Russia in the 21st-Century World of Power
No. 4 2012 October/December
Sergei V. Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister since 2004

This article is based on Sergey Lavrov speech at the 20th Jubilee Meeting of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, December 1, 2012, Moscow. Other materials of the meeting will be published in our next issue.

We really live in a world of profound changes, and this is not a figure of speech but a concrete reality. As it often happens in history, these changes are developing not according to someone’s scenario but sometimes even despite experts’ estimates and forecasts. Suffice it to say that the globalization process has taken a turn quite different from that anticipated by its adepts twenty years ago. It was believed then that after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the socialist system the developed Western countries and large corporations would freely spread their influence around the world and that the liberal-democratic system would be the only beacon for all peoples “lagging behind.” In reality, however, many developing countries have largely benefited from the globalization, as they have created modern industries and significantly improved the well-being of their populations, whereas developed countries have gone through the processes of de-industrialization, reduction of the middle class and growing social stratification.

Today, the U.S. and European economies are looking for solutions to overcome their deep structural imbalances, while China has good prospects to become a leading economic power within the next five to six years and, possibly, make the yuan the main reserve currency. There are no signs yet that Washington is going to change its policy of igniting inflation, and the crisis in the euro zone is still dragging on. On the whole, a basically new landscape may take shape in the world in the next twenty years, which will mean a painful re-adjustment of international relations.

In this connection, I would like to cite the conclusion of Academician Sergei Kapitsa, who in his last years spent much time addressing historical issues. He convincingly demonstrated that the historical process is continuously accelerating, and that each new stage in history is twice shorter than the previous one. I think we all feel this reality very well.

Many factors suggest that a new historical stage is beginning. Speaking specifically of Russia, this stage has both pluses and minuses for this country and offers risks and new opportunities. On the one hand, we really do not know how the processes in the West will affect us. I mean, above all the EU, our main partner in trade and in technological and investment cooperation, and a major consumer of Russian hydrocarbons. On the other hand, given such a radical “redeal of the cards,” many things can probably be started with a clean slate, and far from all the rules setting the international hierarchy today will be applicable in the future. It is not ruled out, for example, that much significance will be attached not to where this or that technology was created but to the ability to put it to better use. In this regard, Russia, with its literate and daring population and huge resources, has obvious advantages.

Today, no one argues that the emerging international system by definition is polycentric. The leading think tanks in Europe, the U.S. and Russia take this factor into account in their analyses. However, no one can say yet what contours the 21st-century world order will take and how stable and efficient it will be. One of the main goals of Russian foreign policy is making the international system fair, democratic and, ideally, self-regulating. This goal can be achieved only through truly collective and partner actions by the leading players in the international arena. It is also clear that translating this maxim, with which everyone seems to agree, into practice will be a difficult and slow process.

We have come a long way from the idea, widespread in the early 1990s, that the world is moving towards some unified model, replicated from the Western model and coupled with local folklore. Now it is clear that, apart from the recognition of the market economy and democratic principles of the state as the main course of the historical process, the multiplicity of centers of power and influence presupposes a multiplicity of development models. Moreover, the trend towards higher significance of the civilizational identity factor, sagaciously predicted by Samuel Huntington, has become much more distinct. It was hard to imagine in the era of the decline of colonial empires and the domination of nationalist or revolutionary (in any case, Western in origin) ideologies that such a powerful renaissance of the Islamic identity would take place half a century later. The growing desire to rely on one’s civilizational roots is seen in Asia and other parts of the world. In international politics, it may result in more conflicts or in realization of the need for partnership on a new basis, meeting the modern realities.

The solution to this dilemma largely depends on what course of action our Western partners, above all the United States, will take. I recently read an article by Martin Sieff in The American Conservative. The author notes that the United States has traded roles with the Soviet Union, as it has become committed to spreading revolution (this time, democratic) around the world. Sieff writes that history has repeatedly proved the futility of policies of promoting revolutionary change in the world, and mentions in this connection Robespierre, Napoleon and Trotsky. One has to agree with Sieff that efforts by some country to impose its political, social and economic systems on other countries in most cases cause an opposite reaction and may contribute to the strengthening of extremist, repressive forces, thus pushing back the prospect of real democratic change.

This is a fundamental issue of contemporary international politics, directly related to the issue of the future world order. I do not mean to say that Russia resists Western influence by force of habit or that it “out of spite” throws sand in the wheels of projects initiated by the West. The point is that the policy of promoting democracy “by blood and iron” simply does not work. We have seen this over the last year and a half and even over the last decade. We all know about persistent problems faced by Iraq. No one really knows what will happen in the Middle East.

The danger of forcible imposition of democracy is that it increases elements of chaos and may bring about a serious governability crisis at the global level. Today everyone clearly feels this danger. My French counterpart Laurent Fabius recently spoke about the danger of the emergence of not a multipolar but a “multi-divided” world. Given that the world cannot be united either under the auspices of the United States or under a NATO umbrella, the only response to these concerns can be genuine partnership – both in the Euro-Atlantic area and globally.

In his recent article, reprinted in Russian translation by Russia in Global Affairs, Henry Kissinger provided cogent arguments proving the futility of reliance on force for promoting U.S. interests and values. He emphasized in this regard that “It is not an abdication of principle to adapt American foreign policy to the domestic circumstances of other societies and to other relevant factors, including national security.” It would only mean understanding the advantages of evolutionary and civilized movement towards achieving one’s goals. It is hard to disagree with this.

Kissinger noted the grotesque nature of attempts to set an approach known as Realpolitik against a “values-based” policy. Obviously, in today’s world one should reasonably combine these concepts, given the senselessness of both “crusades” and a policy devoid of moral considerations.

We advocate agreement on a basic set of values that would help build the foundation of a system based on a partnership of civilizations. If values are to be common, then they should be worked out together, renouncing messianic attitudes which do obvious harm in politics. One should clearly see the danger of a recurrence of colonial thinking, when it is proposed, for example, that the principles of a new political system in Syria be laid down by external players – for the Syrians’ sake.

We are convinced that a common scale of values can be based only on thousands-year-old traditions and a spiritual and moral denominator common to the major world religions, including such principles and notions as desire for peace and justice, dignity, freedom, responsibility, honesty, compassion, diligence and morality.

I think Russian political science now has more intellectual freedom, and we should make the most of this advantage and try to understand the path along which historical development will proceed in the medium and long term. It must be admitted, however, that making forecasts at a sharp turn in history is a very difficult and unrewarding thing to do.

In our deliberations about Russia’s place in the 21st-century world politics we should always confirm the independent political course of the country. The independence of Russia’s foreign policy is our achievement, gained over the preceding centuries of historical development and through the experience of the last 20 years. I am convinced that Russia simply cannot exist as a subordinate country of a world leader. In this context, it would be apt to recall a recent statement by a former president of the European Commission and former prime minister of Italy, Romano Prodi, who said that only three states have fully preserved their sovereignty in today’s world. These are the United States, China and Russia. This is an exaggeration, of course, but a remarkable one.

We view ourselves as – and really are – one of the centers of the new polycentric world. This status of Russia is due to its military, geographical and economic capabilities, its culture and human potential. It is also due to the fact that in international affairs Russia firmly stands on the positions of law and justice. The rule of law must be ensured in the international arena, as well. It allows Russia to play a balancing and stabilizing role, which is in increasing demand among our international partners, even those of them who cannot imagine themselves outside allied relations with the U.S. or NATO.

Of course, this approach has nothing to do with isolationism, which has been repeatedly emphasized by Russian president Vladimir Putin. We are already deeply integrated into global processes, and we intend to continue moving along this path. I am confident that we will see for ourselves that Russia’s accession to the WTO really leads to profound changes in the “rules of the game” and the general atmosphere in the Russian economy.

We see ourselves as a country that is consistently deepening integration ties with its neighbors. I mean, above all, Eurasian integration, which we view as a long-term and mutually advantageous project. But there are other projects, as well. We have been consistently advocating setting the bold and far-reaching goal of rapprochement with the European Union. Vladimir Putin has recently put forward an idea of creating a common economic and human space. We also believe that there is no alternative to a parallel policy of integrating into the Asia-Pacific region.

I know that Sergei Karaganov has for years been advocating the idea of a “Union of Europe,” and that this idea is very difficult to implement in real life. But after all, this is a matter of political will and a desire to determine conditions where this concept may work. This issue is now also a subject of much discussion in Western capitals. It has been echoed in Germany and France, as well as in the latest book by Zbigniew Brzezinski. But this should not be Russia’s incorporation into the West, but genuinely equitable rapprochement.

From a civilizational point of view, whose significance is growing, Russia is part of the “greater” European civilization – naturally, along with North America. So it is not a problem for us to implement the “European choice” through real and mutually respectful interaction and integration.

Generally speaking, I find it very strange when our conversations with Western partners sometimes create an impression as if there are no other strong centers of power, or as if the West, as in the 1990s, still claims to be the arbiter of the destinies of mankind. It seems that some of our Western partners in practical politics do not see the huge shifts that have taken place in the world over the last 20 years, in particular, the emergence of powerful centers of economic growth, financial power and political influence.

I am convinced that whipping up confrontational sentiments in the Euro-Atlantic area is a politically untenable path leading nowhere. In any case, this is not our choice.

One of the topical issues today is the feasibility of strengthening Russia’s defense capabilities. In my view, there is no doubt that in the turbulent world around us this is not just an issue of status but a must, because it is only this way that the country’s security can be reliably guaranteed.

There has been much talk of late about the factor of military power in international relations. Supposedly, the role of this factor should have decreased after the changes at the turn of the 1990s, but in the present historical period we see it grow. We have repeatedly said that all our forecasts concerning optimal ways for Russia’s development have sense only provided that international stability is preserved. This is a reflection of how things really stand. If we accept this thesis, an accumulation of elements of tensions in international relations cannot but cause concern. Meanwhile, tensions are building up, as evidenced by a growing number and intensity of international conflicts.

We know what consequences may come of foreign military intervention in the affairs of other states without UN Security Council approval. We are witnessing attempts to make the “Libyan model” a precedent. I would like to mention one more aspect: during economic crises, there may be a temptation to resort to military force to solve problems. This trend is not alien to some of our partners. A military conflict has already been used, and it may be used again in the future in order to “stir up” the situation, set new priorities, or wipe out one’s commitments.

As for soft power, it is obviously one of the main components of countries’ international influence. We cannot deny that Russia is well behind other countries in this respect. The Russian world is a huge resource that can help strengthen Russia’s prestige globally. We should actively, purposefully and daily work to preserve and develop it. Serious plans have been drawn up to tap this resource. It is important not only to spread the Russian language and Russian culture, but also broaden opportunities for people to get an education in the Russian language. The Foreign Ministry will actively cooperate with Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation – Ed.),  in these issues. We discuss these things in practical terms, too.

Russia’s share in the world information space is really not large yet. However, the first few steps have been made. The Russia Today and Rusiya al-Yaum TV channels have proven to be successful projects. In the UK, Russia Today has become the third most popular news channel. Modern technologies, including the Internet, make information flows more democratic. We should use them more actively. Overall, we have good opportunities to be heard, and they are growing.