Russia in Global Society

25 march 2012

Societal Power of a State as a Decisive Factor of International Success

Timofey Bordachev - Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Director of the Eurasian Program at the Valdai Club Foundation. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: A power resource (a component of power) is important not by itself but when applied to circumstances where it can be used, or to a specific form of relations between states. The component of power that plays the key role in specific relations is viewed as the key indicator, and a new balance of power can be defined on its basis.

The end of the Cold War and the global parade of sovereignties reanimated the Westphalian system of states, whose demise had been insistently predicted by analysts in the late 20th century. Moreover, it spread on a global scale after the breakup of ideological camps which had practiced the “limited sovereignty” doctrine. Sovereignty, the core of the Westphalian system, has become the only universal value. Attempts to legalize the possibility of its violation by introducing such notions as “humanitarian intervention” have failed politically or have become emasculated.

This has resulted in the emergence of a global society comprising 194 states (as of 2011) sharing the value of sovereignty regardless of their own social and political systems. However, profound differences in their views of justice and political systems stand in the way of the ideas of representatives of the English School of international relations theory who dream of common norms and rules of conduct in an international society. The brilliant ideas of Hedley Bull, for example, have had a dismal follow-up in the past two decades, mostly as speculations (quite racist by their nature) to the effect that “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” and that only states that have reached a certain level of democratic rights and freedom can be full-fledged members of such a society.

The new global society, diverse and free of dogmas, functions much along the same lines as a nation-state, which is always heterogeneous, too. There is a fundamental difference between them though. Achieving control and supreme power over society at the national level is possible, but at the global level it is not. The thing is that a global society does not comprise individuals but states, and a state – the leviathan – is the supreme form of social organization in itself. This is why attempts to establish various forms of global hegemony, create a “world government” or limit the sovereign rights of individual countries, even in such a relatively compact field as the regulation of financial markets, have failed.

The global society of states – the international system – cannot be governed. Yet the international system has an inherent capacity to generate the demand for this or that form of social conduct of its participants. The life experience of this society is very short (15 to 20 years); it is still in its diapers and has not yet established a complex multilayer system of interrelationships and institutions characteristic of any developed society. The only clearly formulated demand of the young global society of states is the demand to resist any form of domination or outside attempts to restrict their freedom (sovereignty), be it U.S. attempts to establish its hegemony in one or another form or attempts by international terrorist networks to appropriate the key right of any state – the right to kill.

If a country’s foreign policy meets this requirement, that is, if it meets the expectations, the international system itself becomes a source of this country’s relative strengthening.

The most appropriate, although probably incomplete, definition of the emerging unique resource would be the societal power of a state, a kind of social capital with no material basis, which is in demand in the international community. (“Societal” means in this context an aggregate quality of trends that are accepted in a society and are independent of each individual and of the environment.)

Special “personal” qualities, such as physical strength, still play an important role. For example, Venezuela and Iran – following Russia and China – meet, in word and deed, the so far only coherent demand of the international system, namely, resistance to any attempt to establish hegemony. However, their influence will never compare to that of Russia’s – not only because Caracas and Teheran often go beyond diplomatic proprieties but because they are weak militarily.

However, the role of physical strength is no longer decisive, not least because it is now impossible to rank a country on the basis of this parameter alone. Of major importance is a country’s ability to meet the dominant demand from a majority of other states, and the results of Russia’s foreign policy prove this.



Moscow has strengthened its international positions over the past two decades, despite the objective weakness of the Russian state in all traditional aspects of power, save nuclear weapons. After a period of chaotic reforms, Russia has become a full-fledged master of its own – and not just its own – destiny. Moscow negotiates as an equal with states with far greater military and economic capacities.

Many analysts agree that Russia’s success is primarily due to the West’s failure to establish control over the political and economic system of the world in the 1990s and the first half of the last decade. Amid a relative weakening of the U.S. and its allies and a relative rise of China (and other “rising powers”), Moscow rose without making much effort to strengthen its positions. In other words, the reasons behind this rise were mostly objective, while Russia’s foreign-policy failures can be traced either as a lack of resources or an absence of a coherent foreign policy strategy, a situation which often draws critical comments.

I would say that Russia’s relative rise was a result of a much more complex combination of subjective and objective factors. The subjective ones include the capability of its foreign policy to learn historical lessons and ideally adapt to the external environment. The 1991 “rebirth” enabled the country to evaluate each individual situation in international life de novo and give up obsolete patterns or standard responses. The “asymmetric response” concept, widely used by Russian diplomacy, turned out to be the symbol of such a successful approach.

Abandoning “big ideology” in the late 1980s was a tremendous relief for the Russian elite and political and economic diplomacy. Subsequent attempts in the first half of the 1990s to join the leading liberal ideological movement, represented by the leading Western states, failed as Russia proved not ready for the required domestic transformation.

Another factor in this failure was the inability of Russia’s potential ideological allies (the U.S. and other Western countries) to adopt a more flexible policy: they should have given up the idea to “convert” (using Henry Kissinger’s term) their former adversary (as they had previously done with Germany) and helped its evolution instead into a friendly, yet independent partner.

Russia itself consistently reiterated its intention – even when it was at its weakest – to restore control over a lion’s share of the post-Soviet space. In 1993-1995, all Russian foreign-policy documents proclaimed as a priority goal integration within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), although Moscow did not even have a well-conceived policy in that area. In other words, Moscow never gave up the status of a major center of world politics, regardless of its ability to meet this status.

The lack of an ideological core and of the need to stand by a certain development model enables Moscow to solve problems in an opportunistic (in the positive sense of the word) and flexible way. The same factor prevents setting goals in the international arena and working out a strategy to achieve them. Verbalizing priorities stops short of a clear concept. At the same time, lacking clear objectives and confining the conceptualization of foreign policy by task formulation (with regional leadership among possible tasks) are typical of the most traditional and most favorable approach for international relations from the viewpoint of international security. As Hans Morgenthau noted, creating and maintaining stability in an existentially unstable world requires an anti-reformist and anti-revolutionary foreign policy.

However, the above qualities, even augmented by a nuclear missile potential and the capability to resort to force in critical situations, would be insufficient for Russian foreign policy to achieve impressive success. Russia’s adequate reaction to the transformation of power as the key structuring factor in international relations played a decisive role in that its future as an international player now depends only on its ability to overcome stagnation trends in domestic development.



This transformation is in that social and physical dimensions of power become increasingly independent of each other, and that the social component becomes more and more significant. There are at least two reasons for this.

First, the main consequence of the disappearance of the bipolar world order was the democratization of international life, unprecedented in the entire history of empires and opposing camps. By significance, this event matches the completion of the colonial division of the world in the 19th-early 20th centuries, when the world map ceased to have inhabited “white spots”. This political map has now become more heterogeneous and diverse.

The system of sovereign states, equal in rights, has spread on a global scale, reproducing in a way the model of Europe of the 18th-19th century, based on a balance of power. (Earlier, Sergei Karaganov already drew an analogy between the present situation and the splendid 18th century.) In effect, that system was a society, too, but it comprised monarchs. The foreign policy of Great Britain, for example, opposed any attempts at hegemony by Spain, France or Russia – the powers that were potentially capable of attaining it – and thus met the social demand of all the other members of the European system.

However, there are major differences between the situation of 250 years ago and now. First of all there is a far greater diversity of ideas of justice (which are essential in forming the demand) among key international players. The active involvement of Asia, above all China, in world affairs makes it impossible to establish a “concert of nations” under the universally shared principles of the “right” social system.

In former times, the decisive principle was the unquestionable legitimacy of the monarch and the unacceptability of usurpation of power by a commoner. Now, accepting a universal system of even very general rules for all states is impossible. One of the reasons is that the United States, the leading economic and military power in the world, remains a relic of the ideology-laden 20th century (which makes another major difference between the present-day world order and 18th-century Europe). The unique form of relationship between the home and foreign policies of this absolutely non-system player – by 21st-century standards – considerably limits its capacity to act as a responsible member of society.

Sovereignty is the only value shared by all the countries in the modern world without exception (even the United States when it applies it to itself). The war on world terrorism, started after September 11, 2001, showed that 99.9 percent of countries in the world, ranging from the U.S. to Russia or China and from Iran to Norway, can rally to defend this value against encroachment by non-state players. Muammar Gaddafi, who negated his neighbors’ sovereignty in the name of the ideas of pan-Arabism and Jamahiriya, was always regarded as a dangerous fringe politician. At a crucial moment in his life – the voting at the UN Security Council on the night from March 17 to March 18, 2011, he did not evoke any sympathy or support from any state in the world – unlike Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who is zealously defended by Russia, China and some other UN member countries.

Importantly, the value of sovereignty has not so much an internal as an external dimension, as it determines the philosophy of a country’s behavior in the outside world. This value served as the foundation for establishing an international society of states – and only states – in the early 21st century.

The idea of erasing sovereignty, a widely discussed subject 15 to 20 years ago when the European integration project was in its prime, proved unable to encompass the “broad masses” precisely because it was based on a unique affinity of the political systems of the EU member states. The dead-end of ASEAN’s integration initiatives, just as the crisis of the European integration, proves that there is a line that countries cannot cross.

The emergence of the above international society of states automatically increased the significance of power as a social asset derived from the social demand. An analogy with a community of people is quite acceptable here. Success comes not to the politician (country) who knows how to do things better but to the one who feels better than his rivals what people (a majority of other international actors) want. Simultaneously, this has reduced the importance of a physical manifestation of power in the form of knowledge, experience, intellect or good looks of a candidate, if we stick to the analogy with domestic politics.

The key to success is the capability to be in demand, even despite limited material resources, while failure is brought about by the presence of internal structural constraints which prevent a quick and effective response to society’s expectations. The national egoism of EU members or the necessity to follow democratic procedures in decision-making can serve as examples of such constraints. They decrease a state’s capability to go with the stream of world politics and check its actions and statements not with the domestic demand, but the demand of the outside world.

An inability to give up ideological patterns or myths in relations with the outside world plays a negative role, as the example of the U.S. shows. And while considerable physical qualities might compensate for general inadequacy, rich life experience and intellect – as in the EU’s case – are rather a hindrance on the way to political influence. “There’s no country for old men”, and even a small victorious war cannot help, as the nominally successful Libyan campaign of 2011 showed. Even if one scores a real victory, other members of the international society of rivals will describe it as Pyrrhic anyway.

Russia, which received a second opportunity in the last 100 years to start its foreign policy from scratch, turns out to be very popular among the non-Western majority of the international society, even though it lacks the physical and moral qualities its rivals have and it has not offered any attractive ideological project. Russia’s ability to meet the main social demand – to act as opposition to the West – compensates for its flip-flop policies which stem from pure pragmatism and the lack of ideas.

The dreams of theoreticians of the liberal school about a transformation of classic international relations into “world politics” have materialized in a paradoxical way. The UN General Assembly has assumed characteristics of parliament in an ideal anarchic republic where there is no political or judicial control. The UN has become a platform where various political programs and practical interests clash.

Countries that have become emancipated from the Soviet-U.S. confrontation have found that world politics is not a paradise where states and non-state players cooperate according to common norms and rules. Image has triumphed over reality as everyone has understood that it is impossible to achieve supreme power and that the notion of responsibility has become eroded. An ability to create an advantageous impression by means of sophisticated propaganda has gained the upper hand over an ability to effectively settle conflicts and solve problems. The BRIC group of countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is a symbol of the new global politics. This group has no real basis, such as economic cooperation, yet and it is only busy exerting moral pressure on the leaders of the political and economic systems of the world.

Of the two attributes (power and prestige) which, according to Morgenthau, nations struggle to possess, it is prestige that comes to the fore as the traditional image manifestation. In this context, Russia’s continuous struggle for prestige, which over the years became an object of countless stings from relevant observers, takes on an extremely rational character.

Meanwhile, the societal power of a state has nothing to do with its ideological appeal. This phenomenon seems to be a vestige of the bygone age of ideologies, along with its various analytical deviations, such as ‘soft’ or ‘smart’ power, offered even by most respected authors to find a way out of the conceptual deadlock. Hardly do many countries in the world find Russia or China ideologically attractive. Conversely, many certainly like the political systems of the United States and, especially, countries in Western Europe.

Simply put, ‘soft power’ implies a projection, even though soft, of certain ideas or practices onto others. Societal power, in contrast, is a country’s ability to perceive “emanations” from the outside. In the conditions of democratization and politicization of international relations it is no longer important whether or not this or that leader is good or bad. What is important is how their behavior in the international arena meets social expectations of other states.

Nobody in the world expects charity from Russia or China, for example, or their active participation in the settlement of various problems. They have never given occasion for such expectations in the modern time. Their social roles and societal power, partly realized by them and partly intuitively felt, are in resisting encroachments by Western countries, a sort of world oligarchs, upon other countries’ sovereignty and their attempts to dictate their rules of conduct to others – even if they have to support Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and antagonize the Gulf’s oil monarchies and a large part of the Arab world for that. It does not really matter that Russia lacks economic, cultural, political or legal diplomatic instruments (except nuclear weapons). The ability or inability of a state to independently generate foreign-policy instruments is ceasing to have crucial importance.


Speaking in the U.S. Senate in January 2009, the newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named resources (traditional for diplomacy though) which states should have at their disposal to pursue an effective foreign policy in the 21st century. These included diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural instruments. These resources were best summarized in the book The Future of Power by Joseph Nye, an outstanding U.S. international relations expert, published in 2011, in which he offers a formula for a successful foreign policy for the United States.

Unquestionably, the ability to correctly use one or a combination of resources listed in Nye’s book is the basis of success at the level of inter-state relations. But to win success in the whole society of states one needs components of power derived from the international system, not from personal qualities.

In the modern conditions, it does not really matter whether a state has enough components of military, economic or ideological might. Individual benefits and drawbacks are now losing their significance. Physical or subjective components of power are becoming increasingly less applicable in theory and practice, in the first place due to decreasing possibilities to empirically verify one’s ideas about the global balance of power.

A power resource (a component of power) is important not by itself but when applied to circumstances where it can be used, or to a specific form of relations between states. The component of power that plays the key role in specific relations is viewed as the key indicator, and a new balance can be defined on its basis.

At present, there is not even a theoretical (let alone political or applied) understanding of what relations, aside from direct conflict, can make the basis for determining the balance of power among states. Attempts to work out and apply a map of “economic balance” encounter at least two obstacles. Firstly, the international and political insignificance of such an economic giant as the European Union serves as a reverse example. Secondly, sovereign control over markets is obviously insufficient even after all the measures to “support national economies” during the crisis of 2008-2009.

As for conflict, given the traditional views of the logic of international relations, the most natural development of the global situation would be movement towards a classical military-strategic confrontation between America and China, with other leading powers, above all Russia, playing a balancing role. An expectation of such a scenario eases the unpleasant feeling of global uncertainty; scientific discussions in the middle of the 2000s about an impending clash between the democratic and authoritarian development models reflected this underlying striving for clarity.

The most noticeable feature of the discussions was that they addressed classical problems of international relations – power and the balance of power – while keeping within the framework of linear logic, characteristic of the liberal way of thinking. Methodologically, this approach could not produce anything bigger than an attempt to reanimate the frame of reference of the Soviet-U.S. confrontation era. That may be the reason why Russian foreign-policy analysts expressed their alarm then over new Cold War trends. It also explained why ideologists of confrontation between democratic and authoritarian capitalism opted not to consider relations between states as basic units but to reanimate the logic of confrontation between systems. However, when this logic was applied in practice, namely, in the “axis of evil” concept presented to the world by the George W. Bush administration, already several states with absolutely different political and economic systems were named as threats.

But in the new international conditions, using military force is far less rational from the political point of view than before, while the scope of economic interdependence has increased. The emergence of nuclear weapons in the middle of the 20th century and the possibility, obtained by the Soviet Union (Russia) and the U.S., to contain each other through mutual assured destruction played the decisive role. (After the end of the Cold War, the nuclear deterrence principle has also spread to countries with a smaller potential; they do not even need the MAD capability, the capability to cause unacceptable damage to an aggressor would be enough for them.) It was then that relationship between political and military objectives was destroyed, as the peaceful end to the Cold War proved.

Maintaining nuclear potentials contributes to further political uncertainty in relations between Russia and the United States, and, to a certain extent, between the U.S. and China. Moreover, the impossibility of a global conflict in principle, coupled with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, decreases the significance of conventional forces. As military might cannot be used to resolve strategic issues, its significance is depreciated to the level of tactical tasks, whose solution does not transform the international system in the interests of the state using force.

In case of the increasing economic interdependence, bilateral trade and economic relations have lost much of their significance. Their scope and importance for a state’s survival may decrease, and they are not even a guarantee against conflict, as shown by relations between Germany and Great Britain whose bilateral trade was at its height in 1913. Now, we are witnessing the emergence of a “world economy,” which is creating absolutely new framework conditions for countries to use their own economic resources. The economy is becoming increasingly “external,” which strongly limits the possibility to weigh it in measuring the power of a state.

The decreasing role of military power on a global scale has become a serious intellectual challenge for the political and scientific community. The concepts of “soft” or “smart” power were only attempts to find an answer to a new situation. They aimed to find new unique resources, whose possession would ensure an advantage in the aforementioned limited conditions. Although all the authors of these concepts give priority to military might, components of power mentioned by them have been steadily growing in number.

Taking into account the growing volume of relations between national political and economic systems and an increase in the number of factors of power, important or only seeming important in a given context, components of power can be subdivided infinitely. However, it is impossible to empirically check how adequately we assign importance to this or that component in the aggregate power of a state; in other words, we cannot compare them in a conflict. Therefore, a further definition of necessary components of material power is of purely theoretical importance.

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To summarize my position, which by no means claims to be complete, one could argue the following. In a unique society where no state can come to power, demands are set not for the quality of a player (no one is going to elect him leader anyway) but for the condition of the system as such. A state’s ability to meet expectations of this system is beginning to play a decisive role. Russia, now fully devoid of ideology and having gone through the mill of Realpolitik in the first decade of its independent development, has proved capable for international and political revival and for returning into the ranks of world leaders. It combines its diplomatic experience and skills of the “old leader” with ability to meet the international social demand at the level of “new” leaders, such as China. For Beijing, a similar amount of societal power has required tremendous effort to develop physical strength.

At least two practical conclusions follow from the above. First, an analysis of physical capabilities of partners and rivals is not the only crucial element of foreign policy in a highly chaotic world. Much more important is to forecast general trends in the world society’s preferences and to work out analytical instruments for the purpose.

Second, society’s preferences may change in any political system, especially in the unique international system where there can be no absolute power. In this context, a state, quite successful today, may find itself sidelined tomorrow. So it would be very imprudent for a state to disregard the development of its individual qualities, independent of the system’s social demand. Russia, which has successfully implemented the project of “power through prestige,” has much to do in this area.

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