Europe, America, Russia: the world-changing tide

Rein Müllerson
29 July 2009

Almost exactly six months after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the president of the United States, twenty-two politicians and intellectuals from nine countries in central and eastern Europe addressed an open letter to him and his new administration, published in the Polish newspapar Gazeta Wyborcza and in openDemocracy (see "East-central Europe to Barack Obama: an open letter", 22 July 2009).

Rein Müllerson is responding to the open letter to President Barack Obama by a group of politicians and scholars from central and eastern Europe:

"East-central Europe to Barack Obama: an open letter" (22 July 2009)The signatories express their worry about emerging trends of "pragmatism" and "realism" in Washington's foreign policy. They note with a touch of regret that "central and eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy"; lament that "(all) is not well either in our region or in the transatlantic relationship"; sense that Nato "is perceived as less and less relevant", and recognise "that America's popularity and influence have fallen in many of our countries", and that "it will take time and work on both sides to make up for what we have lost."

This melancholy portrait of a frayed relationship in need of revival is completed by six recommendations, from a "renaissance of Nato" and a "better and more strategic United States-European Union relationship" to making energy security a "transatlantic priority" to nurturing the "multitude of educational, professional, and other networks and friendships that underpin our friendship and alliance."

The document conveys the clear sense of what Bob Dylan refers to as "a world gone wrong". But how true and relevant is it, and how far do the concerns it articulates match current and emerging European and global realities and interests? This response offers some thoughts.

The new and the old

The open letter can be seen in direct relation to President Obama's visit to Moscow on 6-7 July 2009, and small and cautious steps towards what has become fashionable to call "resetting" the relations between Washington and Moscow (though "upgrading" is what is really needed).

Rein Müllerson is the Rector of Tallinn University Nord, elected in May 2009. He was professor and chair of international law at King's College, London (1994-2009). He has been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (1988-92), visiting centennial professor of the London School of Economics and Political Science (1992-94), and first deputy foreign minister of Estonia (1991-92).

Rein Müllerson is the author of eight books on international law and politics and more than 200 articles and reviews. His books include Human Rights Diplomacy (Routledge, 1996) and Central Asia: A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game (Kegan Paul, 2007)

His latest work is based on a set of essays from the Recueil des cours at the Hague Academy of International Law: Democracy Promotion: Institutions, International Law and Politics (Nova Publishers, 2009)

Also by Rein Müllerson in openDemocracy:

" The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

" Democracy: history not destiny" (27 November 2008)The authors of the open letter "want to ensure that too narrow an understanding of western interest does not lead to the wrong concessions to Russia". They appear to have no doubts that perhaps their own perception of western (as well as their peoples') interests may be regarded as narrow and parochial.

They worry too that in their countries a new generation of leaders may emerge who don't share old memories and who might follow more "realistic" policies. But isn't this exactly what is needed? After all, new leaders in Russia or in eastern Europe, free of the burdens and stereotypes of an earlier era, would be better equipped to tackle 21st-century challenges.

The revolutionaries of the 1980s such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel (the last two of whom are among the signatories of the letter) cannot - their great contributions to the advancement of freedom notwithstanding - cannot be leaders in a 21st-century world. It is only in military dictatorships and authoritarian states that those who overthrow governments by coup d'état continue ruling for a long time afterwards; perhaps until being overthrown by another coup, in a variant of la révolution dévore ses enfants (even if not in the visceral sense of France post-1789 or Russia post-1917).

These "Atlanticist voices within Nato and the European Union" may come from the countries described by the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in January 2003 as part of "new" (eastern and central) Europe, yet in their way they seem more to be speaking on behalf of (in his terms) the "old" (western). But what may have been refreshing and praiseworthy from the point of view of George W Bush, Dick Cheney or Rumsfeld himself was not necessarily true even then. Today, and not only with hindsight, it can be seen that in many cases it was the "old" Europe that was more prescient (e.g., on weapons of mass destruction and the war in Iraq generally) than the "new", which tended loyally but blindly to follow Washington.

The west and the east

A notable trend as the world becomes more and more globalised is that more eastern Europeans than western seem prone to see the world as Eurocentric (or rather, Atlanto-centric). Perhaps this is related to the fact that during the period of Soviet domination of this part of Europe, the peoples of the east rightly saw the west - and especially the United States - as the only force that could help them become part of a prosperous and free world (in Estonia, for example, it was the dream of “the white ship” coming to free us).

But for a viewpoint to be explicable doesn’t make it either right or relevant to new realities. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, a vision of the world that effectively divides it into “us” (Euro-Atlantists) and “them” ( the rest - including China, Islamic countries, and the east Europeans’ closest neighbour and former hegemonic power, Russia) is a 20th-century image that is flawed by its ideological and even confrontational undertones.

In these two decades since 1989, east-central European nations have joined their western cousins at the very time when more and more people in the west are coming to understand that Europe or the Atlantic are no longer the centre of the world. This view seems to be shared by the current American leadership, which is moving decisively away from the George W Bush administration’s simplistic vision of the world (“those who are not with us are against us”, which is perilously close to “those who are not like us are - at least potentially - against us”).  The current American leadership seems to understand that the world is much more complicated.

At the same time, many among the recent entrants to western groupings (the European Union and Nato) remain much more ideologically minded than their counterparts in the west, or even the ex-ideological powers of Russia and China. In this respect they are more akin to the neocons of the Bush era. It is symptomatic here that the open letter’s signatories more than once warn against “realism” and “pragmatism” in the west’s foreign policy, and that few if any such worries were expressed when George W Bush was in the White House and American prestige was plummeting around the world.

This attitude can fuel the dangerous tendency - especially apparent in, if not confined to, some former Soviet-bloc states - to support any entity or action, or to endorse any statement, that is seen as directed against Russia. A clear example was the reaction to the war between Georgia and Russia of 8-12 August 2008, which in one way or another still continues. A closer understanding of this attitude might be gained by comparing it with a reaction to another conflict in a different part of the world a generation earlier.

Russia and its others

In the Moscow of the early 1980s, a man called Marklen Ivanovic Lazarev served as a professor of international law and deputy director of the Institute for Latin American Studies. When the Falklands/Malvinas war between Argentina and Britain broke out in March 1982, he wrote a comment in one of the leading Soviet newspapers. It was obvious that Argentina had used military force first, he argued; but every person of goodwill should nevertheless be axiomatically clear who was the aggressor: “perfidious Albion”, an “imperialist ally” of the “hegemonic United States”.

This is a fine example of an attitude driven by ideology, of a kind widespread in all communist countries. Its characteristic are that a person’s perceptions and actions are guided not by facts but exclusively by preconceived ideas, concepts and stereotypes: that is, by ideology. In the case of Marklen Ivanovic Lazarev this was communist ideology, instinctively anti-American and anti-western. In the case of the reaction of political elites in some eastern European countries to the Georgia-Russia war, fear and hatred of Russia served as a distorting lens through which they saw the developments in the Caucasus.

Also in openDemocracy on eastern and central Europe in 2009:

Dessy Gavrilova, "Entropa: art of politics, heart of a nation" (16 January 2009)

John Palmer, "The Czech Republic and Europe: uneasy presidency" (19 January 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Poland: the politics of history" (24 January 2009)

Irina Novakova, "Bulgaria and Russia: a cold marriage" (27 January 2009)

Anand Menon, "Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test" (6 March 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe between past and future" (9 March 2009)

Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to take sides" (9 April 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east" (22 April 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish summer, 1989: a farewell salute" (2 June 2009)

Mats Engström, "Latvia's crisis: the Swedish factor" (10 June 2009)Such a reaction reflects what I would call a combination of the “three d’s”: dislike, dread and (for some) disappointment. Dislike, because Russia (including in its previous incarnation in the Soviet Union) had in the past indeed all too often behaved like a big bully (even if she is not the only one, nor even the worst in this category); dread, because this former “Upper Volta with missiles” seemed to be reviving; disappointment, since Russia, after the promise of the 1990s, still refuses to become a “normal” country (and, it may be implied, toe the 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. This was noted by Barack Obama, who when still a senator wrote that while “values are faithfully applied to facts before us, ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.” An editorial in the Washington Post revealed such an ideological bias in November 2008: “When Vladimir Putin seeks to extend Russia's influence, he doesn't just want more people watching Russian movies or buying Russian MiGs. He wants to replicate among his neighbors the kind of one-party rule he has imposed on his own country.”

The evasion of facts and evidence here involves a misjudgment of the real interests and motives at work. Russia today (or China for that matter) is not trying to turn liberal democracies into authoritarian capitalisms, far less communist states. Indeed, Moscow’s foreign policy is relatively pragmatic. In contrast to the Soviet Union (and the China of Mao Zedong), modern Russia and China are not trying to export their values even when they support pro-Russian or pro-Chinese regimes abroad. What matters to Moscow is not the ideology of such regimes but their attitude towards Russia - what they do, not what they are. The sins attributable to the Kremlin do not include attempts to expand Russian values to other countries (and in any case it is not clear even to most Russians what those values are and to what extent they differ from western values). Such misperceptions of Russia do not take account of changing realities.

In this respect, the words of Daniel Deudney and G John Ikenberry are wise and pertinent: “The democratic states should orient themselves to pragmatically address real and shared problems rather than focusing on ideological differences. Looking for alignments based on interests rather than regime type will further foreclose the unlikely coalescence of an antiliberal autocratic bloc” (see "The Myth of the Autocratic Revival: Why Liberal Democracy Will Prevail" [Foreign Affairs, January-February 2009]).

It is not only that all states cannot become, at least for some time, liberal democracies, but that common challenges exist which can only be met when states of different types - who acknowledge and accept their mutual differences - closely cooperate. Here, dividing states into separate categories - “us” vs “them”, “leagues of democracies” vs “pariah” or “rogue” states - are counterproductive. Here, the modest agreement on Afghanistan sealed in Moscow between the United States and Russia is a significant step in the right direction

The large and the small

The open letter to President Obama shares some of the qualities of ideological thinking that disregards facts and deforms thinking.

The signatories request, for example, that “Nato must reconfirm its core function of collective defence even while we adapt to the new threats of the 21st century”. In effect this is an attempt to drag Nato back into the cold-war era, when the real need is to continue the transformation of the alliance into a genuine collective-security body that could deal more successfully with those new security threats that could not (if the signatories’ advice were followed) be tackled at all. A 21st-century Nato should be able to create strategic partnerships with countries that aren’t necessarily its member-states, or even with those that don’t share its core values.

The world has changed since the Yalta conference of February 1945. The “great power” parcelling of spheres of influence and subsequent cold-war rivalry between ideologically motivated blocks are over. The world’s states, with but a few exceptions, are not threats to others’ security and development. (In saying this, I am not an idealist who believes in a harmonious and conflict-free world; however, today’s conflicts usually arise less from any ideological incompatibility than from differences of actual interests). Indeed, the most acute contemporary threats - such as the spread of WMD, terrorism, the economic and financial crisis, ecological problems, and drug-trafficking - can be resolved only through cooperation among all countries, and first of all the most powerful states.

But such great-power cooperation, and even strategic partnerships, cannot take place through a division of the world into respective areas of influence, and at the expense of the interests of small countries. True, all states do have spheres in which they have special interests; and the bigger and more powerful a state, the further such spheres extend. The United States considers the Caribbean, central America and south America, as well as the middle east and east Asia to be vital; Russia similarly regards the Caucasus. However, to recognise that such interests and calculations are inevitable does not entail regarding them as legitimate, nor that great powers or other states should be accorded the right to special zones of influence.

Robert Legvold, writing about American initiatives in eastern Europe, makes a relevant point here. He observes that “it is in the U.S. national interest - not least because it is in the interest of global stability - that as many states in the region as possible emerge as peaceful, stable, prosperous, and self-confident democratic societies. But it is also in the United States’ long-term interest to avoid promoting this goal in ways that intentionally or unintentionally encourage these states to balance against Russia …’” (see (Robert Legvold, “The Russia File: How to Move Toward a Strategic Partnership”, Foreign Affairs, July-August 2009).

The promotion of such a “balance” among some of Russia’s smaller neighbours, some of which in the Bush era almost competed in anti-Russian rhetoric, is indeed damaging. The rivalry and mutual suspicions between Russia and the United States have contributed to the instability and crises in Georgia and Ukraine, which persist.

The past and the future

The nostalgia for cold-war clarity is reflected in the signatories’ treatment of “the thorniest issue”: Washington’s planned missile-defence installations in the Czech Republic and Poland. They warn that “abandoning the programme entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it” can undermine the credibility of the United States. This takes no account of the proximity of the anti-missile “shield” to Russia, notwithstanding the fact that its ostensible aim is to protect the west from states beyond the region (principally Iran).

It is striking that a letter whose main concern is about Washington’s “resetting” of its relations with Moscow at the expense of Russia’s small neighbours - and which scarcely mentions any of those 21st-century security threats - shows that at least in the minds of these former leaders and intellectuals the anti-missile project is indeed “all about Russia”. But even if such a shield were unable to effectively protect the west from Russian missiles, it would still work to hinder the development of more cooperative relations between America (and the west as a whole) and Russia.

In conclusion, though I would like to see Lech Walesa and other Poles visiting the United States without any need to queue for a visa (a deep frustration I share), and though I disapprove both of many of the views and methods of the French activist José Bové, it is clear why the Polish citizen needs a visa to  enter the US while that the French does not. Visa regimes are waived for countries and not for individuals. Perhaps the signatories of the open letter believe that visa regimes should be dependent on the political views of individuals; or would prefer a visa regime for the “old Europe” to monitor those who “too freely” voice anti-American sentiments?

It is very welcome that the outlook of the Barack Obama administration in these six months means that such sentiments are on the wane. This trend is becoming part of even larger processes of change across the world, which are creating both new challenges and possibilities for cooperation. In this great context, the open letter to the president appears to look back and think small.

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:


Simon Maxwell, "Global development: Barack Obama's agenda" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (19-23 January 2009) - reflections from thirty-seven of our worldwide authors

Simon Critchley, "Barack Obama and the American void" (22 January 2009)

Mariano Aguirre, "Barack Obama and Afghanistan: a closer look" (8 April 2009)

>Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Godfrey Hodgson, "The Cairo speech: letter to America" (8 June 2009)

Mariano Aguirre, "Democracy-promotion: doctrine vs dialogue" (14 July 2009)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Barack Obama's world" (16 July 2009)

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