History never went away
Editor's Column
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

The cliche, currently in vogue, to describe events in our times as
«the return of history» is a staggering example of western
arrogance. Taken literally, it means everything that took place in
the 1990s was not history: the tragic breakup of multinational
states, accompanied by civil wars and millions of broken lives; the
massacre in Rwanda; the triumph of obscurantism in Afghanistan and
the religious and political rise of the developing world; the
bombings of Belgrade and Baghdad; nuclear proliferation; and so on.
But of course, «history» is made only in the Euro-Atlantic space,
whereas everything else is part of a fringe world.

When the west scored an unexpected victory in its confrontation
with the Soviet Union, it, like Dr Faust, wanted a moment to last
forever and declared the end of history. But, as in Goethe’s
tragedy, this feeling proved, in fact, to be a demonic temptation.
This is not «the return of history,» which actually never went
away, but a specific problem of whether the US retains the global
leadership it received after the Cold War.

US foreign policy traditionally embraces a messianic approach;
in image, guided not by selfish national interests but by ideas of
freedom and democracy shaped since the its very first days. In the
20th century, this image was further corroborated during the two
world wars when America came to Europe’s rescue to save it from
another catastrophe.

After the Soviet Union ceased to exist, America for the first
time in history had a taste of global domination, and September 11
gave a boost to the creation of an integral military-ideological
strategy. Never before had measures to ensure the security of one
country been global in nature. Washington raised the prospect of
building a world order that would never again pose a threat to the

By proliferating democracy around the world, the US could ensure
its own military, economic and energy security. Thus ideology
merged with geostrategic tasks. Democracy turned into an
instrument. The pompous words about freedom and human rights
quickly began to lose any sense.

However, by the time America formed a comprehensive view on
global leadership, it could no longer act regardless of what others
might think. International influence began to shift to Asia; Russia
recovered from its geopolitical knockout; and even US allies began
to express doubts.

The hegemon’s trap is that the leader has no right to retreat
even on minor issues. The inability to uphold one’s positions in a
peripheral region may have a domino effect. «Swaps» with other
actors are not provided for, as the global leader has no minor
interests that it could waive.

As a result, for example, the desire of a strengthened Russia to
discuss spheres of interests and even its readiness to make
concessions on some issues runs against the US’s categorical
unwillingness to move. When George Bush and Condoleezza Rice speak
about the inadmissibility of a policy for delimiting spheres of
influence, they mean it. From their point of view, there is only
one sphere of influence – the American one, which embraces the
whole world.

Therefore, the growth of the ambitions of any country poses a
threat to America, which it must neutralise. This may be the
build-up of China’s economic might; Europe’s feeble attempts to
formulate an independent political identity; or Russia’s desire to
restore its position in Eurasia.

Of course, threats are not necessarily neutralised by force;
this can be done by means of a new system of interaction. But
practice shows that force is given preference here. The reanimation
of the factor of military force in world politics and the
degradation of all international institutions, ranging from the UN
and the IMF to Nato and the Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe, are the fruits of America’s leadership.

It would not be fair to blame the US alone for this, as all
these organisations are the legacy of the previous epoch. They
should have passed into history together with it and given way to
something else. However, the «new world order» proposed by the cold
war winners provided not for the creation of new structures but for
the extension of the former western organisations to the whole
world. But these organisations proved to be unfit for global

Discussions in the west pivot on one idea – how to ensure
western leadership in the new conditions. A global «concert of
powers», which would provide for the equal participation of all
influential actors in the formulation of new rules of the game, is
not even discussed. The best they are offered is to discuss terms
on which they would recognise the west’s supremacy and benefit from

The return of the US from the hyperpower category into the ranks
of great powers, which have a very great, yet not dominant
influence on international relations, would be a step towards the
restoration of balance in the world. This would require from
Washington the formulation of its own national interests and the
development of a system of priorities. However, attempts to retain
hegemony at any cost, amidst institutional chaos, imbalance of
power and the growing ambitions of other countries, would bring
about new and increasingly dangerous conflicts.