 2010

In world politics, to fail to be realist enough is to be lost. Although international society is almost by definition an anarchical society (as Hedley Bull put it), its condition is hardly as bleak as described by Alexander Rondeli (see Alexander Rondeli, “The return of realpolitik: a view from Georgia”, 18 February 2010). Neither is today’s Russia dragging the world back into the realm of Realpolitik - since the world never really left it. The implications are both more demanding and more hopeful than the analyst in Tbilisi suggests. Here then is a response from another small and “post-Soviet” country on Russia’s border, namely Estonia.

A policy of interest

As early as 1998, a Rand report - Sources of Conflict in the 21st Century - prepared by Zalmay Khalilzad and Ian O Lesser outlined four scenarios in global politics: the great game, the clash of civilisations, the coming anarchy and the end of history. The authors considered the first option as among the more probable: this would pitch the west (and first of all the United States) against China and Russia. 9/11 may have for a while changed the calculations - but only for a time (see “Europe, America, Russia: the world-changing tide”, 29 July 2009).

Alexander Rondeli is right to say that times have changed since the “heady and hectic days before and after 1989” when the world seemed to be moving “beyond crude power politics”. But it is too simplified to see this change as the return of an older model of international politics, with Russia playing the most nefarious role. Rather, the identification of a single “bogeyman” is part of the problem that belongs to a world where foreign policy is guided by historical memories and even obsessions.

The absorbed interest in the neighbour/other/former overlord is often understandable, but it can be an obstacle to understanding and intelligent policy-making alike. The danger is that such perceptions - in this case of Russia - become informed more by historical memories than by current realities, in a way that benefits no one.

It is true that Russia and China (to follow the Rand report’s scenario) have become major players in world politics in the post-cold-war order; and that both states are capable of causing the same degree of nervousness as does any large, emergent power. But if Moscow’s foreign policy (to limit the discussion to Russia) is based on the pursuit of its perceived national interests - as Alexander Rondeli states - this hardly makes it unique, nor a radical break with the past. This matters, for it means that Russian conduct has a logic that can be understood and “managed” by those who - for reasons of history and geopolitics - are obliged to deal with it.

Russia is at least consistent. What matters to the Kremlin is not the ideology of other states but their actions towards Russia. In this respect, the comment of Dimitri K Simes and Paul J Saunders are correct to observe that: “Moscow has worked quite successfully with democracies such as Germany and Italy, demonstrating that Russia does not have a problem with democratic governments as such...[whereas] Russia’s problem with Georgia is not its democracy but its hostile conduct. When [Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president] acted on his sometimes-authoritarian instincts in Georgia, he received no credit for it in Moscow” (see Dimitri K Simes & Paul J Saunders, "The Kremlin Begs to Differ", National Interest, 28 October 2009).

The implication is that the “change” in international politics since the end of the cold war has more to do with the rise and fall of a western view of the world than of any great culpability on Russia’s part. In particular, the near-messianic belief in a linear evolution of the world towards the universal triumph of liberal democracy led many to ignore Russia’s (and others’) justified national interests (see “Democracy: history not destiny”, 27 November 2008). The Barack Obama administration seems to have learned lessons from the overreach of this period, but much damage has been done; and the blame must be shared by those who believed not too much in Realpolitik, but too little.

The wrong blame-game

In this respect, Russia’s neighbours would do well to leave behind any ideological blinders and be guided by the pragmatic pursuit of their own (true) national interests. There are indeed many negative tendencies and realities in the external (and even more, in my view, internal) politics of Russia that should be of concern to other peoples and governments. But this does not mean that Russia is always the main culprit whenever there is a conflict or tension between Russia and one of its neighbours.

The reaction of the political elites of some Russian neighbours to the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia well illustrates how ideology can blur the perception of reality. Even before the independent international fact-finding mission on the conflict in Georgia published its report on 30 September 2009, it had already been widely recognised in the west that Tbilisi that had initiated the war. This well balanced report correctly emphasised that all parties involved had contributed to the pre-war escalation of tension, and that all of them had breached international law before and during the conflict.

But in finding that “the use of force by Georgia in South Ossetia, beginning with the shelling of Tskinvhali during the night of 7/8 August” was unjustifiable under international law, it laid the blame for the start of the war squarely on Mikheil Saakashvili’s doorstep. If Russia’s military response had been proportionate to the initial attack (which it wasn’t), and within the rules of international humanitarian law (which it wasn’t either), it would have even been lawful. The hasty recognition by Russia of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was both contrary to international law and (as I wrote at the time in openDemocracy) also counterproductive to Russia’s political interests. Nonetheless, the political elites of several of Russia’s neighbours were unable to see the complexity of the conflict and rather thoughtlessly rushed to support the party that had acted irresponsibly and recklessly (which doesn’t mean that they should have supported Moscow). This was not in their national interest.

Such a reaction reflects a combination of the “three d’s”: dislike, dread and (for some in the west) disappointment. Dislike, because Russia (including in its previous incarnation as the Soviet Union) had in the past indeed all too often behaved like a big bully; dread, because this former “Upper Volta with rockets” was once again regaining its strength; disappointment, since after the promise of the 1990s, Russia was still refusing to become a “normal” country (and, it may be implied, follow a line drawn in Washington). The fear and hatred that inform the “three d’s” are the most unreliable of all political guides, for they tend to subordinate facts to preconceived ideas, that is to ideology and one-sided understandings of history (see “The world after the Russia-Georgia war”, 5 September 2008).

The interpretation of history by some of Russia’s neighbours is often a mirror-image of that of Russia itself: one-sided and rigid. The historical obstinacy of the “small-country” nationalists only inflames the obduracy of the “great-country” Russian nationalists. In this respect, to call Russia “a neo-imperial power”, as Alexander Rondeli does, is both excessive and the kind of language that is welcome to those who wish to cultivate anti-western and anti-Georgian sentiments in Russia.

It is inevitable that the national interests of states are not always identical. The tools of diplomacy - bargaining, compromises and deal-making - are what resolve such conflicts. Russia is not an easy partner for its neighbours, and in the relationship with her a lot of wisdom and patience are needed. The strength is not only in alliances but also in political wisdom and pragmatism. Pragmatism - you could even call it Realpolitik - is not the opposite of having values; rather it is the opposite of self-righteous posturing, especially for small countries, like ours.

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