Russian Realism

Last Sunday, August 31, the Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev gave a speech worthy of the most ardent realist.  He laid out in clear terms what Russia’s foreign policy approach would be to the world and to the United States.  It had all the overtones and quality of a speech worthy of the USSR in the glory days of the Cold War.  Medvedev, flush with Russia’s perceived success in the Russian version of Sherman’s march to the sea through Georgia, and the strong message that sent to the neighborhood, declared a zone of Russian influence and “privileged interests” on Russia’s borders and wherever Russia had friends, citizens and business interests.  Medvedev rejected the paradigm of a “unipolar” world and American dominance of the world stage. 

Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister and puppet master Vladimir Putin was inspecting an oil pipeline that is being built to China and the Pacific reminding us all of Russia’s key position in the world oil markets and its willingness to use energy as well as its military for political purposes and influence.  The Medvedev/Putin show of force appeared to be a page taken straight from Hans Morganthau’s realist paradigm.  Certainly, the Russian leaders are not burdened by any “universal moral principles” in their approach to foreign policy and they seem to hold firm to the concept of “interest defined in terms of power.”

Thus, we may well be looking at a new old era of 19th century balance of power as former Secretary of State Kissinger claims, wherein states “in the absence of both an overriding ideological or strategic threat” are free to pursue narrow self-interest.  If the realist paradigm is the framework the Russians are using, then we have to ask why now and what convinced them that a policy shift from international cooperation, the goal of American Presidents since the fall of the Berlin wall, to international competition seemed productive. 

American triumphalism as expressed by authors like Francis Fukuyama and by neoconservative politicians may have played a part in recreating the Russian will to power and a desire to erase the embarrassment of the post communist years.  Russian political and economic stabilization under Putin and energy generated wealth and leverage certainly reinforced the sense in the Kremlin that Russia was not powerless and could take its “rightful place” once again. 

But one answer may also be in the signals that the US administration has been sending as represented by Secretary Condoleezza Rice in her article “American Realism for a New World,” published in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. She stated that: “in the absence of workable relations with (Russia and China), diplomatic solutions to many international problems would be elusive.  Transnational terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change and instability stemming from poverty and disease – these are dangers to all successful states, including those that might in another time have been violent rivals.”

There is perhaps an unintended message here that the Russians may be misreading – that we need Russia, more than they need us.  If that is the message being received, it would certainly embolden the Russian leadership to challenge us. 

Secretary Rice was applying a realist’s litmus test to our relations with Russia and recognized that Russia’s internal course is not subject to American leverage.  She pointed out the long-term effort of America “to marry power and principle.”  She suggested it was possible to create a paradigm that combined “realism and idealism.”   While arguing for realism with regard to Russia and China, she also held on to the paradigm of Francis Fukuyama and the ultimate triumph of democracy and the need to hold true to our commitment to democratic development, particularly in the Middle East.  She stood firmly against Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations when she said that “culture is not destiny.”  She also sought, without much evidence, to discredit the paradigm that China represents of “authoritarian capitalism” Finally, she seemed to be giving a nod to the Republican nominee John McCain’s new world order of a League of Democracies. 

Perhaps her article led the Russians astray.  More likely it only confused them.  She tried valiantly to deal with the competing philosophical approaches to foreign policy of our time and the fundamental outgrowth of the Bush administration’s missionary commitment to “the importance of human rights and the superiority of democracy as a form of government, both in principle and in practice.”  How indeed can you be at one and the same time a missionary and a realist?  This must be the question that Medvedev and Putin were asking themselves and one that Secretary Rice never successfully addressed.