According to the Russian logic, examples of American interference in the internal affairs of other countries serve as a precedent. A radical, and even forceful violation of the balance of power and stability is not a unique “moral duty” of the only “global policeman” to protect the normative-value rules of the system, but only a precedent in the case of the forceful protection of others’ national interests, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
One of the most important parameters of international relations is their structure. In its current form, institutionally, this structure is based on agreements between the victorious countries in World War II. They laid the foundation for the creation of the United Nations and many other institutions that today coordinate and partly regulate the activity of states at the global level. This institutional structure (and the principles laid down in its documents) sets at least the minimum framework and constraints for the functioning of world politics.
In addition to this institutional framework of the structure of international relations, there is also a much less rigid part of it, which is determined by the balance of power. It obviously has a greater influence on the dynamics of interaction between states; it has fewer normative elements, and therefore it is noticeably more flexible and mobile. Various constructions of “polarity” in the world just reflect this dynamics (real or desired) in this kind of balance of power. Nevertheless, here too, over the past decades, one can observe a tendency towards the strengthening of quasi-normative constraints on the behaviour of states on the world stage. Indeed, the concept of “a rules-based world”, which is now popular in the West, is one example of making these frameworks more rigid.
All this leads to the fact that, let’s say, the amplitude of the freedom of states in upholding and promoting their national interests is becoming more and more imaginary. The question is not only one of the lack of resources or power available for such actions. Structural limits to this have in recent decades also played a deterrent role. It is no coincidence that one of the most common versions in the theory of political realism today is called “structural realism”. Its provisions just emphasise that the realisation of the national interests of states should take place within the framework of the existing structure of international relations and not go beyond them.
Of course, structural frameworks and limitations did not prevent major powers from occasionally breaking them and resorting to military force to advance their interests. The military campaigns of the United States in recent decades are well known. However, the Americans, as a rule, later explained these actions not only and not so much in the context of advancing their interests, but precisely as necessary and forced steps aimed at protecting the existing structure of international relations and its normative constraints from the danger that threatened them, from their next adversary. At least, that’s what it looked like from their point of view. According to this logic, certain US military actions were not seen as breaking the international structure, but, conversely, as a struggle to preserve it. According to this logic, the United States itself turned out to be a kind of “global gendarme” standing guard over the system. US allies in the West, as a rule, supported such interpretations (with rare exceptions, for example, on Iraq in 2003) due to the fact that they are not indifferent to its principles and values, and also because the US is the most powerful military power in the world. As a result, Theodore Roosevelt’s old idea of “international police power” was put into practice. True, unlike the original version, there were not several police officers, but only one, but these are twists and turns.
In the context of this logic, the conceptual and theoretical scheme of “revisionist powers”, that gained some popularity, was also formulated. It meant those states that, as it was believed, were potentially or actually ready to challenge the established structure of international relations and its limitations. Russia and China were included in this list of new revisionists in the forefront. However, sometimes, even in Western analytical articles on this topic, one could come across the assertion that the United States itself is the main revisionist. However, these are also twists and turns.
Russia, in its official position, beginning at least with Putin’s Munich speech and even from the first wave of NATO expansion in 1997-99, declared its disagreement with such an approach. In the official Russian interpretation, in our opinion, one can trace three lines of first rhetorical and then real opposition. One was that the postulated desire of the United States for a unipolar world and domination, which is precisely the main threat to the stability of the international system and the stability of its structure. America was urged to stop and not follow this dangerous path. It was said that all world politics should be carried out in strict accordance with the UN Charter and under the auspices of the UN Security Council; that all issues of European security should be resolved through the OSCE. Here it must be noted that we can find elements of this approach in official Russian rhetoric today, despite the radically changed situation.
In parallel to the first line of argument, another topic appeared somewhat later, which did not quite coincide with the first. Its essence is that if America violates the stability of the structure with its military operations and introduces a force factor into world politics, then in the conditions of the postulated multi-polarity of the world, the same kind of things are permissible for everyone else. According to this logic, examples of American interference in the internal affairs of other countries serve as a precedent. As the saying goes, “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” A radical, and even forceful violation of the balance of power and stability is not a unique “moral duty” of the only “global policeman” to protect the normative-value rules of the system, but only a precedent in the case of the forceful protection of others’ national interests.
Such a “precedent” approach was used for the first time in official Russian rhetoric in 2008, when the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was equated with the recognition of Kosovo.
Later, a similar comparison of Kosovo and Crimea was noted in 2014. However, as everyone knows, this logic did not meet with understanding in the West.
After that, in the official Russian position, the third line of logical opposition began to be traced more and more clearly. This is a near-denial of those normative-value imperatives that the Western countries postulated as the main constraints on the structure of world, and not only politics. In this context, the juxtaposition of sovereignty and universalism is beginning to take more and more place in official Russian statements. Here, more often, an appeal to history begins to appear. A conclusion is drawn about the civilisational uniqueness in the identity of each people and state, and therefore the impossibility of uniform rules and values which apply to everyone. In addition to the “usual” geopolitical revisionism, Russia in its official position from this stage is actively embarking on the path of normative-value revisionism.
Since February 24, 2022, we can say that the previously existing structure of international relations has been broken, or completely changed. It will not be possible to return it to its previous state in any outcome of the current conflict. During the first months of the conflict, the Valdai Club addressed this topic in the article “World Order: The Limits to Revisionism”. Russia’s transition from “ordinary” revisionism to posing a direct military and political challenge to Western countries, on the one hand, makes us recall the old Marxist law of dialectics about the transition of quantitative changes into qualitative ones. On the other hand, although it is now impossible to talk about any contours of the new structure of international relations, they will depend on the outcome of the conflict. It is now absolutely clear that in any case, Russia will be crossed out from the Western-centric part of the world for a long time, there is no minimum trust on the part of “our Western partners.” There is, of course, the world majority, which, in our opinion, is watching patiently and with interest to see how successful Russia will be in its transition from quantitative to qualitative changes. It will depend on this whether they perceive the Russian example as a noteworthy precedent, or as an exception that is better not to repeat. All further trajectories of the political behaviour of the Non-West in the future structure of international relations will largely depend on this.
This combination of isolation from the West and the world majority awaiting the outcome of the conflict allows us to recall possible historical parallels with the young Soviet state in the first period of its development. At the time, Soviet Russia, by the very fact of its appearance, broke the existing structure of international relations. Despite individual exceptions, some elements of the political involvement of the Soviet Union in the external international structure began to appear only 10-15 years after the October Revolution, when the USSR was first allowed to join the Kellogg–Briand Pact, and then for a short time it was admitted to the League of Nations. In any event, the inclusion of the USSR in the structure of the international system occurred only following the results of the Second World War. It was not simply included, but incorporated as a leader of an alternative development model in the context of a bipolar system.
Only time will tell whether Russia is able to become such a leader of the “alternative way” amid the current breakdown of the international structure. Everything here depends on Moscow. If we apply this historical analogy to the present day, then, obviously, it may also be many years before the stability and inclusiveness of the world system is restored. However, this does not make the postulates promoted officially by Russia about a just world order, about the richness of the historical and civilizational heritage in the identity of each nation and state, about the absence of dominance in the world, and finally, about adherence to the UN Charter, less attractive in themselves.