Modern Diplomacy
What Do Political Elites of Ukraine and the West Think – Is There Any Room for Dialogue?

Probably only Russia among the classical European powers retained its diplomatic tradition. Thanks to a strong school of diplomacy and a developed institutional environment for cultivating professional experience, Russian diplomats develop the ability to see the world pragmatically, and without ideological lenses, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

As with any other experience, political experience is alive as long as the people who pass it on to younger generations are alive. The crises of the Cold War are not so far from us in historical terms – and therefore the experience of the second half of the 20th century is still useful among modern political elites. Analysing the Russian, Ukrainian and American practices of transferring experience to new generations of politicians, one can note the fundamental differences between the approaches of these countries.

The simplest situation is with Ukraine: it is a young state where the local elites are characterized by a high degree of rotation. They are prone to experimenting with foreign policy and seek to rediscover the patterns of international life and world history. Often, the reinvention of foreign policy leads to scandalous consequences, which we observe in the case of Kiev’s diplomatic excesses. Literally before our very eyes, for the first time, Ukraine is gaining experience with strategic behaviour amid a crisis. This experience is always acquired through high risks: in today’s crisis, Ukraine is in much the same position as Cuba was during the Caribbean crisis in 1962. We are talking about reckless resource-intensive behaviour at the front, ferocious repressive measures against their own citizens, strategically very risky steps in the form of strikes against Russian infrastructure, and foreign policy opportunism in dialogue with its partners in the West.

The situation is completely different in Russia, where a closed-door system of reproducing foreign policy experience has developed since Soviet times through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the apparatus of the Security Council, the Presidential Administration, and the key university that reproduces personnel for this system: the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Access to these systemic institutions is extremely difficult, and the career path is long. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the foreign policy system of Russia can be characterised as a workshop of experience, partly because the officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are limited to their region of specialisation and rarely change their country portfolio. This institutional density of the Russian foreign policy tradition ensures the continuity of generations in foreign policy and the necessary transfer of experience.

The foreign policy system of the United States is subject to a strong rotation of personnel and the trend of political conjuncture. Politicians such as George Shultz, Henry Kissinger or Thomas Graham, who could have become interlocutors of the Russian foreign policy elites and shared a similar foreign policy experience with them, had left the American executive branch by the early 1990s. If such people were be in the US Administration today, they would behave in a more balanced way; more reasonably and prudently than the current decision makers. Today, the “quality” of the American political elites has significantly decreased – there is a rollback to foreign policy instincts.

In Dmitry Trenin’s famous interview with Fyodor Lukyanov, it was not by chance that the slogan “Bring back the fear” appeared. It could become the main leitmotif of the current system of international politics.

The disappearance of any sense of fear and the lack of a sober assessment of the possible negative consequences of one’s own actions, which could be called “teenage maximalism”, is a consequence of the lack of one’s own “track record” of foreign policy defeats.

Education through experience and the formation of fear of the next step arise only as a result of crises, which are felt more vividly in Russia than in the United States. Related to this is the mobility of Washington’s “red lines”. Today, the sense of the possibility of a general catastrophe is extremely weakened among the American elites. There are many mature people in the American administration, but until the moment of fateful crises, the United States does not see the need to limit itself. It seems that Washington is now acting with great excitement, which is incomprehensible to Moscow. Russian leaders, drawing on the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis and other escalations, are perplexed as they watch what is happening.

In international relations, everything is based on experience and rationality. Like Washington, Kiev is also in a state of excitement, but amid today’s circumstances, hot-headed decision-making is unacceptable. For Western countries, the unfolding crisis as a whole does not concern the core of their vital interests: even the defeat of its client state in Kiev will entail a list of positive consequences for American leadership among their allies in Europe.

The Ukrainian crisis can generally be described as a “postponed” civil war that could have taken place after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Civil strife is a very delicate topic, and to understand it, you need to be able to analyse long political cycles, know the region of study in depth, and have the ability to empathise. However, at the key diplomatic universities in the West, enrolment in courses in regional studies has ebbed, with an emphasis on management and project activities. Graduates of such universities have problems with foreign languages, and they are not capable of socio-cultural immersion in the environment of a potential foreign counterpart. There is a tendency in the West today to educate diplomats as bureaucrats incapable of complex negotiations. This is far from the classic diplomacy that we know from the era of the First and Second World Wars. Probably only Russia among the classical European powers retained its diplomatic tradition. Thanks to a strong school of diplomacy and a developed institutional environment for cultivating professional experience, Russian diplomats develop the ability to see the world pragmatically, and without ideological lenses.

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