The return of realpolitik: a view from Georgia

The promise of an international order based on principle rather than the exercise of power is exposed as an occidentalist illusion by Russian actions towards Georgia, says Alexander Rondeli.
Alexander Rondeli
18 February 2010

For a number of years after the end of the cold war, realism fell out of fashion. The world was, it was believed in the heady and hectic days before and after 1989,  moving beyond crude power politics. The emerging political trends - multilateralism, institutionalised cooperation, the pooling of sovereignty - didn’t fit into a realist paradigm that appeared to be passing.

The flaw in this picture has become more apparent in the first decade of the 21st century. A number of events has revealed that what was presented as a universal phenomenon was a distorted picture projected from western Europe and north America, and that the reality in other parts of the world was always much more complex and diverse.

The Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 confirmed the fact that different rules apply in different parts of the world. The “universal” applicability of international-relations theory is a myth; what happens in individual regions  undermines any such notion. In the post-imperial post-Soviet space in particular, Realpolitik never left. Indeed, after the short and brutal war it is back with a vengeful twist. Some politicians are even open about their wish to “institutionalise” it.

The American scholar Anthony H Cordesman expressed the point well in the immediate aftermath of the six-day war (which, however, continued in effect long after with Russia’s occupation of large swathes of Georgia’s territory):

“In practical terms... the fighting in Georgia is not a warning about some new drift into great power confrontation or a new Cold War. It is a reminder that the world is not shaped by democratic values, international law, good intentions, globalism, rational bargains, or the search of dialogue. All these elements do play an important role, but classic power politics are just as real as ever… More powerful states will bend or break the rules when they feel it is in their interest to do so and when there is no opposing power bloc that can pose a convincing threat” (see Anthony H Cordesman, “The Georgia War and the Century of "’Real Power’", Center for Strategic and International Studies, 18 August 2008).

The return of brutal realism suggests that the previous years of post-cold-war confidence were an optical illusion: or rather that analysts chose one set of spectacles to look at international affairs (which were normative, and stressed the role of values, institutions, cooperation, and interdependence) which were then assumed to be the only ones available. The war did not make sense according to this perspective, which is why many signs to the contrary were ignored or misinterpreted before, during and after it (by the Georgian government as well as the international community) (see “Georgia’s search for itself”, 8 August 2008).

Georgia learned the most bitter lesson in Realpolitik at that time.  But if this lesson has still not been learned by others, the answer may be that they have not yet understood that to look at the world with non-western spectacles is necessary to explain the behaviour of states outside their imagining (see Michael Naumann, “The end of Realpolitik”, 27 February 2003).

The sphere of interests

The behaviour of states that see the world only in terms of interests see “geopolitics” as synonymous with “Realpolitik”. But each state that pursues self-interest alone does so (to paraphrase Tolstoy on families)  does so in its own way. The Realpolitik of Russia, for example, is to a great extent based on strategic calculations that are rooted in the zero-sum vision of its ruling elite. This elite is wedded to a geopolitical narrative of international relations in which geography and culture play a more enduring part than many in the west think.

Moscow’s dominant national-security vision sees Russia as a Eurasian power, located in the “heartland” of Halford Mackinder’s famous definition (see Prince Hassan of Jordan, “Halford Mackinder’s new world”, 14 August 2009). This Eurasianism mixes  a number of ingredients - geopolitics, nationalism and orthodox fundamentalism among them - to serve as a kind of intellectual reference-point for the ruling elite. It provides the frameworks which guide foreign-policy decision-making and decide its main course.

The core aim of the Russian view of Realpolitik is the creation of a sphere of interest and influence; more precisely, having satellites or vassal states on its borders. The idea crosses historical and ideological boundaries, and has been embraced even by the more ostensibly “pro-western” Russian leaders (see Svante E Cornell & S Frederick Starr, eds., The Guns of August 2008: Russia's War in Georgia [ME Sharpe, 2009]).

The alleged “artificiality” of post-Soviet borders, with the implication that  the sovereignty and territorial integrity (and even the right to exist) of the successor states is questionable, is a recurrent theme in Russia’s relations with its neighbours.

The claim by Russia’s president of “a sphere of privileged interests”  is pursued both by force and by relatively “soft power” (including  separatism). Russia’s self-definition as a kin-state is also deployed, a category that covers both ethnic Russians residing in other sovereign states and those who speak Russian and/or choose to identify with Russia and Russian (or even with “Soviet”) culture. The kin-state concept and its practical application is a negative and destabilising phenomenon for international relations and security (see Geoffrey Hosking, “Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims”, 26 June 2006).

New world, old world

The political elite’s goal is to make Russia capable of interacting with other centres of global power on its own terms, at least within the post-Soviet space. The practical result is Russia can still be considered a neo-imperial power.

The predominant western view of Russia’s neo-imperial policy - as evident in the reaction to the war of August 2008 - has been not the “containment” of old but a desire to “engage and integrate”. This was for Russia a positive lesson, since it justified its ability to use without impunity certain innovations in international legal norms (such as humanitarian intervention) as a justification for illegitimate military action.

The idea of a “new world order” based on multiple state interests that  have different regional balances - much of which is conveyed by the term “multipolarity” - is congenial to the Russian elite. It has the added value of making the world sound like a fairer and more democratic place. In practice, however, it means the rise of regional hegemons with a free hand in their respective spheres of influence -not so different from the 19th-century model (see Ivan Krastev, “Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap”, 31 August 2010).

The restoration of the “balance-of-interests” model as a foundation of global order carries two dangers even to its powerful proponents - let alone its powerless victims.  First, interests are contextual and can be changeable and even tradable; any reliance on a given alignment of interests at a certain time is to base international order and security on a volatile foundation. Second, this model entails the sacrifice of norms and principles to political “pragmatism”, in a way that undermines the normative foundations of the existing international community.

The return of Realpolitik is a revalidation of “might is right”, exclusive spheres of interest, territorial demands and buffer-states.  It risks perennial disorder and instability on a global scale.

The return of history

The unilateral use of force to advance state interests poses a fundamental challenge to Europe’s understanding of the world (see Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict", 30 September 2008). The use of military force to encourage regime change violates a European project “that seeks to replace old paradigms such as the balance of power, spheres of influence and military conquest with integration, negotiation and the rule of law…”  (see Nicu Popescu, Mark Leonard & Andrew Wilson, “Can the EU Win the Peace in Georgia?”, European Council on Foreign Relations. 25 August 2008).

In the first decades of the 20th century, the attempts of some nations of the then Russian empire to become sovereign states were blocked, in part because pragmatic western neglect enabled a new Russian empire to swallow them. When post-Soviet states, in some cases the same nations, want to remain sovereign and to develop as democracies, will history be allowed to repeat itself?

The Russia-Georgia war demonstrated that Moscow finds unacceptable the choice of a western orientation among any of its neighbours. Georgia, as the weakest neighbour in the post-imperial space, was made an example pour encourager les autres. In this respect the conflict may be seen as the climax of the “shorter 21st century” which “started in 1989 and ended in 2008” (see “The world in 2008: a year and an era”, 28 December 2007).  In short, not after all a “non-event with consequences” (Ivan Krastev again), but a revivalist display of a dangerous tendency.

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