A Hunt for “Free Agents”
No. 1 2017 January/March
Pavel Salin

Director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Russian Government. He holds a Doctorate in Law.

How to Overhaul Russia’s Foreign Policy

An informal remark by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made last year that there can be no “business as usual” with the West any more is a belated statement of fact. It reflects only one aspect of the fundamental transformations taking place in the world. Naturally, Russia’s foreign policy cannot but respond to these changes, not just ad hoc but doctrinally.

Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept adopted a year before the Crimean events, in February 2013, naturally, could not reflect the new realities: they began to emerge at the end of the 2000s but became fully obvious and realized only in the last two to three years. Therefore, the doctrine needed to be amended. Sergei Lavrov pointed this out at a meeting of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in early April 2016, following up on the President’s directive to update the Concept.

On November 30, 2016, Vladimir Putin endorsed a new version of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept. While the previous version contained some provisions that reflected the new global realities in a latent form, the new Concept has significantly updated them. However, it does not make them explicit enough. It is advisable that these provisions be further expanded and tools be proposed for implementing Russia’s foreign policy objectives set in the new Concept.

The Mosaic structure of the world as a long-term transition

The Russian foreign minister described the current international situation as “controversial” and “mosaic,” which accurately reflects reality. Essentially, a mosaic is an integral picture made up of separate elements. Using the same elements, one can create different pictures—everything depends on the creator and the quality of the material that cements the elements together.

We cannot say that some important components in the previous mosaic of the world have disappeared or that many new components have emerged. The elements are almost the same as they were ten, twenty or more years ago. But the material that glued them together has vanished or lost its cementing qualities. I mean the ideology which was presented as universal—the ideology of Pax Americana globalization based on universalist values ??and the idea of ??“the end of history.” According to this ideology, there is only one correct model, while all the others are advancing towards it through different stages, and if this “advance” has stalled, it can and should be spurred on with soft or hard power.

To understand the situation better, we should discuss the notion of international legal personality (independence of international behavior). Over the last few centuries, this ability was attributed exclusively to nations. After World War II, it shifted to the supranational level, but its core bearers were still nation states (the Soviet Union and the United States). After the collapse of the bipolar world, for a short period of time, it became an exclusive asset of the U.S.

Now, however, this ability is going over to other actors, not straight down—from supranational structures to nation states—but rather “diagonally,” involving also various organizations and communities.

In simpler terms, the processes of the last fifteen years can be described as re-feudalization. In the feudal world (of which the modern system of international relations is becoming increasingly reminiscent), relationships between a lord and a vassal were flexible, and a vassal could often change his lord. In a nation state, such things were viewed as treason and separatism. Now international relations are even more noncommittal than they were in the feudal world. Stable ties crumble and get replaced with situational ones, as elements of the former mosaic acquire legal personality. Players who are accustomed to stable regional or global alliances and who view changes as a deviation from the norm will have to adapt to the “new normal.”

During the first 15 to 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the West at large was a vivid embodiment of the triumph of “the end of history.” The U.S., whose political system claimed to be perfect and universal, served as a political model, while Europe was viewed as a social/economic model—it had built an exemplary welfare state and invited everyone to follow its example. Neighboring countries could do it by joining the EU, and other countries, by copying the European model.

Now, however, both pillars are in tatters. Europe is revising its social system in favor of liberalization, and the “exemplary” democracy of the United States has destroyed the credibility of the elites who have lost touch with the public.

With the weakening of ideological tenets, the international system is falling into a state where elements of the former world order move randomly and freely interact with each other. Over time, they may form a new order. Not within the next few years, though. One needs to survive even in chaos, understanding that for the foreseeable future “mosaicism” will be not a deviation but the norm. Alliances are losing their rigidity, which was their main advantage during the Cold War. Russia feels it to the full extent in its relations with allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Hierarchy has been shaken even in such a binding and stable military-political bloc as NATO and in Washington’s relations with its Asian partners.

From multipolarity to situational alliances of “free agents”

All of Russia’s foreign policy concepts (including, in many respects, the present one) and its diplomatic practice have been based on the idea of multipolarity, that is, the existence of several centers equal to the U.S. in power. This suggested that Russian diplomacy should be aimed at countering the world order model proposed by Washington. Hence the theory of exclusive areas of influence (for Russia it is a large part of the former Soviet Union), which Russia seeks to formalize in gentlemen’s agreements between these powers. As for the primary role of sustainable international organizations and alliances, among them the EEU and the CSTO, it is declared largely on the doctrinal level, whereas in practice international relations are reduced to interstate agreements (which is also a sign of the crisis of the former paradigm).

Meanwhile, the expediency of assigning the primary role to international organizations is now increasingly questioned. The Commonwealth of Independent States (featured extensively in the previous Concept and less in the present one but which still is regarded as a political actor) no longer exists de facto. Given Russia’s confrontation with the West, its partners in the EEU seek gains for themselves, and their participation in this alliance does not imply support for Moscow by default. The efficiency of the CSTO is a separate issue, but, for example, the adoption by Belarus of a new military doctrine prohibiting the use of troops abroad also raises doubts about the organization’s viability. Every country which Moscow has considered (at the level of declarations) its strategic ally in a bloc (CSTO, EEU) or process, for example Bashar al-Assad, are playing their own games, often to Russia’s detriment. So, a multipolar approach may bring more losses.

However, elements of the former world order have not disappeared; they have only “fallen out of the mosaic” and now have a much greater degree of autonomy than they had in the previous unipolar (and before that, bipolar) world order. Using sports terms, we can say that the contemporary world is full of “free agents.” In ice hockey, for example, a free agent is a player whose contract with his club has expired and who is eligible to sign a contract with any other club. Depending on circumstances, players may be restricted or unrestricted “free agents” and have more or less room for maneuver.

A “free agent” in the present world may be not only a state but any influential actor in international processes. It may even be an ad hoc entity which emerges when some problem needs to be resolved. In order to effectively use the “free agent” concept, it is necessary to renounce zero-sum thinking where the West’s gain is necessarily perceived as Russia’s loss, and vice versa. In other words, we should get rid of the “constitutive other” (external enemy) concept or, which would be more productive, give it a much looser interpretation. For example, international terrorism in each specific case may take various shapes.

In addition, renouncing zero-sum thinking enables a country to transform potentially destructive conflicts of interests into a positive synergistic effect. A vivid example is the integration of China’s and Russia’s international projects in Central Asia. External actors, thinking in the zero-sum paradigm, expected rivalry between the two countries, which would weaken both of them. However, Moscow and Beijing have chosen a different strategy, that of integrating the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Eurasian Economic Union. This initiative has raised more questions than given answers, but it definitely indicates that the two countries are testing a new model of cooperation.

This example of cooperation is markedly different from what the U.S. proposed to China several years ago and which was later dubbed “Chimerica.” Washington expected Beijing to agree to act blindly: first, to conclude an agreement on a strategic alliance, and then act out of this dogma in a concrete situation (that is, go from the general to the specific). In contrast, cooperation between Russia and China in Central Asia is ad hoc and may not develop into a strategic partnership where the two countries would also be partners in other spheres and regions of the world.

It should be noted that China is the only major power that displays a new approach to building international relations and practices. Despite its economic and political weight and great international attention to it, China does not seek to build stable blocs, preferring situational bilateral alliances, which minimizes costs and ensures successful expansion of its international influence. This strategy can be called “capillary,” as it is based on targeted penetration, as distinct from the “frontal” strategy used by Western diplomacy, which is based on the division of spheres of influence from a geographical point of view.

The networking of foreign policy: with whom and how?

In modernizing Russia’s foreign policy concept emphasis should be placed on networking efforts—building flexible yet regular and stable networks, united not by one management team but by common interests for solving some concrete problem or a set of problems. Such a possibility was provided for in the 2013 Concept, while the 2016 Concept has expanded it somewhat. One of Russia’s foreign policy goals listed in the Doctrine is “promoting broad international cooperation on a non-discriminatory basis and facilitating the formation of flexible non-bloc network alliances with Russia’s active involvement.” This framework needs to be filled with doctrinal and practical content. In other words, Russia’s foreign policy paradigm provides for networking efforts. The question is: With whom and how?

Major players include, above all, transnational corporations. Now they are in an entirely different situation than ten or twenty years ago. Formerly, they were largely a continuation of nation states, gradually privatizing the latter’s functions. Now, paradoxically, at a time of renationalization of international politics (for detail see below), transnational corporations act on their own. The growing rebellion of the population against the elites, reasonably accused of nomadization and “detachment from their roots,” has increased the isolation of these corporations.

This does not apply only to classical transnational corporations engaged in the extraction of resources or production. Recently, new international players, such as private military companies (PMCs), have formed a subgroup of their own. Formerly, PMCs acted within the framework of national policies, but now they are becoming increasingly autonomous. Given the spread of military conflicts in various parts of the world and the reluctance of states to be directly involved in them, the role of PMCs will increase.

Another important group includes non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Although they emerged as a tool for “continuing state policy by other means,” they have also largely become free agents and begun to form new clusters. Now that world politics is becoming increasingly “green,” environmental NGOs, above all Greenpeace, play an ever greater role. It is believed that “green” politics is a purely Western, even a European, trend, but it is not so. For example, environmental NGOs play a serious role in India, a country with the potential of a world power, and they are often supported by similar organizations in the West.

It should be noted that the new Concept has included the two aforementioned categories in its list of potential counteragents of the state but, for some reason, only in the context of counterterrorism.

Finally, the third, but perhaps the most important, type of “free agents” includes various kinds of professional corporations and affinity communities. They have taken full advantage of the information revolution and now can be regarded as factors in world politics, operating on sub- and supra-national levels. For example, the role of media corporations has markedly increased against the background of the de-rationalization of politics and its return to mass manipulation through appeals to people’s emotions and instincts. The journalist community resists a model of functioning built on the “subordination to power” paradigm and prefers to operate as a network structure.

The role played by scientific and expert communities is also very big. Like the mass media, they built a supranational system of interaction even before the information revolution, and recent changes in the communications environment have added a new impetus and substance to this process. Also, the academic community can exert considerable influence on international politics and global tendencies. Unlike other aforementioned spheres, this area of activity is not explicitly spelled out in the new Doctrine. The document provides for the development of public diplomacy, including “greater participation of Russia’s academics and experts in the dialogue with foreign specialists on global politics and international security.”

Another essential factor is affinity communities. For example, associations of sports (especially football) fans have long become actors of not only local and national but also international politics. In terms of geographical and population coverage, the degree of consolidation, and the ability to mobilize quickly, the importance of this type of free agents will only increase.

From the point of view of the classical theory of international relations, the aforementioned groups of “free agents” are not subjects but rather instruments of foreign policy. However, in the light of the present changes in the world, these players, while remaining the same in form (which is why it seems that no new actors have emerged—which is formally correct but essentially is not), are acquiring new qualities based on subjectness.

Signs of these changes emerged much earlier and were detected by some futurists, among them Alvin Toffler who, however, described more general processes than international relations. According to his theory, the number of players making independent decisions snowballs, so those wishing to control the process will simply not have enough resources. This results in a situation where “the tail wags the dog.” This is well illustrated by the situation in Syria, where countries aspiring to the status of alliance leaders are manipulated by those whom they regard as their satellites.

The role of nation state in network politics

It may seem that the networking of foreign policy rests on the idea that the nation state is withering away as the key actor in international relations, but it is fundamentally wrong. The institution of the nation state is regaining positions which seemed to have been lost forever. This change is due to the erosion of the globalist project that has been promoted for the last 20-25 years. However, a full return to the “pre-globalism” paradigm is also impossible. In conducting foreign network policy, the state should play the role of not “a general” seeking maximum control over subordinate structures but that of a coordinator setting the rules of the game.

Individual elements of the network policy at the international level are implemented by Russian players, in particular, business structures. However, achieving a synergistic effect requires coordination and strategic goal-setting at the state level. This approach is spelled out in the Strategic Planning Law, adopted a few years ago. It was not intended for use in international affairs, but its methodology can be applied to foreign policy, as well.

Another important question is how Russia can encourage free actors to join pro-Russian network structures. The answer is trivial: only through soft power. As was mentioned above, the Western ideology and model of the world order are in decline, which cannot be overcome soon without their radical revision. The West is faced with a challenge comparable to the value crisis which hit Western countries in the late 1960s, and it will take much time and effort to cope with it—and even then a new effective model may not emerge. The world evidently has a bent for new political idealism and a more just world order.

In this situation, the creation of network alliances is impossible without soft power based on the example of one’s own “success story.” As the basic demand of the world population (an effective state that provides security, education, healthcare and a comfortable environment) remains unchanged, Russia should give an example of how to achieve this. This cannot be accomplished by mere propaganda or without a solid social and economic basis.

Russia may put forward a slogan/mega-objective that will enable internal mobilization and consolidation around the government, for example, “Russia as a new Europe—a return to basics.” The country’s objective should be to build a state that would be comfortable for people and that would be based on classical conservative values, for which there is a demand in the world. An inability to meet this demand leads to deviant forms, such as radical Islamism. In case of success, the results achieved can cement the existing free elements of the mosaic into a new picture, created with Russia’s active participation.

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Despite the crisis of the globalist project and the renationalization of world politics, a return to the 20th century is impossible. The previous mosaic picture of the world has fallen apart due to the erosion of the cementing ideology of a “positive example.” However, the elements of the mosaic have not disappeared. Their effective interaction requires a networking approach to foreign policy, a transition from the idea of ??multipolarity to the idea of ??free agents. This possibility is envisioned in Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept of 2016; it only needs to be filled with real content and specified. In particular, Russia should conceptually expand the list of potential counteragents and build interaction with them on the network principle. This will greatly improve the efficiency of foreign policy efforts and enable Russia’s active participation in building the future “post-network” world order, which will inevitably come. But to this end, Russia should focus on domestic development, as it is the power of a successful example, rather than naked propaganda or direct coercion, that can attract free agents.