Can Russia come up with a new foreign policy strategy?
An illuminating essay on historical developments in Russia's foreign policy over the last century that argues that only internal political collapse now has the chance to inaugurate a new foreign policy relevant to a post-crisis world.
Russia is a country without a foreign policy. Not quite, of course: all the institutions concerned are in place and keep working. Sometimes they do a good job, and sometimes not. Diplomatic notes are being written the way they should, agreements are signed, decisions are made on specific issues, and spontaneous conflicts and crises are settled successfully once in a while. But a foreign policy is not exactly a sum of joint actions a state takes jointly with its neighbors and foreign partners. At least it is somewhat broader than that.
A foreign policy implies a concept of long-term interests of the state, of its real and desirable place in the world system, and a strategy for achieving the goals set.
Everybody remembers the well-known British diplomatic postulate: A state has no permanent friends, but only permanent interests. In reality interests change, too, as a country’s economic and social system, its borders and external environment change. Modern Russia has a great problem with deciding what its national interests are. To be more precise, whose interests and what interests this postulate will imply.
A glimpse of history
Throughout Russia’s modern history, its foreign policy concept changed many a time – from the struggle for hegemony in trade in raw materials in eastern Europe, which determined the tasks the St. Petersburg-ruled empire set for itself and addressed in the 18th century to a policy of maintaining a pan-European conservative balance within the framework of the Holy Alliance, which Russia conducted in the first half of the 19th century. Then followed a sudden catastrophic defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) caused not so much by Russia’s backwardness as by a quick change of the economic and political situation in the world, which came as a surprise for its elites. It took Russian diplomatic agencies twenty years to overcome the adverse effects. One has to admit, though, that they coped with that task well enough to return Russia to the leading positions among European major powers. Unfortunately, in the early 20th century two more misfortunes followed – the Russian-Japanese War and World War I, after which the Russian Empire sank into oblivion.
The Soviet bureaucracy learned the lesson of recurrent failures suffered by the tsarist diplomacy. They were not a result of the old diplomatic system’s malfunctioning or attempts to achieve the unachievable. Their root cause was the fundamentally controversial position of the Russian Empire in the world. Being a leading European power, Russia was a country with a dependent peripheral economy (in fact, semi-colonial) at the same time, it continuously lagged behind global processes. Each time when the gap grew critical there followed a turmoil that converted foreign policy setbacks into internal political crises.
Immediately after the 1917 revolution the Bolsheviks’ policy was simple and clear – helping the proletariat around the globe to ignite the revolutionary fire to the horror of the bourgeoisie. A world revolution was seen as a quick and instant solution of all problems and contradictions in Russia’s history. The Bolsheviks believed the country’s backwardness and its dependent position within the framework of the old world order will disappear together with that order; in a new post-revolutionary world cooperation will replace competition and the triumphant proletariat of the West will be helping Russia precisely the way it was helping them. Not a very naïve calculation it was, bearing in mind the dominating ideas and revolutionary sentiments that engulfed most of Europe in 1919-1923. But in 1920 the Red Army failed to take Warsaw, the revolutions in Germany and Hungary were suppressed, the ruling class in France coped with the revolutionary situation resorting to war victory euphoria, and in Italy the crisis ended with the triumph of fascism, and not the left-wingers. The expectations failed to come true, a search began for a new foreign policy strategy, and its tentative contours became to be seen already in the early 1920s. That strategy kept evolving and transforming to last throughout the Soviet period.
In the early 1920s the Soviet Republic’s foreign policy was tightly pegged to mounting class struggle
Whereas in the early 1920s the Soviet Republic’s foreign policy was tightly pegged to mounting class struggle, or at least to the vision of the social conflict that prevailed in the parties of the Communist International at the time, in the mid-1930s priorities changed. The leaders of the Communist parties were forced to increasingly rely on the state interests of the USSR as the “vanguard country.” It was a period of a compromise between the class ideology and the state interests, which were interpreted ever more pragmatically.
The great turn occurred in 1939, when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler to have unequivocally opted for the state interests. Further on ideology continued to be used as a major factor in decision-making, but it was no longer the main motive. From that moment on Soviet foreign policy was a combination of three components or principles, which had to be interlinked in a consistent way.
First, the Soviet diplomacy was to create the most favorable environment possible for the country’s modernization, for an industrial and scientific-technological breakthrough, which would put an end to the country’s backwardness and peripheral status once and for all, thereby eliminating the contradictions that ruined the Russian Empire.
Second, the USSR positioned itself as a legal successor of the old empire, of its influence and positions, and of its regional and international status. It wanted that status to be recognized not just verbally, but as an extra resource that might be employed to accomplish the chief strategic task of modernization. After World War II that objective was transformed into a new scenario of expansion, which in 1947-1949 resulted in the emergence of the Eastern bloc, which later proved far stronger and influential than the Russian Empire.
Finally, the Soviet state remained a “pylon of the progressive humanity” as it furnished support for national-liberation movements, Communist parties and anti-bourgeois revolutions. As a rule, that support was devoid of petty selfish interest, but it was not quite altruistic, either. Successes in that field helped effectively solve the tasks mentioned above. All the three foreign policy tracks were interconnected, although contradictions did occur. Importantly, the sequence of priorities was never changed. Post-imperial expansion was sometimes sacrificed to the interests of domestic development and security, and the interests of fraternal parties and movements, to the post-imperial policy and international balance, which promoted internal development. (Suffice it to recall the way Stalin set the French Communist party against taking power in 1944-1946, ceded Greece to the British, and, having considered the experience of the not very successful Soviet-Finnish War, abandoned attempts to gain a firmer foothold in Finland.)
Soviet foreign policy after Stalin grew increasingly inert and conservative, while the task of promoting a modernization breakthrough gave way to that of maintaining the achieved superpower status within the framework of the new global balance. But the three main components set for the USSR’s foreign policy system remained relevant, albeit in constantly changing interpretations and in various proportions, up until the last days of the Soviet state.
Of course, this picture looks very simplistic. The real history of Soviet diplomacy was brimming with unexpected collisions and zigzags, but as Russia’s remarkable political scientist Grigory Vodolazov said, the straight strategic line is a chain of tactical zigzags.
The main distinction of post-Soviet foreign policy from that of the Soviet era is that this time the zigzags do not form any strategic line. The Russian elite brushed off the old ideology and methodology, but it did not care to produce something new instead.
At first, the naïve expectation of Great America’s friendly patronage turned the Foreign Ministry into a regional office of the U.S. Department of State. The 1999 U-turn of Yevgeny Primakov’s plane over the Atlantic heralded an end to this humiliating state of affairs. But Primakov’s premiership would not last long. Besides, foreign policy was not a priority of his Cabinet. The idea of the need for an independent policy in world affairs was exonerated at last, but the policy course per se has not been formulated to this day.
This does not mean, however, that Russia’s foreign policy is not active. It is very active. We cut gas supply to Ukraine, have skirmishes with Belarus, complain against discrimination by the European Union, and fight wars with Georgia. But no consistent policy line, no strategy is anywhere in sight.
In practice, the core of Russia’s foreign policy strategy is the servicing of specific interests of domestic companies and bureaucratic agencies. Clients are many, and their expectations are not always alike. Hence the strange, even weird zigzags in the policy course. Still, one can see a certain objective interest here. Not a state interest of course, but private.
For instance, Russia’s relations with Ukraine and Belarus are easy to discern through the prism of the strategic interests of Gazprom and the problems the corporation encounters on the domestic and foreign markets. Political columnists have often considered the repeated gas wars between Ukraine and Russia in the context of geopolitical confrontation. Some speculated that in this way Moscow wishes to punish Kiev for the rapprochement with the West. However, this interpretation loses sense as soon as we look closer at the relations with neighboring Belarus. Unlike Kiev, Minsk put its stake on closer relations with Moscow out of pragmatic considerations first and foremost, whatever President Alexander Lukashenko may be saying, because not only Russia’s energy resources and components are crucial to the Belarusian industries. Russia remains the main market for Belarusian producers. For the sake of preserving and developing these relations Minsk has demonstrated its readiness to consistently pursue a policy of protecting Russia’s geopolitical interests – the way participants in the process understood those relations. But pretty soon it turned out that Moscow was unable to devise any sensible concept and consequently its partnership with Belarus began to look like a suitcase without a handle – inconvenient to carry and too valuable to be dropped.
Nonetheless, the special relationship stayed in effect until the interests of Gazprom emerged in the forefront. The tactic of raising prices and seizing property that the gas giant applied to friendly Belarus was in no way different from the one pursued towards hostile Ukraine. As a result, a decision was made to sacrifice Moscow’s only more or less reliable political ally in Europe for the sake of raising the profitability of the leading domestic corporation.
In other regions of the world Moscow’s policy is still less sensible than in the post-Soviet space. For instance, the Russian diplomacy’s sole interest in Africa is the protection of investments Oleg Deripaska and some other domestic business tycoons dared make in that continent. Besides, the assorted business projects of our oligarchs do not make an economic strategy yet, which is unmistakably present in the behavior of Western and (of late) Chinese companies.
The Russian diplomacy’s sole interest in Africa is the protection of investments Oleg Deripaska
In Europe, task number one the Russian Foreign Ministry has been pressing for with certain consistency is the promotion of interests of Russian investors, who, incidentally, have preferred to export capital so much needed for modernizing the domestic industry. Simultaneously, of course, the Foreign Ministry is working hard to secure a visa-free regime for Russians traveling to the West, but so far it has gained nothing but promises in response to its efforts. The inefficiency in coping with this simple task (Western diplomats in Moscow openly say that the objective obstructions to introducing visa-free regime are long gone) is rooted in the lack of political thinking. All questions are considered as a purely formalistic bureaucratic procedure – writing a diplomatic note, sending a package of documents, drafting a substantiation report. Instead of making friends, building long-term relationships, taking into consideration the complex balance of interests and forces, and influencing them, the people in charge remain focused on technical issues that are unable to change the state of affairs in principle.
Still more obvious has been the failure of Russia’s diplomacy in the Middle East in the wake of Arab revolutions. The fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the agony of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt made it clear that the social situation in the region had changed irreversibly. The question is not about whether the police forces loyal to the old authorities were capable of holding back the unrest. As Libya’s events have shown, the army and police were strong enough to hold on for a long while. In Syria, there emerged a “catastrophic balance,” with the authorities unable to suppress the revolution and the rebellion unable to topple the authorities. Moscow ignored the fundamental development that the West became aware of long ago – police truncheons and heavy armaments are not the decisive argument any longer. The social order and the cultural and political norms which the old regimes in the Middle East had rested upon collapsed beyond repair. In other words, even if some of the rulers manage to stay in office, a “passive revolution” will be the price. For this to happen there must be such personalities like Austria’s Franz-Joseph, Italy’s Cavour or Germany’s Bismarck, capable of implementing from above a large part of the revolution’s agenda, while suppressing the revolution itself. On the contrary, Moscow obviously thought that any political, social, and cultural problems were soluble only from the position of force.
The banal conspiracy theory became the sole explanation of revolutionary processes, and ideological and moral excuses for repressions, the sole official response. Failing to derive lessons from the events in the Arab World, the Russian authorities have proved utterly unprepared for a replay of a similar crisis at home. Since December 2011, when a wave of protests rolled across the country, the ruling circles have systematically repeated the mistakes made by their Arab counterparts.
The discussion of the Arab revolutions in the Russian mass media mirrored the very same catastrophic crisis of political thinking. Most of the participants in the domestic discussions did not even care to look into the social, economic or institutional processes that brought about the crisis. Moreover, the very existence of the economy, society and institutions was in fact denied, and action by millions and the current global processes were blamed on somebody’s schemes. The sole sensible component of Russia’s policy in the Middle East, if at all, was confined, just as in all other cases, to the sum of business contracts to which Russian companies were parties, and to panic reaction at the thought of likely losses Russian capitalists may suffer should these contracts be severed.
Russia’s position in economic matters looks no less dubious. Accession to the World Trade Organization has been Moscow’s top priority for many years. That the process was procrastinated indicated the existence of many problems and contradictions, and by no means technical ones. Society lacked unanimity on the issue; moreover, criticism of the WTO accession policies was mounting. Nevertheless, the authorities did not make the slightest effort to discuss that problem in earnest. The question of joining or not joining the WTO has never been asked.
Among the WTO accession critics there were rather influential representatives of business, worried that the opening and deregulation of the market will cause mass bankruptcies, job cuts, dwindling quality of goods and services, collapse of industries and, as a consequence, a decay of cities and whole regions which are still recovering from the shock of the 1990s. The traditional view is WTO membership plays into the hands of exporters, who are the main lobbyists for it (quite often utterly negligent about the domestic market problems). In the meantime, Russian exporters of oil and gas are not very dependent on the WTO regime. The position of steel and aluminum producers is slightly more complex, but even their potential benefits from the membership in that international organization do not look bright.
Financial and industrial groups controlling the export of raw materials also keep in their hands a large number of import companies
The problem is the Russian financial and industrial groups controlling the export of raw materials also keep in their hands a large number of import companies; a hefty chunk of currency revenues is spent on such transactions, and the domestic market remains under the pressure of the very same monopolies. It is easy to guess that precisely these groups are interested in minimizing restrictions and taxes. Of course, this is done under the slogan of free trade, but in reality it is to ruin local medium and small businesses, thereby securing a firmer foothold for the monopolies. What speculations about lower prices for the end consumers really mean is seen in the prices of tax-free Belarusian products on the Russian market. After the Belarusian ruble devaluated the price of those goods was to plummet, but for the retail customer they haven’t gone a dime lower. The entire surplus went into the pockets of the monopolists.
Puffery for domectic consumption
Commercialization of the system of education and health service and gradual privatization of cultural establishments, transport and the remains of the housing and utilities sector, which is part and parcel of the WTO strategy and runs counter to the interests and needs of the population, enjoy strong support from the very same Russian monopolistic business groups.
Against the background of soaring oil and gas prices in the 2000s, the Russian elites developed an illusion of their significance, and propaganda successfully persuaded not only a majority of the population, but also a significant segment of the expert community that Russia’s influence in the international arena has grown. Active participation in international summit meetings, numerous state visits and public statements contributed to creating such an impression. But in a situation where there was no well-charted strategy or clear aims, the foreign policy strategy was in fact confined to a more or less successful puffery campaign, meant mostly for domestic consumption.
Russia’s presence in the periphery countries continued to be curtailed. The closure of military facilities in Cuba and Vietnam were the most graphic examples. Efforts by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez to return Russians to Latin America yielded no results, except for some commercial contracts. Similarly, Russia’s relations with India were downgraded to plain commerce. The world has developed a vision of Russia as a large, but very provincial country, utterly unable to produce fundamental diplomatic initiatives and interested solely in financial gains – short-term ones by and large.
If Russia does have some sort of a “state interest” ideology, it boils down to the primitive formula: what is good for the big corporations is good for the country. Of course, any ruling class will place its own interests above anything else everywhere and always, including the case when setting foreign policy goals is on the agenda. But the real success of a policy, just as the viability of a state in general, depends on to what extent the ruling elites are able to take into account broader public interests, include them in their own agenda and formulate on that basis a program that would enjoy real support from society or at least from a significant part of society. Similarly, the authorities are to propose and comply with a set of rules – clear and acceptable to society – of making domestic and foreign policy decisions.
The Russian elites of the day lack this ability. Over the past two decades they have not only failed to develop it, but also invariably suppressed any attempts to put decision-making under some sort of public control. They tried to resolve all of the problems that inevitably emerged between the authorities and society with the help of propaganda tools. They kept inventing various fine-worded patriotic reasons for their purely pragmatic and fundamentally unprincipled decisions. This is also the reason for the spread of conspiracy theories of all kinds used as an explanation model – in a country where there is no public discussion or a system of representation or balance of different interests the government itself is doomed to act as a gang of plotters. The effects of decisions made in this fashion invariably and inevitably prove catastrophic.
The attempt at drafting a comprehensible modernization strategy has also failed as puffery dominated the content. Society was offered incoherent praises of all sorts of “innovations” and cloudy promises of “diversification” of the economy, which in the meantime grew increasingly dependent on the export of hydrocarbons. The modernization discourse soon stopped playing even the role of a more or less effective public promotion campaign and transformed into a means of the top authorities’ self-deceit, obstructing their ability to see not only the problems the country is faced with, but also the fatal threat posed to them by society, whose patience is wearing thin.
One does not have to be a prophet to forecast that in a situation like this the foreign policy is doomed to fail, and the state itself, to collapse. Examples of this in history are many, from the twilight of the Stewarts and Bourbons to France’s Second Empire on the eve of the war with Prussia.
The question is not about whether the modern Russian state will collapse in a similar way, and even not about when this may happen. The prophecy writing on the wall is done in such bold letters that one must be blind not to see it. The question is: Will the collapse of the state be a national disaster for Russia, or will the country rise from under the ruins of the regime of transient rulers and go on living?
However deplorable the current state of affairs is, there are no reasons to think the reconstruction of the Russian state on a new foundation is impossible. A new state will need a new foreign policy.
A foreign policy meeting society's needs
Inventing an abstract foreign policy, regardless of the structure, social nature and social-political institutions of the state is an unrewarding thing to do. But today when there is an increasingly often and clearly voiced public demand for reorganizing the social order, one may consider how this will affect the international situation.
Soviet foreign policy achieved the greatest successes precisely when it most strongly pursued idealistic goals, lying far beyond the scope of pragmatic objectives. That does not mean, though, that such a policy was not practical. In the 1920s and 1930s the country not only put an end to its international isolation, but also regained the status of an influential European power.
The diplomats of that time were perfectly aware that it is not just bureaucrats and rulers who shape politics, but the popular masses as well; that there are objective social processes which may become far more valuable than any friendly states. In those years the Soviet Union opposed the dominating tendencies and rules, it felt free to speak its mind, and in the international scene it expressed the interests of those not represented in the official world hierarchy. This is the reason why Moscow was heard and listened to. The Bolsheviks’ victory in the Civil War showed that the internationally minded Communists were the most systematic and effective safeguards of the national interests. After all they created a new unique place in the world for the country to secure its development within the global process of change. On the world scale, the USSR’s social allies were the national-liberation movements and the left-wing and workers’ parties in various countries.
In those years the Soviet Union opposed the dominating tendencies and rules, it felt free to speak its mind
What trends can Russia’s democratic foreign policy rely on? Whose interests may it express? Who will become its new global ally? The traditional left-of-center parties are in decay; and the national-liberation movements, having gained political independence for the colonial countries, have left the scene. The collapse of the USSR hit a hard blow on the periphery countries, which had to find their own independent path of development.
However, the beginning of the 21st century saw the emergence of new global movements, in fact acting as successors to the left-wing forces of the previous century. The world economic order is crumbling down, the institutions expected to translate into life the rules of the game – the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank – are in deep crisis. Multi-million masses of people in the periphery countries, just recently passive and tacit, are in commotion.
At the state level nobody dares to translate these demands and expectations into the language of politics and diplomacy, but the one who dares do that will spearhead the global process of change.
Some governments have successfully used the need for changing the established order of things for strengthening their positions. Venezuela of Hugo Chavez saddled the wave of protests against the neo-liberal domination in Latin America to turn from a second-rate country with no role in the history of the region into one of its leaders. It offered its own integration project – an alternative to the free market strategies that were being advanced by the United States. True, one can point to the oil resources as the reason for success, yet Venezuela’s previous authorities had the oil too, but that by no means strengthened the country’s international standing. It is not resources, but the way they are used that makes the great difference.
Russian conspiracy theorists are very angry about how tiny Qatar employed the Al-Jazeera television channel to transform itself from a secondary oil-producing emirate into a regional power. But here again it is not only oil that really counts. All neighboring countries have much oil, too. Nor it is the achievement of the television channel as such. The English or Arabic service of Russia Today has not made Moscow a stronger player in the Middle East or in any other part of the world. Al-Jazeera expressed the need of Arab societies for democracy, for independence and for national dignity (after three decades of humiliations and defeats). It proposed a discourse that may serve as the basis for the emergence of a secular alternative to the old-time dictatorial regimes and to the growing Islamist movement.
Many in Moscow eagerly discuss “soft power” used by some hostile forces, but they are either unable or unwilling to see that the effectiveness of such methods is directly proportionate to how well the general policy that employs them meets the real requirements of society or, at least, of major social forces.
In formulating international priorities for the future one should be aware that the dismantling of the neo-liberal system, based on the diktat of the market and transnational companies, is an imperative of the day. The reality of the crisis speaks for itself. The old order will inevitably give way to a new one, in dire need for the revival of the welfare state built on democratic arrangements and new protectionism.
Its fundamental mission will be not protecting one’s own capital from international competition, but creating economic floors where solutions and strategies, prudently produced by societies themselves, can be translated into reality. The Western countries have come close to the need for ridding themselves of the neo-liberal institutions, but that can be done only by overcoming the resistance of the elites integrated into the neo-liberal project. This is the reason why all attempts at conducting a new policy (ecological, democratic, socially responsible) that are proclaimed in the central countries of the world sometimes look inconsistent or demagogical. Their leaders try to sooth the public opinion, but they heavily depend on the interests that are directed the other way.
Oddly enough, it is the weakness and self-destruction of Russia’s state today that gives Russia a chance to offer the world something fundamentally new, something that everybody has been waiting for a long time, but nobody has managed to formulate yet. The crisis opens up new opportunities for this country. Very soon we shall have nothing to loose. The collapse of modern Russia’s state structures is an objective and irreversible trend. If a force ready for change and for recognizing the values of the democratic left-wing ideology takes center stage, very probably Moscow will become one of the architects of a new, post-crisis world. If only the world and Russia will be still there after the crisis.
The orientation to the values of democratic left-wing ideology is possible only in the most general terms, i.e. if it is recognized as the ideological basis, and not as a guide for action. These ideas and slogans per se, which were formulated in the relatively calm time – the second half of last century, have become hopelessly obsolete. The world of late capitalism is a scene of uncompromising fatal struggle of classes, where the ruling elites have lost the understanding of what social responsibility is and are unable to take any sensible decisions and measures even for the sake of their own strategic interests (understood as attempts at long-term settlement of contradictions, and not momentary gains or patching). The only way out of this situation is the death of the elites that are in the commanding positions today, so the basic question is whether this disaster will spell the end of modern society, the end of humanity, the end of capitalism or the end of its current model.
The sole strategy for progressive reform today is to competently dismantle the existing institutions – from the G8 to the International Monetary Fund, from the European Union to the World Trade Organization. The task of competent dismantling suggests minimizing the negative effects at each phase and staying aware that the only alternative to dismantling will be spontaneous and uncontrolled collapse, decay of precisely those institutions that we want to be dismantled today in an orderly and conscious way. Ideally this should be the purpose of international efforts. Most probably, of course, the hope for controlled dismantling is utopian. The experience of the past years prompts the conclusion that we shall have to deal with the ruins the conservative policy will leave behind.
Russia will have a chance, if it quits the existing institutions before they crash down to ruin it.
In a situation like this trying to devise some sort of program beforehand is tantamount to being a naïve doctrinaire or a utopian. Only real practice of Russia’s new government, if it emerges after all, will give a chance to find a new foreign policy algorithm. Theoretic speculations proceeding from the realities of the past or even the present will not only be useless, they will hinder the search for this new algorithm.
Russia will have a chance, if it quits the existing institutions before they crash down to ruin it. In that case it will be able to give an example for other countries of the world to follow. But that will happen only if Russia’s internal political collapse will occur before the global crash. This will enable it to be one of the first to recover from the world crisis.
photo by Matt Shalvatis