De-Escalatory Diplomacy in an Alienated World

A quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, the world is out of joint. One problem is that currently all major powers or power groupings are in a state of transition. This goes for the United States and for the EU, for Russia and for China, for Saudi Arabia and for Iran, for India and Brazil and South Africa. At the same time, their geopolitical relationships are undergoing convulsive change.

Another problem results from the fact that the world is once again deeply divided ideologically. In one camp we have the states adhering to the Western liberal order based on the values of the free market, of individual and minority rights, the rule of law, a free press and frank public discourse. In the other camp there are those illiberal states who reject the Western norms of enlightenment, relying instead on their capacity to improve personal lives while keeping authoritarian political control; their source of legitimation is not democratic representation but material competence – the competence to deliver prosperity.  However,  in many respects liberals,  delivering  (and non-delivering) authoritarians ace the same challenges: ageing societies, urbanization and the extinction of the peasantry, climate change,   the downside of globalization as well as the problematic effects of digitalization  on our working world. Instead of wrangling over their ideologies, they ought to reach out to each other and jointly tackle their common problems. This goes in particular to Russia and the West.

When the Cold War ended, the general assumption in the West was that Russia was going to join the Western system; that it would become a close partner. In Moscow, too, joining the West was the principal foreign policy objective. Meanwhile, alienation set in.

The question is: How long is the new ice age going to last? Some say: many years, possibly decades, a whole generation. I think that just sitting there, arms akimbo and doing nothing, would be a shameful abdication of statecraft.

The primary tasks at hand are confrontation management, prevention of escalation, preserving what marginal cooperation can be saved, and confidence building, however laborious. For the Ukrainian crisis this means above all progressive implementation of the Minsk II agreement, coupled with a progressive lifting of the sanctions.  The larger task, however, is hammering out a new grand deal between Russia and the West, or at least between the European Union und Russia. They must step back the brink. After  a number of failures, a new “reset” must be tried.

Western acceptance of the fact that Russia has been, is and will be a great power, even a world power that possesses real and legitimate interests and treating it that way is one precondition of success. Another precondition is the Kremlin’s acceptance of the territorial integrity and inviolability of its Western neighbors, restraint and diplomatic sensitivity in dealing with them.  Leaders everywhere should heed Edmund Burke’s warning to beware of “the total want of what others naturally hope or fear.”

The immediate challenges of our time require partnership as a response. They require global governance. Moreover, hey call for avoiding bluster and blame, and for learning to live with our differences while simultaneously building on our common interests.

Recently I heard a top German diplomat describe this as “compartmentalized cooperation” – a method he recommends both for the relationship between friends and for the relationship with rivals or adversaries.   You disagree to disagree where your interests diverge, but you join hands wherever you have shared interests. You turn red-hot conflicts into frozen ones rather than bull-headedly seizing maximum objectives. Strategic patience is a virtue, not a vice. De-escalatory diplomacy must be  the order of the day.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.