Russia as a Global Policy Leader
No. 2 2013 April/June
Daniel Treisman

Daniel Treisman is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Acting Director of the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies. This article is based on a talk at the 2013 Gaidar Forum.

Can Russia Define a New Role for Itself?

As Russia assumes the presidency of the G20, it is clear that its leaders would like to raise the country’s profile in global policy debates. A steady stream of initiatives has emerged from the Kremlin and the Russian White House in recent years on issues that range from international security to drug-trafficking and intellectual property.

To mention just a few of these:

  • In the summer of 2008, President Medvedev proposed the drafting of a new European Security Treaty to replace the NATO-based, Cold-War-era security architecture on the continent.
  • Then, the following summer, Medvedev invited agriculture ministers from around the world to a “grain summit” in St. Petersburg to discuss world hunger. He proposed ending the use of food products to make biofuels.
  • The same year, both Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin called for the creation of a new international reserve currency to replace the dollar.
  • In June 2010, Medvedev advocated a new global plan to combat drug-trafficking, including measures to curb the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan.
  • Last year, Medvedev suggested the negotiation of new international conventions to regulate the Internet and protect copyright.

This is an imposing list of initiatives. If we look at how they were received, however, the picture is not quite so impressive. Most of the time, the response of diplomats from other countries has been to smile politely and change the subject.

Russia has been a valued contributor in certain areas, mostly linked to bilateral negotiations with the United States. The two countries signed the new START arms control treaty in 2010. And Moscow continues to serve, along with Washington, as co-chair of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

But Europe today is not negotiating a new security treaty; the world does not have a new global currency; the U.S. and Brazil continue to produce biofuels from corn and soybeans; opium poppy cultivation rose by 18 percent last year in Afghanistan, according to the UN; and, although Medvedev’s call for new international Internet regulation was embraced by the Pirate Party of Russia, so far the G20 has not shown much enthusiasm.


Russia clearly has a vocation to be a global policy leader. What is less evident is whether any other countries are inclined to follow.

So what would it take for Russia to become more influential in international policy debates? What enables some countries to get others to adopt their proposals?

Scholars have studied the diffusion of policies around the world. Based on this literature, I would say that there are four key characteristics that explain which states succeed in getting others to follow their lead. I call these weight, size, intelligence, and reputation.

Let me clarify what I mean by each of these, before returning to the question how Russia rates in each regard.

First, by weight I mean military and other kinds of “hard power,’ including economic pressure deliberately deployed. Obviously states that are militarily dominant can sometimes impose their preferred policies on others. It is no mystery why after World War II radically different economic and social policies were introduced in West and East Germany.

Sometimes the leverage is not military but economic. For instance, the sanctions that many countries imposed on South Africa helped in the long run to persuade the Afrikaner elite to end policies of apartheid.

These days, the agent of coercion is often an international organization. The IMF and World Bank make loans conditional on the recipient implementing certain policies. The European Union requires that new members adopt a long list of pre-established laws and regulations – the acquis communautaire – as a condition of membership.

Within each international organization, some states typically have more clout than others. So one way to become an international policy leader is to acquire influence in important international bodies.

The second characteristic that makes some states policy leaders is their size. By this I mean not geographical scale but the state’s relative salience in a given policy area. If one state is overwhelmingly important in a given sphere, it is often just more efficient for others to harmonize their policies with it.

Many countries end up adopting elements of U.S. commercial law, not necessarily because they are better or because the U.S. forces them to do so, but because so much of international commerce already runs on that basis. It is cheaper just to conform.

Size in this sense is particularly relevant to cases where the problem is one of coordination. Take air traffic control. It may not matter very much which set of rules countries adopt concerning what airline pilots should do when they see another plane headed in their direction. What matters is that all pilots are using the same rules.

So countries that lead the world in certain areas will often see their policies spread to others, even without any conscious effort to get those states to adopt them.

Besides weight and size, there is intelligence. Countries can attract others to follow their lead by devising policies that are just better than the alternatives, in the sense of helping the country in question to accomplish its goals more cost-effectively.

The key to this kind of policy leadership is having the kind of networks of innovative scientists and policy analysts that generate good ideas. This requires both a developed research infrastructure and a social environment that encourages creativity and critical thinking. If the ideas are good enough, they will spread by themselves.

Finally, there is reputation. Trust is important in international negotiations. Other countries will not adopt policies if they think the proposer has an ulterior motive. Some countries – and organizations within them – establish reputations for trustworthiness, for identifying and promoting initiatives that will genuinely benefit all. Others are thought to pursue only their own direct interests. If a country’s leaders come to be seen as devious or unreliable, then even if the policy they are suggesting is a good one, others will be suspicious.


Where does this leave Russia? Does it have the weight, size, intelligence, or reputation to influence the adoption of policies around the world? Should we expect to see more countries embracing Russia’s proposals in the future?

With regard to weight, Russia is, of course, a major military power and an important supplier of energy to various states. Some in the West suspect it of seeking to use these resources to influence the politics of its neighbors.

But, as many have noted, “hard power” – whether military or economic – doesn’t go as far as it used to. This is true not just of Russia, but also of the U.S. Despite threatening military force and imposing ever-tighter economic sanctions, the U.S. has not been able to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Even with tens of thousands of troops on the ground in Afghanistan, the U.S.  could not get President Karzai to rein in the corruption of many in his entourage.

Russia’s most important hard power assets are its nuclear arsenal and its UN Security Council veto. Both are pretty much useless when it comes to getting others to adopt policies. For instance, it is simply not credible that Moscow would fire a nuclear missile at Tbilisi if Georgia refused to recognize the independence of South Ossetia. As for the Security Council veto, this is useful for slowing down or blocking the policies of others. But no one has yet figured out how to use a veto to get new policies adopted.

What about what I have called size? There is one policy area in which Russia’s presence is so salient that others are forced to take it into account. That, again, is nuclear policy. With one of the two largest nuclear arsenals, Russia is central to any global discussion of nuclear disarmament or non-proliferation.  It can insist on some of its proposals being included. If Russia can come up with timely and innovative ideas, there is potential for it to lead debate on this.

In the economic sphere, Russia is an overwhelmingly important trade partner for Belarus. Russia accounts for 52 percent of that country’s imports and 39 percent of its exports. Leveraging such trade relations seems to be the idea at the heart of Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union.

Even here, though, there are limits to what Russia can hope to achieve. If Russia’s size leads other members of the Eurasian Union to harmonize their trade policies with it, that may not mean very much at a time when Russia is itself obliged to harmonize its own policies with those dictated by WTO rules. If Moscow attempts to use trade leverage in too blatant a way, its neighbors may instead pivot towards other partners—the European Union or China.

At most, Russia’s weight and size enable it to influence global nuclear – and, perhaps, also space—policies, while imposing a few minor initiatives on its peers in the “near abroad”. But attempts to use this leverage can be – and often are – counterproductive because Moscow tends to overplay its hand.

What about the other characteristics? Can Russia become a global policy leader by virtue of its intelligence and reputation? This is not impossible, but it would require some major changes. And lately Russia’s leaders have been driving in the opposite direction.

Innovation in public policy – even more than in industry – requires an environment that encourages critical thinking and open debate, even on politically sensitive topics. Given the global scope of policy dialogue today, and the growing importance of NGOs in incubating policy ideas, a country that aspires to policy leadership needs to urge its NGOs to seek contacts and funding abroad, rather than stigmatizing such ties by labeling such NGOs “foreign agents.”

Creative new ideas are also likely to be stifled by vague and ominous laws on secrecy and treason. Scientists should not have to fear arrest if they share with foreigners information that is already published in scientific journals.

A good measure of whether the government is creating a conducive setting for innovative thinkers might be the number of émigré Russian scientists who are willing to come back home. In 2010, two Russian-born researchers, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who now live in Manchester, won  the Nobel Prize for physics. A reporter asked Geim to describe a scenario in which he would return to Russia. His answer was short: “Reincarnation.” Why? Because, in his words, Russia was the homeland of “bureaucracy, corruption, and idiocracy.”

If Russia’s top officials are serious about making their country a policy leader, they might start by changing their own policies on secrecy and foreign financing, while using openness and competition to cut through the thickets of bureaucratic corruption.

At the same time, if Russia wants to improve the reception of its proposals, there are various steps it could take to build trust. It could spend less time sending divers under the Arctic ice to plant a Russian flag at the North Pole and more time negotiating with its neighbors about the Arctic environment. It could focus less on proposing new security architecture that no countries except Russia think they need and more on negotiating with the U.S. further nuclear reductions that would make all feel safer.

Russia’s foreign policy is, in my view, more constructive than many in the West think. But Russia often fails to get credit for the cooperative things that it does – such as assisting in NATO’s retreat from Afghanistan – because the Kremlin is so busy rhetorically playing the anti-America card. All states pursue their self-interest. But some do so more obviously than others. For instance, Russia’s advocacy of a ban on using foods to produce biofuels might seem a little more altruistic if Russian producers did not have major plans to produce biofuels using wood chips. 

It is not just in the U.S. or Western Europe that Russia’s current leaders are viewed with some suspicion. The Pew Research Center conducted a global poll last year that asked respondents in 21 countries whether they had “at least some confidence in President Putin regarding world affairs.” Out of these 21, Americans actually had the fifth highest level of confidence in Putin, with 28 percent saying yes. That compared to 20 percent in India, 16 percent in Mexico, 14 percent in Turkey, and 3 percent in Pakistan. Putin was quite highly trusted in China – 50 percent had some confidence in his approach to world affairs. But not in the other BRICS countries. This makes it that much harder for Russia to promote a policy agenda.

In the end it comes down to priorities. Russia will remain a crucial interlocutor on nuclear policy, space, and various regional matters. As in the past, it will be able to block and delay global action with its Security Council veto. If its leaders want more than that, the changes this will require are relatively clear.