Russian Foreign Policy Vertical

10 august 2004

Konstantin Kosachev is Head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). He is also the Russian President’s Special Envoy for Relations with CIS Member-States and a Member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs.

Resume: Today Russia possesses unique opportunities for switching from a policy of response to to a policy of initiation when considering international events. But to take avail of these opportunities, Russia must adjust its foreign policy mechanism.

There has been much discussion lately about possible changes in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s structure. However, the Ministry has successfully avoided any reform of the Russian government, which provides for a three-level structure model for the executive bodies. In contrast to other ministries, the diplomatic department does not have its own federal services or agencies. And this seems quite reasonable: the Foreign Ministry has nothing to place under its command. All that it can do is make the consular service a separate federal unit, but that would be more like reform for reform’s sake.

It is clear that the unalterable functions and structure of the Foreign Ministry are necessitated by the specifics and area of its activity, as well as by the need to ensure consistency and continuity of Russia’s foreign policy. However, the absence of superficial signs of structural changes, i.e. federal services and agencies, does not mean that the sphere of foreign policy management will remain an ‘offshore’ zone for administrative reform. The fact that the Ministry is not involved in the ongoing government transformations is not an indication of it lacking the desire to modify the foreign policy mechanism. On the contrary: restructuring the Foreign Ministry is too vital and large-scale a process to be simply limited to the framework of cabinet reform.

Anxious observers have perceived the appointment of former Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov as head of Russia’s National Security Council as a sign of coming changes. The more knowledgeable experts would disagree with the lingering assertions that the former minister was sent into ‘an honorary exile;’ such opinions were mainly based on an assessment of his predecessor’s activity.

The fact that the former Interior Minister was replaced at the National Security Council with the former Foreign Minister is quite a significant event. Under Vladimir Rushailo, the Council paid more attention to internal problems. That is why it is reasonable to assume that with the new head this agency will concentrate more heavily on foreign policy. But should it be assumed that the political orientation of the National Security Council is dependent on the personality of its head? Or does the appointment signify a new conception of this institution’s place within the state?

If the latter assumption is correct, then there are ample grounds to expect changes in the very mechanism of drawing up, adopting and implementing foreign policy decisions. If so, changes will go beyond the current government reform: the foreign policy vertical, should it be constructed, will not be confined to the executive agencies. There is nothing revolutionary in this concept, since according to the Constitution the main foreign policy guidelines are determined by the President, not the cabinet.

There have been an increasing number of weighty arguments in favor of such a reform. The Russian Foreign Ministry is in obvious need of a serious inventory, as well as a regulatory restructuring. Over the last fifteen years, the different departments of the Foreign Ministry have gotten used to the idea of conducting their ‘own’ foreign policy. In light of the fact that the Russian Federation entities and major economic agents have their own interests abroad, the picture becomes even more variegated. As a result, in addition to the single foreign policy line there arises some ‘simple average’ of sharply contrasting initiatives that exist in parallel with – and occasionally opposite to – the main policy vector set down by the President. The hastiness and lack of coordination of these differing agendas prevented the development of positive outcomes. As is known, sometimes even a trump card can spoil the whole game if it is opened at the wrong time. Therefore, more often than not, the Foreign Ministry serves as an interpreter or even a ‘sweeper’ in order to smooth over the various discrepancies and tense situations inside the foreign policy area. The nature of the tasks that Russia is facing in the international arena necessitates an integrated approach to their accomplishment. Such a comprehensive approach should take into consideration all of the possible nuances, as well as the positions of various departments. A glaring example is Russia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets strict limits on industrial discharges of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There are two opposing positions on this issue. Each one taken separately could be justified had it not considered only one side of the question. However, the Kyoto Protocol is a problem that concerns the relationship between Russia and Europe on the one hand, and long-term planning for economic development, environmental policy, and a whole range of other diplomatic, economic and tactical aspects on the other hand. Practically any problem that Russia encounters on the international scene – whether it be the approach to international terrorism, the expansion of NATO and the European Union, or Moscow’s policy on the post-Soviet space – has a great number of such dimensions.

It is generally believed that foreign policy activity adds to the prestige of any agency and increases its political weight and authority. Therefore, technical difficulties and a lack of mutual understanding between the individual agencies is a hereditary illness of the state apparatus. However, the crux of the problems facing Russia in the foreign policy sphere lies much deeper. It affects both the system of charting the national foreign policy strategy on the basis of clearly defined goals, as well as an appropriate mechanism for implementing such a strategy, with the roles distinctly and effectively distributed among all the actors.

Russia’s foreign policy goals need updating, most importantly because today there are unique opportunities for switching from a policy of response to a policy of initiation. These opportunities come about due to both subjective and objective factors. The former include President Putin’s active policy, his intuition and expediency in making important foreign policy decisions. The latter ability embraces the absence of confrontation with the leading world powers, while cooperating with allies against common global threats. Furthermore, it strives for favorable economic conditions, the West’s interest in a continuous dialog with Russia on energy issues against the backdrop of instability in the Middle East, the impossibility to settle many regional conflicts without Russia’s involvement, etc. Today, Russia has real chances to conduct an independent foreign policy that would be consistent with its national interests, on the one hand, and understood and respected by other countries, on the other.

Russia will be able to benefit from the currently favorable situation only if its foreign policy ministry is well matched for the new tasks. As is often the case, the executive is forced to deal with questions of strategy while the head of the state, who puts forward ideas and initiatives, lacks the time or the means to shape them into a single political line which would be consistently adhered to by all of the state bodies. To regress at this point would be regrettable now that the President has undertaken significant steps which have been agreeable both in this country and abroad. I cannot but share the opinion of Sergei Karaganov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, who noted: “In recent years it was precisely the President who not only conceived but also implemented several important breakthroughs in foreign policy. But these breakthroughs were not sustained due to the rather weak and inefficient structure of the foreign policy ministry. People worked past exhaustion, however, the breakthroughs remained just breakthroughs without being made into genuine victories.”

Putin’s active diplomacy strategy actually forestalled all of the organizational and administrative resources; now it is the most opportune moment for pulling up these resources and putting them in order. This does not mean, however, that that same Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be loaded with the extra burden of implementing the reform of Russia’s foreign policy mechanism. Quite the contrary: the Ministry already is overloaded with functions not characteristic of an executive body. And this is not due to some excessive ambitions of its former or present leadership. At his first press conference on March 17, newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov pointedly stressed: “Our relations with the Russian President’s Administration and National Security Council will be formed in accordance with the Constitution. The country’s foreign policy is determined by the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to conduct it.” The Minister expressed hope that “the efficiency of the NSC’s activity will increase as this is in the best interests of the nation, as well as in the best interests of the Foreign Ministry. Moreover, this will give it confidence in implementing foreign policy tasks.”

Putin also expressed hope that the National Security Council will work with increased efficiency. At the same time, the President has no plans to slow down his own international activity. Thus, the links of the already available structure (the President and his administration – the National Security Council – the Foreign Ministry) should coordinate their activities without any radical organizational and administrative changes in order to form a single system for drawing up and implementing the country’s foreign policy course. Strengthening the positions of the National Security Council is a logical step but it should not be taken under instructions. The NSC itself is called upon to demonstrate a readiness for a new role, its ability to generate strategic concepts concerning the country’s foreign policy and security as well as to coordinate the activities of various governing bodies, which, naturally, is beyond the capacity of an executive body.

A possible redistribution of roles within this system should not result in weakening the Foreign Ministry and turning it into a trivial executor of other people’s scenarios. The Ministry possesses a vast amount of experience, as well as a high analytical, organizational and informational potential. Furthermore, it possesses truly unique personnel. These factors prevent the Foreign Ministry from becoming simply a subordinate component of a three-link scheme, which, strictly speaking, cannot be considered a power vertical. Yet, the Foreign Ministry badly needs a new relationship with the government. The significance of Russia’s tasks in the international arena, together with the perception of itself as a re-nascent great power, make it impermissible for it to adopt a simplistic approach to the functions of the Ministry, which should be directly responsible for implementing the nation’s strategic goals from a global perspective.

Unfortunately, the reality is such that the diplomatic service encounters a multitude of problems, mostly of an economic nature. However enthusiastic Russian diplomats may be about their jobs, it is difficult to expect major accomplishments from this group when they must constantly think about how to provide for their families. The decreasing prestige of the diplomat’s profession (due in large part to low salaries) is fraught with the most serious consequences for Russia. No single nation can afford to feel indifferent to who (and how) represents it on the international scene.

In the meantime, the situation in this respect is depressing. Experienced employees are leaving the Ministry for careers in business, the staff is getting older, while its replenishment with fresh promising candidates is complicated by the lack of opportunities for material well-being. The Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations is mostly engaged in training specialists for foreign commercial, political and informational organizations in Russia and abroad. The share of graduates from this institute among the Ministry’s employees has been decreasing with every passing year and became particularly low in 2003. This situation cannot but worry the people who are concerned about foreign policy and who sympathize with the miserable state of Russia’s most important ministry. One of the solutions may be that under new legislation on state civil service the diplomatic service is given the status of being a fourth state service.

There is much discussion about the need to improve Russia’s image abroad. To counter anti-Russian campaigns in the foreign mass media (which are often well planned and timed to political actions and initiatives by international organizations such as PACE, OSCE, etc.), Russia must prepare similarly effective actions.

It is no less important to explain Russia’s foreign policy within the domestic sphere of information dissemination. Many key international initiatives of Russia’s leadership are not properly covered by the domestic mass media or, even worse, are presented in a distorted way – often as failures and the “surrender of all frontiers.” Such coverage often plays into the hands of political speculators, or becomes an instrument of image-making campaigns by some politicians.

Paradoxically, while the West has been increasingly displaying due appreciation of Moscow’s growing authority, not to mention its consistent and well-balanced foreign policy, unbiased attitudes and even gratitude are oftentimes drowned out in the hysterics aroused by the national mass media concerning Russia’s alleged failures in the international arena. Anti-Russian informational attacks abroad are immediately echoed here. Unfortunately, these attacks are not countered by methodical work to explain the state’s foreign policy, thereby creating a positive image amongst the citizens. Due to speculative and slanted opinions dominating the national mass media, important initiatives often fail to get the necessary support and understanding of society. This affects the country’s leadership, of course, which encounters additional difficulties in developing and implementing a foreign policy course.

Russia’s interests in the international arena can be promoted by our compatriots, ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking diasporas abroad. Many states actively use their diasporas as an important factor of influence to transfer information and foster cultural and economic ties. With millions of Russian ethnics living abroad, Russia simply cannot afford to miss such an opportunity. There is also a humanitarian aspect to this problem: today many Russian ethnic minorities in some countries of the former Soviet Union are having their rights infringed upon.

Ideological differences with Russian emigrants and their descendants are already a thing of the past; the rapprochement between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia is well underway; more frequently, former Russian citizens take business, private and tourist trips back to Russia. Therefore, the idea of common roots can significantly contribute to creating a fertile ground for uniting people.

Transnational business is undoubtedly a powerful factor in increasing a country’s influence abroad. Politicians, diplomats and the mass media of the world’s leading countries are not shy when lobbying the interests of their companies abroad. In Russia however, this sphere of activity is surrounded with an aura of mystery as if it were something shameful and blameworthy. This perception is based on the widespread opinion – and often well-grounded – that there is a conflict of interests between business and government, and that lobbying of private companies by some bureaucrats is unlawful. Presently, however, when the government seeks to involve industrial and banking companies in accomplishing national tasks, foreign policy may become a most attractive domain for the business community. Civilized interaction between business circles and the authorities in international matters not only brings mutual benefits, it often becomes the only instrument of influence, and even pressure, in certain situations where diplomatic or other political means are exhausted or cannot be used.

In the meantime, there are no practicable concepts concerning the effective use of ethnic Russians living abroad, nor the use of transnational business in the interests of Russia’s foreign policy. The development of a single integrated approach in this sphere requires interdepartmental efforts and, accordingly, the coordination of these efforts from the top. This means that while restructuring the Foreign Ministry it would be expedient to include into a single concept of foreign policy its cooperation with Russian-speaking diasporas abroad and the Russian business community as independent directions, while assigning the coordinating functions to the appropriate power structures.

No less important for increasing the efficiency of foreign policy is the revival and extensive use of the huge analytical potential of Russia’s scientific and political elites. At present, joint activities involving the representatives of the power structures, scientists, political analysts and experts in international affairs are of a non-systemic, spontaneous nature; such activities are mostly confined to personal contacts. It is crucial to establish the government’s effective interaction with the scientific community; reinforce the Russian school of political science; set up powerful non-governmental think tanks that would provide an impartial expert analysis of important decisions and prepare independent proposals. In this respect it would be useful to study the practices of Western countries (particularly that of the United States), which have a diversified system of independent expertise and consultations. Nor should we ignore the valuable domestic experience of the Soviet era.

The new functions of the National Security Council may include coordination in this area as well. But, in my opinion, it is the parliament that could effectively promote the interaction of experts, analysts and power structures because this state structure embraces all political forces and maintains fruitful relations with different public institutions. The legislative maintains effective ties with the major state foreign policy structures – the President’s Administration, the National Security Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This means that the parliament is able to guarantee the registration and implementation of valuable ideas and proposals made by the expert community on specific lines of the country’s foreign policy. In recent years, the global community, particularly Europe, has seen a significant increase in the role of parliamentary diplomacy. Sometimes when the official negotiating process lost its bearings, lawmakers effectively used their channels to pave the way for decisions that turned out beneficial to their countries. Owing to its political weight within the country and extensive international activity, the parliament has become a center for integrating the initiatives of domestic political science, expert groups and public institutions.

In reorganizing the country’s foreign policy mechanism it is essential that the transformation be consonant not only with the aim to raise the efficiency of the existing structures, but also with the general new trends in international politics, i.e. the radical global changes that have occurred in the post-WWII years.

Today, Russia has various options as regards its participation in shaping the global picture. Because of the general disagreement with the basic principles of building the new world order, it may, for example, stay aloof from this process or attempt to slow down the changes initiated by leading countries of the West. Should Russia opt to follow such a course, it will run the risk of eventually seeing a new international system built without it and, most likely, against it. This is hardly a reasonable alternative for Russia, especially now that it has real opportunities for playing an active role in drawing up a new global policy.

Indeed, the recent disputes and confrontations between Russia, the U.S. and the EU, concerning their interests in regional, economic, military and political spheres, are, in fact, nothing but proof of Russia’s growing activity in international politics, which naturally causes tension. But many of the emerging problems are largely the result of past mistakes. A typical example is the admission of new NATO members. Russia should have sought legal restraints against NATO expansion to the East, i.e. including new members from among the former Soviet republics. The claim could be successfully forwarded in the 1990s, but now the field for political maneuvering has dramatically narrowed. Nevertheless, the period of retreating on Russian foreign policy is over and it is time to ‘pick up the rocks’ on the international field.

Today, Russia’s task is not simply to timely detect the main trends in international politics, but also to influence them at the initial stage and prevent any processes that would be detrimental to Russia. This fundamental task cannot be accomplished if Russia adopts isolationism. There is no other option for Russia but to establish large-scale cooperation with the principal international structures and countries that are shaping the picture of the future world. It should be specially noted that in order to influence this process and gain one’s own ends, Russia must prove its stability in the changing world and be able to protect its interests in the face of globalization.

The world around us is changing so rapidly that it is impossible just to react to what is happening; it is necessary to forestall events. Furthermore, it is critical that every serious move in foreign policy be in line with a consistent strategy, which cannot be put into practice without perfectly functioning foreign policy structures. The country’s ambitious tasks in domestic policy should be enhanced by no less important strategic goals in the international arena. This is the only way to secure well-being and security for the citizens of Russia.

Last updated 10 august 2004, 11:26

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