The historicism of diplomacy is not in memorising the “lessons” of history, but in the ability of a diplomat to put foreign policy decisions in context, to understand the systemic causes of international processes, and to be able to analyse these causes analytically. Diplomats must make sure from personal experience that the international system still exists, it is solid and based on military-political, not ideological realities, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
Diplomacy remains one of the few mission-critical professions based not on theory, but on applied skills. The classics of diplomacy studies Harold Nicholson and Ernest Satow wrote that the essence of diplomacy is the reliance on common sense and the “practical application of the intellect.” But what is the nature of “diplomatic skill” and “common sense”? In his book To Be a Diplomat, Iver Neumann summed up the meaning of diplomacy as follows: making the world a better place with an eye to history. The “historicism” of diplomacy is its fundamental principle. A diplomat’s constant look at history — “What would the predecessors have done”? — makes him both a historian and a philosopher. Today, however, the historicism of diplomacy needs to be rediscovered, in conditions when the West has abandoned this principle in favour of the “end of history”.
Niall Fergusson rightly wrote that the language spoken by the political elites of the leading countries of the world is not the language of money, institutions or laws, but the language of history. History allows you to put yourself in a broad context of events and make strategic decisions based on the national experience of foreign policy. Far from all countries have preserved the principle of historicism in long-term planning. It was preserved only by the leading countries, which have retained the experience of great power politics, when the use of force is perceived as another tool to achieve a political goal along with others.
It is this parameter that leadership is determined today. It can be assumed that for this reason Russia’s negotiations with the United States will take place much earlier than with the EU, since there are no countries in Europe that could make their own big bet in the unfolding geopolitical game. It’s like playing in a casino not with your own money, but with candy wrappers from Monopoly: you lose the sense of responsibility for your decisions, there is no understanding that you will have to answer by yourself. There are few countries in the world today that “play for their own”: Russia, the United States, China, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Perhaps that is all.
The European foreign policy tradition has been severely devalued by the inflation of the “liberal dream”. Europeans have ceased to soberly understand the cause-and-effect relationships in the world’s power system of coordinates. A sober analysis is based on a qualitative understanding of your own interests and a clear understanding that you will spend not someone else’s, but your own resources, and that you will not have a chance to sit out.
A colossal gap in the understanding of the world is also visible in education: the Russian and Western traditions of teaching international relations have significant differences. They are connected with the fact that we have different foreign policy experience, which can be defined as the number of wars and negotiations on crisis resolution. Russia, unlike many European states, does not stop gaining experience in diplomacy in extreme conditions and does not avoid the use of force in international relations. Therefore, the Russian tradition of personnel training is rooted in the study of foreign languages and regional studies, knowledge of the strategic culture and political system of foreign states. The fundamental nature of the approach to the study of counterparties is dictated by the need for constant preparation “for the worst”. Given the asymmetry of material resources with the West, a better approach to training diplomats is Russia’s “super ability”. This makes it better prepared to reach complex deals by raising rates.
Russia is one of the three most active countries in the world, on which a lot depends, and from which a lot is asked. The speech by President Vladimir Putin, on the eve of the start of the special military operation, was, in fact, a lecture on history, during which he explained the logic of the decisions made: it is not only a strategic understanding of the role and place of his own country on the world stage, its interests, but also statement of the fact that this decision will have a significant number of negative consequences. Many of our strategic interests will suffer significantly, because the choice is not between good and bad options, but between bad and worse.
After World War II, European countries moved to the second tier of world politics and have almost no independent significance in the world hierarchy — their security is provided by the United States. As a result, they are losing the foreign policy tradition of rational goal-setting, a sober assessment of their own interests and their own resources, with which they are ready to back up these interests.
In the annual International Threats report, my colleagues and I described this state as “a vacation from strategic thinking.” European diplomacy has turned into another kind of bureaucracy, where discussions take place in greenhouse conditions on the topic of systems and regimes, norms and rules.
In practice, states do not have a real opportunity to force someone to comply with UN sanctions or force states to peace. Real foreign policy steps are being replaced by the ideologisation of foreign policy. Such a course gave rise to one-sided and ideological pressure on Russia without the ability to hear it. It seemed to the Europeans that Russia simply could not have any interests — this is a huge strategic mistake that led to the current crisis.
Unfortunately, human nature is such that it does not learn from history lessons. But the historicism of diplomacy is not in memorising the “lessons” of history, but in the ability of a diplomat to put foreign policy decisions in context, to understand the systemic causes of international processes, and to be able to analyse these causes analytically. Diplomats must make sure from personal experience that the international system still exists, it is solid and based on military-political, not ideological realities.