Reinventing foreign policy “wheels” brings young states back to reality and to the tradition of a realistic understanding of what your national experience is: foreign policy potential, resources, and vital and secondary interests. The correlation of subjective national experience with foreign policy realities is, in a sense, the key to success in the international arena, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
In a retrospective description of the twenty years between the First and Second World Wars, the British diplomat and historian Edward Carr called it “The Twenty Years’ Crisis” . In his opinion, it was the result of a collision of the post-war structure in Europe, built on the moral, ideological and legal norms of the victorious powers, with the desire of the losing powers to achieve equality in international relations. Carr argued that the crisis was natural: the cries of the leading European powers for the establishment of a “harmony of interests” were worth absolutely nothing in world politics until the losing powers were integrated into the new order.
It is possible that today humanity is again in the midst of such a “long crisis”. Its relative inertia and the absence of a global cataclysm do not allow us to clearly identify its outset. However, historians of the future will no doubt write about it as a self-evident process: “At the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, first in Ukraine, and later in the entire architecture of global politics, we see signs of a systemic crisis.”
Perhaps the starting point of the current “long crisis” is found in the early 1990s, when the United States began to build a unipolar system. Faced with the ever-increasing resistance of the leading powers, Washington began to sharpen its policy over time, seeking to slow down the formation of a polycentric international system.
The end of the current “long crisis” requires an intellectual understanding of the contours of the new multipolar world order. The entire second half of the 20th century, until the 1990s, passed under the auspices of the academic and philosophical reflection of the experience of the Second World War. Humanity consciously approached the results of that catastrophic conflict and said: “We will now come up with a stable world that will work according to the rules that we will propose in a key United Nations document and stabilize this framework for as long as possible. An alliance of five major countries will support this framework.” Indeed, apart from the periphery, where there was a fierce confrontation according to the rules of bipolarity, this framework remained for quite a long time at the core of the international system.
At the dawn of the 1990s, there was the same hope for a seamless transition to a new balance of power based on liberal ideology, American values, and the strength of the global financial and economic infrastructure. It is worth recognising that humankind could not rationally build a stable system that could function with one power pole. Previous similar attempts at the conscious conservation of the established order of one centre of power had been short-lived, and now international politics has returned to its norm of rivalry between the major powers.
To illustratie international realities, we can turn to an earlier artefact of human reflection — the history of the Peloponnesian War, where the Melian Dialogue provides us with an archetype from which we may derive the basic maxims of the concept of realism. When forcing the Melians to surrender and join Athens, the Athenians said: “We will not bother you with speculative claims that we have the right to an empire ... on the contrary, we hope that you will join us; you yourselves know that law, like the world, is a matter only between those who are equal in power.” Realism allows you to stand more firmly on your feet, comprehending what is happening. By and large, its “credo” does not include anything — neither law nor morality — only power relations and the ever-emerging need to correlate the interests of states with the power factor. However, returning to the ideas of Edward Carr, we note that the British historian warned that realism is “sterile” and requires an intellectual “superstructure” consisting of ideas corresponding to the time.
We can say that for the current denouement of the “long peace” — an important “superstructure” of realism can serve as the national experience of the elites. Their national understanding in each case is individual, and must be treated with respect. Thus, our concept of common sense is not necessarily the same as in Germany, Poland, the USA, China or India. In the 1990s, we saw many experiments in nation building and importing national foreign policy experience. Some republics of the South Caucasus, for example, imagined themselves to be small Western European countries with a different geopolitical neighbourhood, a different economic environment, and different security threats, and tried to build an appropriate foreign policy. Countries have tried to “reinvent” themselves in new circumstances, with varying degrees of success.
Oftentimes, imported experience confronted the young states with the harsh realities of international politics: if you hit an electrical outlet with an iron nail, you should expect a shock. Many countries have had the misfortune to experience for themselves what this is like: is there really a current through the socket in the 21st century? Yes, it looks like it’s still going.
Reinventing foreign policy “wheels” brings young states back to reality and to the tradition of a realistic understanding of what your national experience is: foreign policy potential, resources, and vital and secondary interests. The correlation of subjective national experience with foreign policy realities is, in a sense, the key to success in the international arena.