A New Realism for the 21st Century

27 december 2012

U.S.-China Relations and Russia’s Choice

Igor Zevelev is Doctor of Political Science.

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A New Realism for the 21st Century
Maintaining a balance between the Euro-Atlantic vector and the Asian-Pacific vector of Russian foreign policy should not be a game of U-turns one way or the other, but should rather be characterized by flexibility and readiness to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
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Resume: Maintaining a balance between the Euro-Atlantic vector and the Asian-Pacific vector of Russian foreign policy should not be a game of U-turns one way or the other, but should rather be characterized by flexibility and readiness to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Most experts agree that the Chinese economy will surpass the American economy in terms of absolute GDP within the next ten years. This change will occur within the tenure of the current political administration in Beijing, which came to power in November 2012. In the meantime, the United States will remain the strongest power militarily and retain its preeminence in the spheres of science, education, technological development and innovations. Over time, we will enter a fundamentally new epoch of world history, characterized by diversification of leadership in various fields amongst a large number of countries. Does Russia have a foreign policy strategy which can prepare it for these international changes? And how should Russia react to the growing competition between the U.S. and China today?

Relations between Russia, China and the United States do not amount to a simple set of exchanges between influential and powerful states. These relations are also characterized by a collision of self-definitions and varying interpretations of the outside world. Classical approaches to international relations – based on balance-of-power (realism) or varying degrees of democratic development (liberalism) – cannot fully explain the nature of these complex relationships. A constructivist approach, however, would allow us to address apparent paradoxes of these states’ foreign policies and take a look at the idiosyncrasies of their domestic discourses. This can, in turn, reveal differences in how these states form and formulate their national identities.

National identity is not static. It is dynamic and fluctuating. It is perpetually formed and reinvented by both domestic discourses and in response to developments on the international arena. Rodney Bruce Hall, an American international relations theorist currently working at the University of Oxford, maintains that countries project their changing ideas of self to the outside world, thereby shaping world politics. In a new study, Henry Nau and Deepa Ollapally have revealed that heated debates over a state’s place in the world and its greater goals are key features of political discourses in all countries with foreign policy ambitions, including countries that are not democratic.

Russia’s perception of the West is closely intertwined with the internal discourse about national identity and debates about Russia’s development pathways. Russia’s view on China, on the other hand, is far more removed from Russia’s perception of self, and is based rather on foreign policy and economic calculations. This asymmetry in perceptions of leading international actors influences Russia’s foreign policy in ways that hinder its adaptation to fundamental changes on the international arena. If Russia continues to craft its foreign policy as a function of its own existential search for an identity, it will run the risk of missing important opportunities and overlooking grave threats. The rise of a new brand of conservatism among Russia’s political elites is likely to follow this dangerous pattern and get in the way of developing realistic and flexible policies towards the U.S. and China.

Amongst Russian political elites we witness the paradoxical combination of an unwavering belief in the existence of a European (i.e., Christian) civilization on the one hand, and anti-Western rhetoric on the other hand. While relations with the U.S.A. are constantly securitized, relations with China are usually formulated in pragmatic, rational terms. Rising anti-Western rhetoric in the Kremlin in 2012 contrasts sharply with the absence of any publicly expressed concern over China. Official documents and statements demonstrate an apparent indifference on the side of the Kremlin towards China’s military growth and its increasingly assertive foreign policy in 2008-2012.

Most Russians share the Kremlin’s visions of the United States and China. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center in 2011, 29% of Russians who thought that their country had enemies considered this enemy to be the United States (the U.S. came in second place in the list of enemies after Chechen militants). China was named a potential adversary by a mere 9% of respondents. In 2012, 35% of respondents claimed the United States was among the most unfriendly or hostile countries towards Russia, and only 4% named China in this category. 16% of respondents claimed China to be one of Russia’s closest friends and allies, while only 2% placed the U.S. in this category. The number of Russians with a “bad or very bad attitude” towards the United States grew from 29% to 38% from 2010 to 2012.

Intense debates are constantly unfolding in Russia with regard to Russia’s relationship with “the West,” which for Russians is often a broad, abstract and floating concept. “Pro-Western” and “anti-Western” camps of political, intellectual and public figures have emerged. This kind of public discursive action is almost absent when it comes to China, which is a topic of calm and professional discussion among experts in the field. How will this affect Russia’s readiness to face new challenges on the international arena, where U.S.-China relations are becoming structurally more and more important?

U.S. POLICY TOWARDS CHINA

Of the four schools of foreign-policy thought in the United States (the realists, the liberal internationalists, the neoconservatives and the isolationists), three (with the exception of the last group) are committed to the idea that the United States should maintain its primacy on the global arena. Realists and isolationists pay special attention to maintaining a balance of power, which is currently shifting away from America’s favor. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives are worried by the emergence of alternative models of development which challenge the universality of American and Western values and question the future of democracy as the only political system for all states.

In contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama is aware of the fact that the rise of other leading states on the international arena is inevitable, while American military might is not completely inexhaustible. Yet due to deeply ingrained ideas of American exceptionalism and a belief in the need to maintain primacy globally, Obama is forced to continue asserting the country’s leading role. In this context, Washington’s political strategies towards Beijing are inevitably twofold. There are efforts to incorporate China into international affairs as a responsible player, yet at the same time there is determination to contain China militarily. In this way, Obama’s policies are based on a conception that emerged during the presidency of George W. Bush: to make China a “responsible stakeholder” within a liberal world order, while hedging risks associated with China’s rising military might. In 2011-2012, it became increasingly difficult to maintain a balance between these two courses.

China’s military modernization program, which includes space, naval and missile modernization, as well as its growing cyber warfare capabilities, is nerve-racking for the U.S.A., and especially for the neoconservatives. Traditional U.S. military superiority in the Asia-Pacific region may be challenged. The region is becoming ever more reminiscent of the Cold War era. U.S.-China relations are approaching a critical point, beyond which there lies the possibility of an open arms race, the formation of alliances, soaring mutual distrust and suspicion. In a situation like this, any incident, for example in the South China Sea, may culminate in a major conflict. Neither the U.S. nor China want tensions to escalate. Yet military buildup on both sides perpetuates its own destructive logic, regardless of the intentions of political leaders.

In the U.S. military and intelligence communities, whose planning horizons stretch far beyond the electoral cycle and who are free from pressures from big business interested in economic relations with China, concern over Beijing’s growing potential and ambitions is far greater than among politicians. The China factor in the U.S. is complicated even further when we take into account the struggle of powerful interest groups in Congress. There are those who claim Beijing is a “currency manipulator” deliberately undervaluing the renminbi, thus harming the American economy. And there are those who are interested in multi-billion-dollar investments in China, who thus wish to avoid any tension in U.S.-China relations.

Many Republican congressmen take a realist stance in their understanding of international relations and the China factor. They see China as an opponent and rival and argue for a hardline foreign policy. Randy Forbes, for example, has formed the Congressional China Caucus, an informal bipartisan group for congressmen who share concerns over the rise of China. Some have even called for the formation of an alliance between the U.S., Russia, Japan and India for facing the threat of China (Dana Rohrabacher).

An analysis of official China-related military-political documents reveals a growing concern over its mounting power and influence over the past four years. In 2008, the U.S. National Intelligence Council first used the term “multi-polarity” in its report. In 2010, the Quadrennial Defense Review explicitly called for conflict risk management in U.S. relations with China. In the 2011 National Military Strategy concern was expressed over the scale and goals of the Chinese military modernization and over China’s assertiveness in space, cyber space and at sea. The Strategy also contains a statement that the United States will make explicit its will to resist these trends and to maintain global and regional security.

Until the year 2011, realist depictions of China as a threat in military documents and in open intelligence reports stood in stark contrast with liberal-internationalist calls to incorporate China into the U.S.-led world order as described in political documents. This contradiction of course came to an end in November 2011 with the publication of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s seminal article entitled “America’s Pacific Century.” Hillary Clinton posited that “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.” Over the course of 2012, however, the resolute call for a “strategic pivot towards Asia” made way in official American discourse for a milder formulation of the political agenda described as “rebalancing.”

The China factor is becoming more and more important in determining the nature of U.S. relations with Japan, South Korea, India and with ASEAN. The China factor has not yet become a determinant of U.S. action or policy in other regions or in the world at large, but this situation is likely to start changing soon. When this happens, the China factor will also become crucial in forming American policies towards Moscow and in determining American perceptions of Russia at large. This is both a risk for the Kremlin, and an opportunity to strengthen its position despite serious demographic, economic and political problems. American realists have been pushing Obama towards viewing Russia as a partner in the face of the China threat, yet a possible hurdle to real cooperation between the U.S. and Russia may become growing concern of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives about the domestic political situation in Russia. For these political groups, Russia and China are both authoritarian states who aim ultimately to limit U.S. influence on the international arena.

CHINA’S POLICY TOWARDS THE U.S.

David Shambaugh, leading U.S. expert on China, identifies seven schools of thought in today’s Chinese foreign policy sphere: the globalists, the selective multilateralists, advocates of the Global South, Asia First, the Major Powers, the realists and the nativists (nationalists). At the heart of each school’s agenda lies a distinct understanding of Chinese identity in the context of the international arena. All the schools agree insofar as they argue that China is a major power (daguo), but they offer differing answers to the question what this really means. The realists, borrowing some ideas from the nativists, are the most influential group. They maintain that Beijing must have full independence and sovereignty in internal affairs, that China needs a developed and advanced military and an assertive foreign policy directed towards realizing China’s interests in the dangerous modern world. They are against U.S. hegemony.

Many experts believe that China is gradually becoming a power which strives to change the international status quo. This process accelerated with the onset of the world economic crisis in 2008-2009, which gave China comparative economic advantages and increased Beijing’s self-confidence. If China really intends to change international norms and institutions, it will need partners. This is precisely what the Major Powers school advocates. It emphasizes the need for China’s interaction with large influential states. The alternative point of view is Beijing has no plans for revising the fundamental features of the liberal world order, as precisely these features have thus far been helpful in driving China’s economic growth. Many experts in the United States claim that China merely seeks to gain greater influence within the existing framework of global governance institutions. China’s globalists and multilateralists are indeed acting in this vein. However China’s main course of action is interpreted, one thing is clear: Beijing is interested in forging partnerships with states that are also dissatisfied with the current state of global affairs. Russia is among such states.

China views the U.S.A. as a revisionist power, as Andrew Natan and Andrew Scobell note in their recent article in Foreign Affairs. Most Chinese realists and nationalists argue that America seeks to restrain China’s growth of influence in any way possible. However, economic interdependence (or, alternatively, “mutually assured economic destruction” in the event of a conflict) eases military and political tensions between the U.S. and China. The countries are each other’s second largest trading partner. China is America’s largest lender and owns more than 1.2 trillion dollars’ worth of U.S. Treasury securities. The United States is, in turn, the third largest investor in China. About 150,000 Chinese students study in the United States and more than 20,000 Americans work in China or study at Chinese universities. This shows a historically unprecedented degree of mutual interdependence between the world’s leading power and its rising competitor.

A SEARCH FOR NATIONAL IDENTITY AND RUSSIA’S FOREIGN POLICY

Over the past 150 years the debates over Russia’s identity and its role in the world centered mostly around the country’s interaction with the West. China has never played any significant role in these debates. Russia’s approaches to international relations today can be categorized into the following three schools of thought: the liberals, the realist-statists, and the nationalists. Images of the United States and, to a smaller degree, of China are formative for the visions of the liberals and the realist-statists. Russian nationalists (with the exception of the “new right”) pay less attention to the U.S. and China.

The roots of the Russian liberals’ views can be traced to 19th-century Westerner traditions of Russian intellectual history and to modern theories of liberal internationalism. The purpose of the liberal project in Russia is to turn the country into an integral part of the “Greater West.” For the liberals, the United States is viewed as the most important strategic partner, and China is perceived merely as an Asian neighbor. Most liberals instinctively gravitate towards the U.S.A., partially because they think that a close partnership with Washington would constrain antidemocratic and unlawful tendencies of the Russian government in domestic affairs. After the disintegration of the USSR, the most ardently pro-Western liberals hoped not only for integration in the imagined “Greater West,” but also for full assimilation in its institutions and for equal treatment within them. These ideas served as the foundations of Andrei Kozyrev’s foreign policy in 1992. The attitude to China during that period can be characterized as a blend of arrogance and ignorance. Later, many liberals claimed that China was an authoritarian state and a potential challenge to Russia. In the second half of the 1990s these zealous liberal approaches drifted into the margins of the Russian political spectrum and ceased to have any great influence on foreign policy. At the same time, more moderate liberal views which leave room for criticism of certain aspects of the United States remain influential today.

Today, the realist-statists have emerged as the most influential school of foreign policy thought in Russia. Yevgeny Primakov can be considered the founder of this school. Many former liberal internationalists have joined this camp in the wake of their grave disappointment with how the West treated Russia after Soviet collapse. A determining factor of their shift from liberal internationalism to realism was disillusionment with NATO’s expansion east.

Russia’s statists can be described as defensive realists who call for maintaining Russia’s influence over territories of the former Soviet Union and for containing American global influence. The realist-statists project onto the international arena an image of Russia as an influential pole in a multipolar world. Most realist-statists perceive the United States as a country which does not hesitate to sidestep international law for the sake of preserving the unipolar structure of the world order and to achieve domination in all spheres. To them, the U.S. is also an advocate of “unlimited democratization,” regime change and “orange revolutions.” Against this backdrop, the image of China is that of a country seeking to maintain a global balance of power in a multipolar world and defending the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention.

The balance of power on the international arena in the short term pushes Russia’s realist-statists to balance the United States by forming temporary coalitions with China in various policy spheres. So far there has been no evidence that the representatives of this school are prepared for a fundamental change of the balance of power in the coming decade, nor do they consider even temporary ad hoc coalitions with the U.S.A. to be a strategy for facing the rise of China. The realist-statists are integrated in the bodies of power and are important figures within the Russian political elite. For this reason, their domestic and ideological agenda of safeguarding Russia’s sovereignty and securing non-intervention from external actors puts any kind of temporary coalition with the United States out of the question. American liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, with their regime-change rhetoric, are viewed by Russian realist-statists as the main threat to Russian interests. Russian realist-statists would rather prefer to deal with classical realists in Washington. Yet the international arena is changing in great strides, and this involves deep shifts in the system; in this context, a partial reevaluation of relations with the United States in the face of a rising China is possible in the coming years.

The nationalist school of foreign-policy thought is made up of at least three sub-groups: neo-imperialists (supporters of Russia’s regional domination in the post-Soviet space), ethnic nationalists, and the New Right. In the first half of the 1990s, the neo-imperialist project was aimed at restoring Russian statehood within the borders of the former USSR. Over time, aspirations were reduced to goals informed by realist approaches, namely, to turning the former Soviet states surrounding Russia into a buffer zone of dependent protectorates. Such aspirations began to be formulated in more modern terms, appealing to concepts of “economic integration” and “soft power.”

Goals of the ethnic nationalists include making the nation-state and the ethnic group synonymous and creating a new political unit in areas where ethnic Russians and eastern Slavic peoples reside. This involves the reunification of Russia, Belarus and part of Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan. Intellectually, Russian ethnic nationalism can be traced back to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was the first great thinker to challenge supra-ethnic traditions in their imperial manifestation. Having freed itself from its own imperial yoke after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia’s Russian ethnic identity became more pronounced. Despite the fact that ethnic nationalism is not a particularly institutionalized ideological framework in Russian politics, it has the potential to grow and strengthen over the course of the coming decades. A rise in such tendencies will bring into motion dangerous processes in the Russian domestic political sphere, as ethnic nationalists will begin to challenge and resist the multiethnic and polycultural nature of Russian statehood.

Over the course of the last two years we have witnessed the rise of a new trend in public and foreign policy thought in Russia – the New Right. Members of this group position themselves as right-wing antiglobalists. Mikhail Remizov, one of the intellectual leaders of this group, is acutely aware of the importance of U.S.-China bipolarity for Russian politics. In the face of new power shifts, Remizov views Russia’s preservation of its sovereignty as its central goal and main challenge. The rejection of liberal values by the neo-imperialists, the ethnic nationalists and the New Right results in a distinctively anti-American reading of international affairs on the part of these groups.

RUSSIA-THE UNITED STATES-CHINA

In Russia, in the United States and in China there are three similar schools of foreign-policy thought: the realists (in Russia these are the realist-statists), the liberals, and the isolationists (which include some of the Russian and Chinese nationalists). At the same time, there are approaches that are distinctive to each particular country: the neoconservatives in the United States, the neo-imperialists in Russia, the “Asia First” advocates and the supporters of the Global South idea in China. In all of these countries, realists play the leading role, especially within the state apparatus. Of course, the schools of realist thought in the United States, in Russia and in China differ from each other. They also have varying intellectual allies: neoconservatives (under George W. Bush) or liberal internationalists (under Obama) in the United States, the nativists (nationalists) in China, and the liberals (in 2001-2002 and 2009-2011) or neoimperialists in Russia. The local flavor of the realist school of thought in each state is becoming increasingly pronounced. There is some overlap between the schools: realists in the U.S. fear and distrust Beijing, and their Chinese counterparts reciprocate in their perceptions of the U.S. It logically follows that American and Chinese realists perceive Russia as a declining power which no longer plays a leading role on the international arena (especially in the Asia-Pacific region) despite its formal parameters like possession of nuclear weapons, energy resources and a vast territory. Many of Russia’s realist-statists eye Washington with exceptional mistrust and hope for a Russia-China coalition to balance American power. Yet there is also a rising awareness of Russia’s relative weakness and its subsequent need to be more flexible in forging relations with other states in the future.

Russia’s policies towards the U.S. and China over the past twenty years have been inextricably linked to shifting modes of interaction and balance between the various camps of foreign policy thought. Liberal Westerners, who dominated the scene in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, simply did not pay any attention to China. They quickly lost their influence and were replaced by statist groups which gradually began to reformulate Russia’s policy preferences. In 1998 Yevgeny Primakov, in the spirit of realism, voiced his idea of forming a strategic triangle between Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi to counterbalance the domination of the West. After a short period of Putin’s version of the “reset” in Russian-American relations in 2001-2002, Moscow returned to trying to contain unipolar American hegemony. Between 2003 and 2008, Russia emphasized its non-recognition of American leadership on the international arena and propagated an image of itself as a great power in global politics. The main point of reference for Russian “great powerdom” in this period was always the United States. Russian-Chinese cooperation was viewed only as a helpful tool in the game of containing American power. Criticism of China was essentially banned from official documents.

In the latter half of 2008, after the war with Georgia and with the beginning of the world financial crisis, Dmitry Medvedev seemed to have stopped viewing the United States as the main global threat to Russia’s interests. At the same time, Moscow developed a stronger fear of becoming a junior partner in its relations with Beijing. In 2009-2011, the liberal approach to foreign policy became far more influential and pronounced. China’s growing strength and the relative weakening of the United States brought about a more nuanced discussion which included debates over the advantages and drawbacks China’s rise might bring for Russia. The tone of official statements changed. When Chinese journalists asked Russia’s Ambassador to China Sergei Razov about the spreading “theory of the Chinese threat” in April 2011, the diplomat acknowledged that such speculations enjoyed some popularity in Russia and were shared by some citizens, but that they did not reflect Russia’s official stance on the matter. Russian military officials, on the other hand, started pointing to China’s growing military potential as a reason for Moscow to increase the number of ships in its Navy and to retain its tactical nuclear weapons. In October 2010, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky claimed that Beijing’s interests in the Arctic were sufficient reason for Russia to strengthen its naval forces.

Vladimir Putin’s return to office and concerns over maintaining stability in the country in the spring of 2012 brought about a situation where domestic political considerations began to increasingly affect the foreign policy course. This was evident, above all, in relations with the United States and Europe. The Kremlin claimed that the West had provided backing for the Russian opposition, encouraging human rights activism and pushing for political reform, thus meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. Arguments were made for a turn towards the Asia-Pacific region. This was primarily a policy response to the objective growth of the role of China and other Asian countries in the world. Yet Russia used this opportunity to demonstratively show the West its readiness to turn to alternative partners on the world arena.

The analysis of relations between Washington, Beijing and Moscow in “triangle” terms was characteristic of the realist approach in all three countries for many years. However, this approach has already been rendered obsolete mostly due to a stark change in the balance of power. U.S. policy towards China will no longer be based on its stance towards Moscow, signifying a radical change from the Nixon-Kissinger era. Chinese relations with the U.S. are no longer formed in China under the  influence of Beijing’s Russia policy, as it had been during Sino-Russian tensions of the 1960s and 1970s. As for Russia, the U.S.-China factor will become ever more important for foreign policy. The balance of power between the U.S. and China is shifting, and the need to react to Beijing’s rising ambitions will become a primary factor on the foreign policy agenda of Russia in the coming years. China strategies in Russia are still largely derived from the desire to counter the U.S. and challenge its hegemony. This is done through the UN Security Council and through official rhetorical action on the part of Russian political elites. There has been no evidence that the China factor has any influence on Russian-U.S. relations as seen from Russia. Russia continues to view China as an Asian neighbor and key economic partner, but not as a new global power.

ROOM FOR MANEUVER

Most Russian experts understand that a U.S.-Russian alliance against China is as much of a nonstarter as a Russian-Chinese alliance against the United States. However, Moscow will have to bear in mind the dynamics of U.S.-Chinese relations in building its policy in the Asia-Pacific region, in developing bilateral relations with Washington and Beijing, and in formulating its global strategy at large.

Russia is likely to become a “swing state,” i.e. a country that has minor power relative to the two leading powers, but which is still capable of choosing one or the other alternately as a partner. Temporary coalitions may be formed with the United States on some issues, and with China on others. Diversified and multi-tiered partnerships with the United States and China would be the best strategy for Russia. This creates favorable conditions for gaining a firmer foothold on the international arena, but each step has to be considered and calculated very carefully.

Moscow already seems to be playing this game, although politicians may not be directly aware of this. On the one hand, Russia cooperates with the United States on a number of international security issues, including arms control, Afghanistan, Iran, and the war against terrorism. The participation of Russia’s Pacific Fleet ships in the major international naval exercise RIMPAC in the summer of 2012 indicated that, despite the problems in Russian-U.S. relations, the partnership in the sphere of maintaining international security keeps developing even when the liberals’ influence in Moscow is minimal. The fact that not only Russia, but also India took part in the exercises caused China to worry.

On the other hand, Moscow has been trying to counterbalance global leadership of the U.S. by cooperating with China on issues relating to state sovereignty, strengthening the UN Security Council, and advocating for a multi-polar world order in which no single state is in a dominant position over all others in world affairs. The way in which veto power has been used in the UN Security Council is a telling illustration of certain overlaps in how Russia and China view the world. In 2007-2012 the right of veto was used seven times. In five of the cases, Moscow and Beijing acted together to block the resolution on Myanmar (2007), Zimbabwe (2008), and Syria (in 2011 and twice in 2012). Additionally, in 2009 Russia barred the adoption of a resolution prolonging the mandate of the UN observer mission in Georgia and Abkhazia. China abstained. The fact that joint Russian-Chinese vetoes have all been aimed at preventing international intervention into internal affairs of sovereign states indicates that the primary concern of Moscow and Beijing is retaining sovereignty as a pillar of the international political system.

As U.S. analyst Richard Weitz has pointed out, Russia and China pursue independent but parallel policies on many global and regional development issues. Weitz believes the reason behind this lies in the fact that the main security concerns for these two states lie in different regions – in Eurasia for Russia, and in the Asia Pacific region for China. In areas of overlap (Central Asia, North Korea or the arc of instability in the Muslim world which touches the territories of Russia and China), the powers strive to avoid major contradictions, and have thus far been successful. This is a classical approach within the framework of realism.

The realists in Russia and China operate in similar ways, use similar terms, and thus can easily come to a mutual understanding. However, realism is not the only influential strand of foreign policy thought. Interaction among different schools of political thought in the United States, China and Russia will largely determine the nature of their relations. National leaders must take into account domestic political factors and, to use the term developed by Robert Putnam, play “two-level games,” i.e. interact with partners in the international arena, but bear in mind internal restrictions resulting from the overall line-up of social and political forces. Cultural and ideological factors are always at work, and they can modify constructions erected by classical realist approaches. In the United States, the liberals and conservatives see eye to eye in their commitment to the advancement of human rights and democracy worldwide. In China, the nationalists pepper politics with anti-American rhetoric and may easily reintroduce rhetoric regarding traditional Russian imperialist tendencies. Russia’s statists, together with certain strands of nationalism, are obsessed with preserving the great power image and with resisting the liberal West at any cost, but under certain circumstances they will see a growing threat from Beijing.

In the United States, the realists are having the hardest time. Advocating for human rights and democracy worldwide is part of American national identity, which is based on universal values and political institutions. This sets the U.S. apart from other states. The system of checks and balances and the influence of civil society on politics make it impossible for any American presidential administration to act solely out of realist considerations. This, in turn, complicates the situation for Beijing and Moscow in their dealings with the U.S.

Today, the way Russia perceives the United States and China can tell us more about Russia than about its partners. The rise of China and the gradual decline of the role of the U.S. on the international arena demand significant de-ideologization of Russia’s view of the world. Political realism must be freed from the chains of outdated dogmas and from Russia’s ambitions to oppose the imaginary and abstract “West.” Maintaining a balance between the Euro-Atlantic vector and the Asian-Pacific vector of Russian foreign policy should not be a game of U-turns one way or the other, but should rather be characterized by flexibility and readiness to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

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