Reading the World, Rewiring Institutions

Fyodor Lukyanov
15 October 2008

Sir Roderic Lyne not only knows a great deal about Russia, he understands her as well.  I think I probably don't have to explain that this is not always one and the same thing.  When events in a country are examined in the wider context - both geographical and historical  - many things appear in a different light and, more importantly, become a great deal clearer.

So my article is not a polemic with Sir Roderic, but rather an attempt to apply his method as in a mirror.  To look at Western behaviour and politics in the same way as he has looked at Russia's behaviour and politics.

In Western discussions on what should be done about Moscow, one is always surprised by the attempt, probably unconscious, to formulate a separate, completely independent approach to the "self-confidence" "resurgence", "aggressiveness" (one could go on) of Russia.

The author of this article often takes part in conferences devoted to international relations, which can be divided into two categories.

Some have global problems as their subject.  Here the Russian theme is always secondary (at best).  The discussion centres round growing imbalances - in energy, ecology, food and demography.  The influential factors are: US politics, the special features of transatlantic relations, the rise of China and India, the increasing influence of Brazil and, to a certain extent, trends in the developing world, mainly Africa.  Russia, as a rule, is mentioned after a comma, mainly during energy discussions.

Other conferences are specially devoted to Russia.  There the Russian participant cannot fail to be filled with a sense of his own overweening importance.  Most Western orators with varying degrees of eloquence stress the danger arising from the Kremlin's renewed possibilities and call for serried ranks in opposing Russian expansionism and the resurrection of the good old unity of the "free world".  It goes without saying that after the war in the Caucasus these appeals became even more passionate.

This contrast between the overestimation of the Russian threat on the regional (Eurasian) level and the underestimation of her global role and her degree of involvement in general processes creates the distortion which is so typical in Western understanding of Russian matters.  To be fair it should be said that Moscow itself contributes to the strengthening of this image.  Russian discussion practically ignores global problems, concentrating all its attention on the country's interests in the classical superpower understanding.

In reality Russia is a fully-fledged and essential part of the many and varied currents in today's world.  It is a question not just of global economics, which is more or less acknowledged, but also of political trends defining the behaviour of the leading players in international relations.  The Russian state, like all the others, is seeking answers to the challenges thrown up by global politics and economics.

A characteristic of the current international situation is that the obvious growth of very different forms of competition is combined with increasing economic interdependence among the competitors.  This makes nonsense of the fashionable comparisons with the "Great Game" of the 19th century, the run-up to the First World War or the Cold War period.

We have lived through many historical perturbations over the last 20 years.  The 9/11 tragedy is considered one of the truly critical moments which turned the planet upside down.  Russia has already called Georgia's attack on South Ossetia her 9/11.  Both Washington and Moscow said (of their own events) that the world would never be the same again.

Without in the slightest downplaying the importance of these events, one could be forgiven for questioning whether they can justifiably be called turning points.  Neither the terrorist attack on the US not Georgia's attempt to solve its territorial problems by force turned the world upside down.  They were powerful, explosive catalysts in processes, which had been potentially building up for some time.

US behaviour after the attacks on New York and Washington was no volte face, but simply a logical continuation on the same course, using the tools which were formed during the 1990s.  The neocons had just come to power in Washington and for them it was an unexpected justification for forcing the implementation of plans had developed a long time before.

Russia's actions after the Georgian attack were not in line with any previously prepared plan, but they were not an unpredictable reaction either.  This was irritation, which had been hidden from view and had now erupted, at the way the West had been behaving towards Moscow over more than 15 years - from the promise to Gorbachev not to expand NATO up to the recognition of Kosovo in defiance of all the tenets of international law.

In my opinion there are two events, which can lay real claim to being turning points in recent history.  These are the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Both had a definitive effect on the world situation and, consequently, on Russia's behaviour.

The disappearance of the gigantic Eurasian empire, which for centuries had formed one-sixth of the earth's surface and for the last fifty years had been one of the two buttresses supporting world order, produced a new reality.  For the first time in its history the USA was the world leader, arrogating to itself responsibility for the whole world, while Russia had suffered serious geopolitical defeat and was struggling for its life as a sovereign state.

Arguments about whether there was any chance of closely integrating Russia into the Western system will probably never end, but if there was a chance, then it was not taken up.  The Clinton administration did, it's true, make the transformation of Russia one of its show projects.  However, there were no groundbreaking ideas, such as the Marshall Plan or the unification of Europe on the basis of cooperation between two sworn enemies, France and Germany.  Western efforts focussed on spreading the influence of Western institutions, which had proved their efficacy in the years of ideological confrontation, rather than on creating the structures for a new world order.  It seemed as though the feeling was why create something new, when you can adapt tried and tested organisations to the new situation?

More than ten years later two things are clear.

Firstly, the West's peaceful expansion was only possible because the time was unique.  Russia was in a geopolitical coma and unable to resist.  China was taken up with its own development and was not yet thinking of a global role.  Those countries which had suddenly gained freedom of action formed a long queue to join all possible Western organisations.

But as soon as the West lost its monopoly of influence in world politics, Russia woke up, China became a powerful force and what had been taken for granted in the ‘90s became an acute problem.

Secondly, it became apparent that those old institutions were unable to deal with the new challenges.  The surprise of the current financial crisis is the extent to which the International Monetary Fund, for example, has deteriorated.  It is no exaggeration to say that some 10 years ago this organisation controlled the fates of such important states as Russia, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, South Korea and Argentina.  Today the IMF can only wring its hands and grieve over uncontrollable markets.

Not one of the structures which, it was supposed, would become instruments of world government, can manage this function and this should come as no surprise.  They are, after all, the product of a previous age, when everything was quite different.  Some organisations are not only failing to reinforce stability, but actually weakening it: from a means of exporting security NATO expansion has become a catalyst for serious conflict.

As far back as the 1990s the international institutions, which had not been reformed after the end of the cold war, started showing signs of dysfunction.  At that point the world leader, instead of taking over the process of transforming the international system, decided to go its own way and rely on its own strength and opportunities.  The USA had, after all, plenty of both. The invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 was the culminating point of this approach.

Today almost everyone even in the USA, and in Europe too, has recognised that the Iraq campaign was a mistake.  It seems to me, however, that the influence of the war against Suddam Hussein on the atmosphere in the world has been gravely underestimated.

It is clear that in the 21st century, on the basis of false evidence, bypassing international law and without any kind of political or legal justification, a sovereign state can be invaded, its regime overthrown and the country occupied.  Military strength, which during the 1990s was seen to have lost its critical significance, has now returned to world politics full-scale and in the most brutal form. 

When it turned out that the hyper-power, which had taken the place of all systems of world government, was overstretched and not actually able to fulfil the functions it had taken on, the chaotic nature of world development was revealed.  If the invasion of Iraq was a conscious action by the USA, aimed at realising some or other plans, then the other flagrant infringement of international law - the recognition of Kosovo - was the result of impotence.  Washington and the European capitals came to the conclusion that it was easier to agree to the Kosovars' demands than to put a painful amount of effort into trying to achieve an outcome that would have been acceptable to all.

In conditions of general chaos and dysfunctional institutions the best course of action is to increase one's own strength, so as to be able to react to challenges which are thrown up without warning.  This is what Russia has been doing for the last 5 years during a period of unprecedented hydrocarbon price increases.  In the wider context one could say that the YUKOS affair, which came immediately after the occupation of Iraq, was the logical outcome of events in the Middle East.  The state began to firm up its options in order to increase military efficiency in a hostile external atmosphere .  From this point of view it was absolutely appropriate to take over control of one of the biggest oil companies and to remove an influential internal opponent.

Another external challenge was provided by the "colour revolutions", which took place along Russia's borders.  The popular idea in Russia that the changes in power in Georgia, Ukraine and Kirgiziya were the result of a considered US strategy to encircle Russia is, without a doubt, a simplification.  But it cannot be denied that the external factor - both the policy of Western powers and the activities of foreign NGOs - played a part that was no less important than internal interpretations of the changes.  The concept of "sovereign democracy" was a response to just that - an attempt to protect internal political processes from external influence.

Roderic Lyne in his article asks a justifiable question - what is Russia's strategy?  There is no answer to this.  Russian actions, or at least those actions that provoke the strongest reaction, are as a rule a more or less spontaneous reaction to external irritants.  The war with Georgia is no exception, although many in the West believe it was a clever trap set for Mikhail Saakashvili.

But we can ask something else.  Do any of the major international players have a well-considered and long-term strategy?  And, moreover, is this a possibility in today's world?

How can one consider the policies of the American administration a strategy if the results are the opposite of what was intended and future prospects are unclear?

What is the strategy of the EU, now a hostage to the idea of success and influence and entangled in the insoluble contradiction between expansion and closer integration?  The EU model was anyway planned for a completely different external environment:  initially it developed under the American security umbrella, and then in the conditions of a short geopolitical "breathing space".

When we hear the world "strategy" we immediately think of China, which gives the impression of planned movement towards a goal decided on some time ago.  It is, however, difficult for the moment to come to any conclusions about the external aims of Beijing or how clearly they have been formulated - China is still occupied with its own internal development

Globalisation has been discussed for a long time and a great deal, but when it comes to the larger political scene, everyone for some reason continues to consider various elements of the world palette separately.  But in the current situation it is impossible to draw up the strategy for each individual player: we must first have an idea of the strategic prospects for world development.  This can only happen as a result of joint efforts initially to understand the situation, then to work out how to solve the problems.

It has been generally recognised that no one has a clear understanding of what is happening in the financial markets, which have broken free of any rational, comprehensible reality.  But the situation in the "marketplace" of big politics is not much better - the world is too complicated for simple analysis.  All the more powerful is the attraction of patterns we understand, which is the origin of the burning desire to reconstruct something like the cold war.  Nothing will come of this, however, and the more active the attempt, the more destructive the outcome.

The stable systems of world order traditionally emerge after great wars.  The cold war was unique in that it ended without conflict.  But the new world order everyone hoped for 20 years ago has still not materialised and the disintegration of the old is considering at ever increasing speeds.  All big countries face an enormous intellectual challenge -  how to prevent disintegration reaching its logical conclusion, which would mean huge conflicts, and how to begin constructing a system which would take account of the interests of all the countries involved.

I have honestly to say that I do not at the moment see any particular grounds for optimism.


Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs (founded 2002), a journal published in Russian and English with the participation of Foreign Affairs. He has worked in journalism for 15 years, as a correspondent, commentator and editor for different Russia Radio, TV stations, newspapers and magazines. Mr. Lukyanov is a member of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an influential independent organization providing foreign policy expertise.

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