Russia’s foreign policy: modernise or marginalise (1)

Russia’s foreign policy is outdated, according to the distinguished foreign affairs analyst Dmitry Trenin. In the first part of this interview with polit.ru’s Boris Dolgin he argues that rather than focus on preserving Russia’s status as a great power, its aim should be modernisation. Otherwise, great power or no, the country is doomed
Dmitry Trenin
15 January 2010

Boris Dolgin: The Russian government is always being accused of not having a sensible foreign policy.

Dmitry Trenin:

Dmitry Trenin

It all depends on what you mean by a sensible foreign policy.The government has a perfectly sound grasp of its own interests, and at some level - that of Putin and Medvedev I suppose – there’s an understanding of what Russia is. Well, at least they’re engaged with the subject. Many others mind about nothing except those issues which relate directly to their personal relationships with particular people in power.

Right now, what passes for rationality has to do with thinking clearly about how to preserve the status quo for personal reasons. That’s the problem.

B.D. In other words, domestic politics controls foreign policy.

D.T. Domestic policy always comes first. It does not control it, but it is the basis of it. Foreign policy is based on domestic policy. It may enjoy a considerable degree of independence from it, but it has to be basically in tune with domestic policy.

This in turn corresponds to the interests of a certain section of the elite. In no way does it represent the interests of the nation as a whole, as I don’t think we can talk of such a thing as a nation in Russia yet. There’s this huge mass of people, the population, which is not yet aware of itself as citizens. So it’s too soon to talk of the national interest in Russia yet. There are the interests of individuals, of corporations, groups and so on, but there is no national interest.

As for the elite, it is at once deeply divided, yet very egocentric. Since they’re all entirely preoccupied by their own interests, they can’t come together to create the kind of common space which is required to make a nation. In this sense, there’s still a kind of civil war going on, of a very mild, bloodless form, of course…

B.D. … where each side appeals to “national interests”, but understands these in terms of their own interests.

D.T. Quite. They’re both out to prove that the other side has no legitimacy. One side casts the others as usurpers, scrounging on the people. The other casts their opponents as fifth columnists, jackals who hang around certain embassies.

B.D. So there’s only way you can assess how sensible this foreign policy and that is in the context of domestic policy.

Russia’s status as a ‘great power’

D.T. You can’t say that Russia behaves unpredictably, irrationally. Its policies make perfect sense in relation to the ideas of the leadership. But this brings us to another problem: Putin and Medvedev do have a foreign policy, but in my opinion it is a pretty traditional and outdated. It is based on the notion that status is the most important consideration in foreign policy. The country must achieve the status of a “great power”, it must maintain this status, advance it etc.

B.D. In order then to convert this status into something else?

D.T.. I don’t think so. It’s more or less a goal in itself. The Soviet Union used to have the mad aim of world revolution. Then it set itself the slightly less crazy, but completely unproductive task of fighting American imperialism during the cold war – it had to defend something and gain some ground. No one seriously thought that the red banner could be raised over the White House, but still this confrontation occupied all the available space.

Now, in my opinion, our foreign policy is at a stage when the most important thing is to prove oneself to be a great power. To gain recognition, to join this or that council, to be key player in the international oligarchy - one of a group of four, five or six. And for one’s sphere of influence – in the former Soviet Union and beyond – to be acknowledged.

B.D. Do you see any parallels between domestic and foreign policy? In domestic policy at the beginning of the 2000s, the ruling elite appeared to believe that in order to effect any plans or projects, it was necessary to strengthen power and ensure there were no counterbalances or threats in the way. Later, strengthening power became a goal in itself. But in foreign policy, all attempts to resolve particular issues only confirmed the feeling of having lost that valuable resource, status. So later the battle for status became a goal in itself.

D.T. Yes, I can see this parallel. The thing is that the main currency on both the domestic and foreign stage is that of power. This is very sad.

Modernisation as a goal

Russian foreign policy, in my opinion, should – and incidentally, there are also parallels with domestic policy here – have as its main goal the realisation of what Mr. Medvedev is talking about a lot right now: the thorough-going modernisation of the country. This is indeed the task. If this were posited as our main goal – as I’m certain it should be - our foreign policy would not be all about fighting for status, but fighting to attract the resources for modernising the country.

I’m not saying that we should just forget about our status, ignore it. But the goal should not be to prove that we deserve to be called a great power, but to get the resources we need to modernise the country swiftly, extensively and effectively.

B.D. So the problem is not that foreign policy is in some way subordinate to domestic policy, but exactly what kind of domestic policy it is subordinated to?

D.T. Yes, of course. Some of my colleagues say that foreign policy is completely subordinate to domestic policy, but that is not true. There are great differences between foreign and domestic policy – the same players operate in quite different environments. But of course, everything flows from domestic policy. Foreign policy may be incorrect and suicidal because of delusions, wrong tactics and strategies, but it can’t consciously defy domestic policy.

What matters is the direction in which domestic policy and foreign policy are moving. For the time being, in my view, the main aim of both is to consolidate power. To maintain a monopoly on power in one sphere, and to keep up our place in the world oligarchy in the other.

Dealing with the legacy of empire

B.D. Why are the Russian leadership, and so many of the foreign affairs analysts, so obsessed with ‘geopolitical thinking’? Is it the best way of describing the situation today, or would some other approach work better?

D.T. In my view the liberal critics are very breezy in their attitude to the problems of the end of the empire. I disagree with them, and I argue with them. But I try to understand them too. On 17 March 1991, 76.4% voted for the Soviet Union, but by 17 December the Soviet Union no longer existed. At one time it did seem as if the past could just be cast off like that. This was thought to be quite normal, the way things should be. We would “brush its dust from our feet” and so on. In fact, the end of an empire is extremely difficult. It’s difficult for everyone.

Look at the British and French examples – if it doesn’t end as the result of a military defeat, an external force that destroys a crumbling empire, then the process is bound to go on for a long time, as is in our case too. But people gradually get used to this. Although events move in all sorts of directions, the main momentum is one of adaption to reality. This is human – we adapt to changing circumstances.

Obviously, people were afraid that if the state was not great, then it would not be a state at all. Because unlike in France or Britain there is no clear core to which the former colonisers can return. They were afraid that Russia would break up, and that there would be chaos.

B.D. That it would shrink to the size of the Principality of Muscovy?

D.T. Yes. And the problem is not just that it would split up, but that there would be a war between these parts; that there would be chaos and all kinds of serious problems. That was the one consideration. The second, the foreign policy concern was the fear that if the country was not a superpower, then it would be a dependent state.

In these circumstances, if you have not been integrated into any state, then some foreign leader will rule over you. No one wants this, especially not the elites. Perhaps it is not so important for ordinary citizens who rules over them, but the elite has a certain idea about itself and its role. Look at the Moldovan elites, for example, who do not want to join Romania. Many ordinary Romanian-speaking Moldovans wouldn’t mind this. Some would even welcome it. But the elite want to preserve their country, which is small but still their own.

Being a great power

And this is especially true in a country like ours, with its history and sense of identity. If we’re not a great power, does that mean we’ll become an American satrapy? No, we don’t want that. And if we don’t want that, it means we’ve got to be a great power. Then the whole business of upholding one’s strategic independence kicks in, and in circumstances when resources are very thin on the ground. If you’re not the Soviet Union, then you can’t compete on equal terms with America in the political or the military sphere – not to mention the economy and everything else. So what do you do?

It’s not easy. You start thinking about nuclear weapons, about alliances like BRIC. Russia’s the country that’s really interested in BRIC. No other country in the world thinks about BRIC much in the geopolitical sense. Because no one else is so preoccupied with maintaining their independence and freedom of action, and at the same time holding their own with the United States. That’s the task which the Russian elite took on itself. BRIC is one element of our attempt, along with nuclear weapons, to compensate for the disadvantageous asymmetry the Russian Federation found itself landed with after the collapse of the USSR.

Two failed attempts at ‘integration’

So what do we mean by “integration”? Two attempts at integration were made after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Firstly, integration with the West, then cooperation with the West – by Putin, after 11 September. Both were quite serious, even if they were naïve, insufficiently consistent, superficial etc. None the less, they were serious. They were headed by the president, and they came from a large part of the elite, if not the whole elite. The intention was to integrate with the West under certain conditions. But these attempts failed. The second time this happened, under Putin, he was forced into asserting Russia’s position as an independent power, and formulating policy accordingly.

When Putin criticized America in Munich, his message was threefold. Firstly: you will accept us as we are – we will change, but not on your initiative and not under pressure from you. Secondly: you will treat us as equals: we understand that we have differing GDP etc, but all in all we’re a power of comparable magnitude to you. And thirdly: if we’re going to cooperate, we’re going to do so on the basis of shared interests. We will not make adjustments to suit you – we will cooperate only in areas where our interests coincide. If they don’t coincide, we won’t cooperate.

This is Putin’s policy, which at the time I called a forced partnership. This policy was not accepted by Bush, and not because of any mistakes that Putin made, but because the former US administration was incapable of taking a wider and deeper view of the world.

B.D. Without becoming annoyed.

D.T. Yes. It was a narrow, gloomy, backward view of the world. Especially during President Bush’s first term. But now we see a different America, which can be dealt with on different terms. Which is in fact offering new terms itself.

Take Obama’s speech at the UN General Assembly. There he said that we acknowledge the reality. We will not take our democratic charter and establish our own order in every monastery. Let’s all live in our monasteries according to our own charters. We won’t answer for everything. Essentially, Obama is responding to each of Putin’s messages positively, not only in his words but in his actions. And quite an interesting situation is developing.

Not status, but modernisation

B.D. Do you expect that there will be a third attempt to integrate or adjust, or arrange relations with the West generally, in the near future?

D.T. Not in the near future. I think the last two attempts have dampened the enthusiasm for integration. So if there is a third attempt, it will be different. The message will be something like this, I believe: firstly, unless we modernise, we will become marginalized. We have to choose between modernisation or marginalisation. I think this is already been accepted. Although there are some people who are waiting for oil prices to rise, for the days of golden oil kingdom to return, most sensible people, whatever their ideological hue, understand that without modernisation, the country is done for. Great power or no, it will be doomed.

The second point is more complicated. We’re going to need outside resources if we’re going to modernise. In other words, it’s not going to be enough for Russia just to be part of the world economy and information space. We’re going to have to do more than just carry out modernisation on that basis.

I think this is the real question at the moment. In my view, Putin – and I mention him because I consider him to be the ideologist, the conceptualist, and the real leader of the country - probably believes that the country can be modernised simply by being part of the world. Without Russia needing to attach itself to any specific countries or regions. In this sense, for him Europe, America, China, Japan, South Korea, or other countries may be partners or rivals, or partners and rivals at the same time - it’s all the same to him.

Part 2 of this interview can be read here

Dmitry Trenin is Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of many books, including Getting Russia Right (Carnegie Endowment for Peace, 2007)

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