Without Ideology or Order

20 december 2009

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: The greatest achievement in Russian foreign policy over the past 20 years has been the renunciation of messianism. Yet today Russia has to choose again between a policy based on global ideas, one that is mainly pursued by the United States, and sovereign pragmatism, which is characteristic of the foreign policies of China, India, and – increasingly – Europe.

The greatest achievement in Russian foreign policy over the past 20 years has been the renunciation of messianism as Russia abandoned attempts to impose its own model of social relations on other countries. The Russian political class was very relieved when it no longer had to position Russia’s ideology as the only systemic alternative to the global dominance of liberal democracy. Economic advantage was expected to become the key guideline in domestic and foreign policies.

Yet today Russia has to choose again between a policy based on global ideas, one that is mainly pursued by the United States, and sovereign pragmatism, which is characteristic of the foreign policies of China, India, and – increasingly – Europe.

The final triumph of pragmatism in 1991-2000 was foiled by the commitments that Russia had to make in order to comply with the system of international relations. Among the most important obligations it had to honor were the need to maintain its status as the second nuclear superpower, responsibility for the fate of the majority of former Soviet republics, and the need – which Russia felt rather than realized at that time – to play an active role in containing any aspirants to global leadership.

During the larger part of the 1990s, Russia took on a bona fide but reluctant role to contain U.S. hegemonic ambitions and carried this burden into the 21st century. In the first half of the current decade, Russia began to backtrack to its habitual, imperial model of foreign policy, tempered by various restrictions of international law. However, as the U.S. experience of 2003 (the invasion of Iraq) and Russia’s experience of 2008 (the war with Georgia) showed, a country that considers itself an empire does not hesitate to step beyond such restrictions if the circumstances require it.


Russia seems to have been able to get rid of ideology as the main pillar of its foreign policy. As a result, its course in the international arena has been marked by a paradoxical combination of regulatory integration with the European Union (in accordance with the model of relations envisioned by the Partnership Agreement) and rivalry with the EU in the territory of the former Soviet Union. The first is dictated by pragmatic considerations: the European norms of state regulation of the economy are indeed better and more effective. The second is explained by Russia’s struggle to regain the potential and prestige that befit the empire. Moscow attempted to overcome this paradox within the framework of the sovereign democracy doctrine: while remaining part of the outside world, Russia insisted that the national specifics of its policy should be reckoned with.

It should be noted that the very fact of the recognition of such specifics, unique in each particular case, implies a voluntary withdrawal of the Russian model of social order from the international contest. In other words, history for Russia is not a struggle to the final victory between developmental models, but their peaceful, although competitive, existence. This markedly differs from both the liberal views of Anglo-Saxons and classical Marxism, which was the core of education for the majority of Russian elites.

But the question still remains open: Can a state that rejects global aspirations count on more than regional influence? If yes, and if an attractive ideology is no longer the necessary attribute of foreign policy, Russia will have to compensate for the lack of this factor of influence by boosting other factors. If no, and if it is impossible to be a big player without ideology in the contemporary world, Russia will be unable to hold a pragmatic line for long. It will have to look for new ideas, possibly borrowing them from abroad.

There are few options here. Judging by the number of program speeches and academic papers, Europe is gradually abandoning universalist ideas in favor of preserving a sovereign nation state as the only guarantor of democracy. The logical consequence is a gradual departure from the ideologization of external relations, readiness to cooperate with regimes hitherto viewed as unacceptable partners because of their disrespect for human rights and other principles inherent in the liberal outlook. Europe is trying to pass through, as Sergei Karaganov has aptly noted, the stage of “overcoming the overcoming.” In other words, it wants to abandon its ideologized and, at the same time, sterile foreign policy, which once aimed to neutralize destructive nationalism, while at the same time steering clear of nationalistic traditions.

China, although it considers itself a great world power, is by no means inclined to extrapolate its ideology to other countries and regions (if such an ideology has existed at all since 1978). Adhering to the precept of Deng Xiaoping that “it does not matter what color a cat is as long as it hunts mice,” Beijing ignores the color of the partner, showing interest only in the profit and political influence necessary for gaining it.

India seems to have withdrawn into itself. The huge scope and depth of the country’s problems, together with religion, frustrate the appearance of even insignificant messianic aspirations. Aside from that, the local ruling class, with a thousand-year-old culture and traditions of statehood, has developed a rather haughty attitude to foreigners. The authorities even frown on the Hindu gurus who teach yoga abroad: they believe that sacred things are not for export. Unlike Europe or Russia, India is self-sufficient, and does not need close allies.

The last “bride-to-be” ideology is liberalism, which advocates the interrelation between domestic and foreign policies, the interdependence between the countries of the world and the possibility of international control over actions by national authorities.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made particularly liberal comments at an international conference in Yaroslavl in September 2009: “The problems that emerge in the territory of one or several states assume a global proportion, and this happens instantly, while incompetence, or sometimes an unwillingness to resolve one’s own problems, causes damage not only to one’s own country, but also to a large number of other states. The ineffectiveness of state institutions generates international conflicts.”

These words express the essence of liberal institutionalism and look as if they were borrowed from such classical works as Stephen Krasner or James Rosenau. It is another matter that these and a number of other authors never questioned the sovereignty of the U.S. One might assume that Russia is trying on a similar gown. The problem is that the U.S. has long staked out the place as the leader of world liberalism. There can only be one unchallengeable authority in this community, as in NATO. But it is unlikely that Russia will reconcile itself to the role of a junior partner. The history of the past two decades has convincingly refuted this supposition.


On December 26, 1991, we woke up in a multipolar world. The lowering of the Soviet flag the previous day was a pivotal occasion that put an end to the history of the bipolar system of international relations. Russia, which hoisted its tricolor above the Kremlin on December 25, became one of the centers of a new, multipolar world, together with the U.S., China and India. It was Russia – because its military-strategic capabilities were a match to those of the U.S. – that had to play the key role in keeping the new structure of international relations.

With a few exceptions, Moscow’s foreign policy concept in subsequent years was formed – voluntarily or not – in the vein of “containing” the U.S., the most likely aspirant to world hegemony. All these years the U.S. was busy asserting itself as the only political center in the world, but its efforts were unavailing. The system that emerged in the wake of 1991 was not shaken. The one-pole model of world governance remained no more than an intention.

Even before the breakup of the Soviet Union, bipolarity had not been absolute. In the middle of the 1960s, China openly confronted the Soviet Union, while France withdrew from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. From then on the capability of the two superpowers to fully control countries standing below them in terms of importance (the main characteristic of the system of international relations, unique in human history) was stated with certain reservations.

Nevertheless, until 1991, only those two states had been much stronger – militarily and politically – than any of their immediate rivals. Also, they were almost equal in power to each other. This parity enabled them to dictate their will to other countries on the key issues of war and peace. This created a semblance of international governability. In the economic sector both superpowers controlled the development of their subordinates with confidence, although it took a great deal of effort.

The multipolar system which emerged after the breakup of the Soviet Union is far from the theoretical classical construct as well; that is, it does not envision the equality of more than two powers by the main parameters of power. One of the countries has remained much more powerful than its immediate competitors. In 1997, for example, U.S. defense spending was larger than that of the six states standing next to it in terms of military power put together. Also, U.S. GDP accounted for 20 percent of the world’s GDP at that time.

Kenneth Waltz, a classic in the science of international relations, notes that “the numbers give a sense of disparity in capabilities but they are hardly impressive.” It follows that the arithmetic understanding of unipolarity (i.e. the U.S. would be the only center because it has the largest GDP and defense spending) is quite conventional. In reality, to justify it, one would have to ignore the parity between Russia and the U.S. in strategic nuclear forces.

Meanwhile, the missile-nuclear parity, inherited from the Cold War era, continued to play a crucial role. It is this parity that remained the “tough foundation” for Russia’s opposition to America’s unipolar initiatives during the entire period from 1991-2009. Both Moscow and Washington were well aware that the end of the Cold War dramatically reduced the practical value of nuclear weapons, but the responsibility imposed by nuclear parity never allowed Russia to agree to be “the junior partner” to the U.S.

Of no less significance is the multipolarity in people’s mentality; that is, an awareness of the independent nature of other states. Sergei Karaganov underscored in one of his recent articles that “Russians… came out of the Cold War without feeling defeated, and expected an honorable peace” with flags flying. The West has traditionally underestimated the role of this factor in Russia’s foreign policy-thinking. Meanwhile, the defeat in the Cold War is not at all obvious to the Russian establishment and population.

Of crucial significance is the ability of the multipolar system to block actions by one of the countries by means of the concerted efforts of others, not the individual strength of each player in the international arena. This ability is primarily tested in areas that the contender selects as the floors for establishing his hegemony, be it international institutions or norms for the use of force.

The multipolar world of 1991-2009 was not ideal, like no models of international relations in the past have been. In the first century AD, Rome, Parthia and China were not equal in all respects either, but that fact did not interfere with their balancing each other out in the international arena. To test this relative equality in practice in all combinations was not possible due to the considerable distance between the Roman Empire and the Middle Kingdom. This factor ceased to be of crucial significance as new transport opportunities emerged in the 19th century, and it became redundant in the era of globalization, communications and technology.


“The moment of unipolarity,” about which neoconservative intellectuals wrote in the first half of the 1990s and which Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld tried to implement, never happened. From 1991-2008, the system of international relations was consistently blocking U.S. attempts to attain global domination. Each time the contender encountered resistance from open or hidden coalitions of other centers of power. Russia always played an important role in these coalitions, as the most powerful participant in the multipolar system in terms of military might.

At first, the opposition manifested itself by sabotaging Washington’s leadership initiatives, which it was trying to implement “in an amicable way,” within the framework of international institutions inherited from the Cold War, above all the United Nations. The Democratic administration in the U.S. regarded the UN Security Council as a prototype for a U.S.-led world government.

Attempts to configure a unipolar world order were made by truly virtuous methods in that period. However, resistance from other leading players did not differ much from the classic struggle put up against the aspirant to world hegemony in the time of Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon I and Adolf Hitler. In 1992-1999, Russia and China consistently foiled America’s attempts to dictate to other states what decisions they should support at the UN Security Council.

Russia even went as far as to start the debate challenging the right of the U.S. and its close allies to suppress Slobodan Milosevic’s revolt against the new European order. Like the rest of the former “Socialist camp” in Europe, the Balkans were put under the absolute hegemony of the West after the Cold War. The Russian economy was in a sorry state and the government was unable to meet its welfare commitments in full measure. However, even this economic turmoil did not prevent Moscow and Beijing from making NATO’s actions lose international legitimacy. Meanwhile international legal recognition of unipolarity was precisely what Washington was seeking to achieve at the UN in those years. The Russian paratroopers’ accelerated march to the Pristina airfield in June 1999 was a striking example of the defiance of the U.S.’s leading role.

The multipolar system continued to grow in strength. During the 1990s, India and Pakistan worked intensively towards developing nuclear capability. As a result, the aspirant to global dominance was unable to stop New Delhi and, later, Islamabad from acquiring nuclear status in 1998, or to punish both states. The rapid spread of nuclear weapons after the Cold War is the most vivid example of the negative effect on international stability and security of the attempts by one state to attain world hegemony.

The events of September 11, 2001 put an end to the first campaign to establish a unipolar world as the U.S. encountered problems in ensuring its own safety. The sabotage of the U.S.-proposed model of international governance, which took the form of resistance by other centers of power, enormously expanded the moral and material opportunities of a non-system participant in international relations that delivered a blow to the territory of the would-be hegemony. Not surprisingly, the second attempt by the U.S. to change the system of international relations involved the use of force.

To establish a unipolar world, Washington opted for “the hard way.” And again, a predictable reaction by the multipolar system followed. The more radical the U.S. was in its actions, the tougher the response: Washington’s closest allies in Western Europe came out against it, not mentioning Moscow, which naturally fit into the “coalition of the unwilling” created by Paris.

The initial reaction of many countries to the rapid increase in the opportunities of non-government players was the unheard-of-solidarity in suppressing them. The unprecedented unity of all poles in fighting the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was a natural response by governments to attempts by their rival – a non-government organization – to destroy the state’s monopoly on violence. Russia’s positions are very close to that of the U.S. in what concerns fighting international terrorism, especially its non-systemic and potentially catastrophic forms. Within just several months, the problem of the “Al Qaeda-zation” of a whole country was successfully resolved. This done, the antiterrorist coalition dissolved immediately.

Having rebuffed the attack on its territory, the aspirant country commenced taking measures to establish a unipolar structure of international relations. The first practical task was to obtain the right to determine, at one’s own discretion, the main threats and the states whose activities must be stopped. The task was solved by achieving a military victory in Iraq, but the U.S. suffered a diplomatic defeat because even its closest allies refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the operation.

As a result of a series of actions and counteractions in 2002-2009, the U.S. lost in practically all the directions in which it sought hegemony status. The quest for the unipolar world ended in the ignominious bargain of the would-be leader with the least noticeable participants in international relations over the deployment on their territories of missile defense facilities as part of the global strategy of dominance (missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland), the recognition of the inability to fully control the actions of its smallest satellite, Georgia, in the Caucasus and its defeat in a war by the minimal taskforce of another center of power.

The economic crisis in the U.S. in 2008 aggravated its problems. Admittedly, the supreme efforts in establishing financial-economic unipolarity can be viewed as one of the most significant reasons behind the crisis.


Amidst the crisis, the American people elected Barack Obama as president. The most important change in foreign policy announced by the new administration was its renouncement of unilateral actions for the sake of resolving problems worrying the U.S. and the world at large. Instead, the strategic minds in Washington and the president himself wish to lean on the “community building” method, which Obama used at the beginning of his political career.

The essence of this method is voluntary cooperation between world countries, similar to the collective clean-up of dog excrement by Chicago residents on a frosty morning. Or, as the new U.S. president stated at the UN, “Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges. [...] The cooperative effort of the whole world. Those words ring even more true today, when it is not simply peace – but our very health and prosperity that we hold in common.”

On the surface everything looks quite attractive. Nobody forces you to do anything; everybody is aware of the importance of the problem and does something towards its solution. But you cannot voluntarily clean streets all the time. Sooner or later (possibly sooner) one will have to enact laws against those who do not care for their pets properly. Then these new laws will have to be enforced. Barack Obama said during his visit to Moscow “as we keep our own commitments, we must hold other nations accountable for theirs.”

The problem is that it is not that easy to find volunteers to act as enforcers, as the experience of the previous U.S. administration showed. To do it on one’s own means to return to the foreign policy of the Republicans. The only remaining option is developing a new model of global governance.

Nobody sets aside the hypothetical objective to establish a semblance of order in world affairs. Governability of the world as the universal and reliable protection from threats to national security is the main unrealizable and cherished dream of many states.

The dream is cherished because one can never have enough power. The assumption of the possibility to rule the world in principle, though unattainable, has such a strong hypnotic effect that it makes one forget about the crucial (and also hypothetical) condition of governability – the necessity to share power on a more or less equitable basis.

The dream is unattainable because any contender’s aspiration to absolute power automatically encounters resistance and thereby increases anarchy in international relations. At best, one might hope for an illusion of governability, a semblance of which existed during the Cold War. Generally speaking, the impossibility of governing the world remains the main characteristic of global politics and proof that relations between countries are competitive in nature.

The Russian foreign policy discourse has always proceeded from the principal necessity to make the world governable. In this respect it is close to the U.S., Western European, and, partially, Chinese approaches. The basic difference is Russia’s assumption that governing the world does not require uniformity of the models of socio-economic and political development.

In the Russian discourse, it stands to reason that there is no link between the set up of international relations and the national government systems of the countries that build these relations – something the liberal foreign policy philosophy does not accept in principle. Russia acknowledges that the suppression of an individual (by soft or tough methods) and his renouncement of part of his rights are the inevitable conditions of peace within society. Yet Moscow also assumes that other laws should operate at the level of relations between the elements of the international system.

Speaking about the governability problem, it is necessary to note that we do not mean the hypothetical possibility to extend the model of national governance (be it a liberal democracy, a monarchy or a totalitarian state) to the international level. The possibility of international governance is rather questionable.

The second unpleasant surprise for the policy of the new U.S. administration is that any public movement needs a leader. Barack Obama and his advisers naturally assign this role to the virtuous America. But will Europe, China, India, Russia and other countries of significance – whose numbers are growing – agree to it? Judging by the discussions concerning measures to overcome the consequences of the crisis, no signs of accord are in sight.


Throughout its brief history the U.S. has sought to become the world’s spiritual leader, while political leadership has been its objective since the beginning of the 20th century. International institutions and unilateral actions were the means to attain supremacy. At the newest stage, it means the ability to be more adept than others in using the opportunities which, as prominent U.S. specialists point out, are provided by the increasing significance of network connections.

The U.S. has all the formal reasons for this: it is the most competitive economy and is a developed democracy with the largest number of individual freedoms. The U.S. also has huge advantages in terms of the requirements set by the global information and communication milieu. Yet one thing is missing: the readiness of the rest of the world to acknowledge this leader in principle, regardless of its personal virtues or the number of connections.

The main question is whether or not America will be able to reconcile itself to the fact that world hegemony – good or evil – cannot be achieved by one country alone in practice, even though such an outcome may be welcome in theory. History does not know such instances, but it does know the states whose military and economic capabilities at that time were comparable to and even surpassed modern U.S. resources. Over the past 18 years, even such relatively weak opponents as Europe, China and Russia have been preventing the U.S. from arranging global governance under its leadership. It is unlikely they will let Washington do it now that the U.S. is objectively weakened.

Many Russian and foreign analysts explain the failure of U.S. foreign policy during the presidency of George W. Bush by the erroneous strategy of proliferating democracy, equally pursued by both presidents Bill Clinton and Bush in “the quest for unipolarity.” At present, liberal pragmatists in Washington even acknowledge the possibility and – moreover – the necessity of the co-existence of states with different development models.

However, in the opinion of U.S. analysts, the objective of the proposed “strategy of respect” is a “new, truly universal order.” They cannot simply grasp the idea that order has been and remains an unattainable form of the existence of the international system. Even if they have an inkling they reject it outright, although all of human history testifies to the non-governability of the world rather than to the possibility of ruling it.

The Roman Empire set up its “pole” by conquering new territory. Parthia was content with the tribute paid by the neighboring tribes and mostly focused on the confrontation with the Roman Empire. The enlightened Chinese emperors dished out titles of kings and royal seals to the rulers of adjacent states, collecting taxes in exchange. None of them was seeking to export their government system to other cultures, and neither were the Concert of Europe members in the 19th century. Even in China’s case, the symbols of submission, as historians note, did not spread farther than the use of the Chinese calendar by the vassals of the Celestial Empire.

Generally speaking, the expansion of the political system to other cultures as a necessary condition for the central position of this or that country is not a proven fact; in the first place because history has never been a competition between different development models (with the exception of seven decades in the 20th century).

For their part, the advocates of the liberal unipolarity of 1989-2001 believed that the export of the development model is a necessary attribute of the policy of poles in the system of international relations. The starting point of their discourse is the conviction that – as Francis Fukuyama wrote – “while all other aspects of the human social environment – religion, the family, economic organization, concepts of political legitimacy – are subject to historical evolution, international relation is regarded as forever identical to itself.”

Therefore, we have a simple extrapolation of the “laws” of society’s evolution to international relations. In his book The End of History, Fukuyama refers to Marx and Hegel, and Charles Kupchan wrote in a recent article that even in the diverse world of the future, “liberal democracy must compete respectfully in the marketplace of ideas with other types of regimes.”

To compete in ideology is to try to edge out one’s opponents, in order to take their niche. The difference from the concept of “the end of history” that emerged 20 years ago is only seen in the expected timeframe of the victory, which one of the competing models gains over its rivals. Or it can attain absolute prevalence, as is the case with Microsoft’s operating system, with Apple and others lurking in the background, although Microsoft acknowledges their existence. It is a question of perspective.

Moscow feels differently about the competition between development models. In 2007, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote in Russia in Global Affairs (4/2007): “Today, value benchmarks and development models have also become matters of competition.” But Russia interprets the competition between ideologies as a drive towards a pluralistic coexistence and even a synthesis of various models, and rejects “the end of history.”

The 21st century, which some observers have dubbed “post-American,” will be a routine century in human history. The 20th century was the only exception when international relations, at some point, indeed turned into a struggle between ideologies: Marxism and liberalism.

So far, self-isolation has been considered as the only possible alternative to this or that form of the spiritual or political leadership of the U.S, but the physical impossibility of such policy in the globalized 21st century leaves the U.S. no such option. A real alternative is the awareness of oneself as an ordinary nation state, no different in its behavior or mentality than Russia, France or China. Or there will appear some other alternative ideology to return the U.S. to the atmosphere of the last century.


The structural approach implies that unipolarity is the least stable of all the possible configurations. It can only secure a rather low level of stability for the international system. This is explained by the inevitably irresponsible behavior of the hegemon (absolute power breeds absolute corruption), the siphoning of its forces, and the suspicions and desire to become stronger on the part of other states.

However, the continuous struggle, in which all the poles would fight one contender for sole leadership, can lend an even lesser degree of stability to the international system. Each subsequent round of this struggle requires from the contender country and other participants in international relations new efforts towards building up their strength. Consequently, it foils the appearance of even a semblance of the balance of forces.

It is not surprising that in all cases, interaction between the U.S. and other participants in international relations resulted in increased anarchy – incidentally, the most common state of world politics since the emergence of the state as such. A practical manifestation of anarchy is the inability to govern the main international processes not just from one center, but even collectively and within the framework of existing institutions and norms. The most serious threat anarchy is fraught with is the high probability of war between the centers of power. Given the stockpiles of nuclear weapons, it might have tragic consequences for humanity.

Overcoming anarchy in international relations was the crucial task in the establishment of a unipolar world. The understanding that the task is unfeasible makes us look for new solutions. Of the proposed options the one that deserves the most attention is the concept of autonomous governance, put forth by liberals in the U.S., and the idea of collective leadership, which has been promoted for quite some time by part of the Russian establishment. The benefits of the latter approach were discussed by Sergei Lavrov: “Collective leadership of the world’s leading states – in addition to international institutions, most importantly, the United Nations – offer ways for solving the governability problem in the contemporary world.”

Both the Russian and American concepts proceed from the recognition of the multipolar – temporary or permanent – nature of the international system. Stable relations between the poles depend in the first place on their ability to contain a potential contender from gaining global dominance before it takes any practical action. Of crucial significance here is the strengthening of each key player to the necessary degree.

Despite the military-political failures and economic crisis of the U.S., the growing poles – India, China and Russia – have been unable to catch up with the U.S. Actually they have not needed to so far. The multipolar system emerged and survived in the period from 1991-2009 without active efforts by these countries to match the indicators of their might to the U.S. Furthermore, this system has achieved much success in restoring its natural anarchy, which is quite unsafe for small and large countries and which provokes, as any anarchy, a search for totalitarian methods of governance.

But are these opportunities sufficient for lending at least the minimal stability to international relations? Today there is one missing link that prevents the above-mentioned international players from blocking the U.S. and becoming its equal; that is the ability to offer one’s own model of social order as an objective for directing the creative effort of humanity. That is, to offer the world a development ideology that would replace the one Russia gladly abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Last updated 20 december 2009, 15:26

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