The Berlin Doctrine
No. 1 2009 January/March
Adrian Pabst

Dr Adrian Pabst is a lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations of Rutherford College, University of Kent, the UK.

In a little-noticed coincidence, President Dmitry Medvedev and
the then Democratic Presidential Nominee Sen. Barack Obama
delivered major foreign policy speeches in the summer of 2008 in
Berlin. Notwithstanding important differences, both recognized the
flaws of the prevailing international system and emphasized the
need for a new global order that transcends narrow national
self-interest and addresses common security threats. Crucially,
President Medvedev and Sen. Obama each vowed to strengthen
U.S.-Russian ties and to build broader alliances.

A few weeks later, the events in the Caucasus and the financial
meltdown changed international relations and East-West ties
fundamentally and irreversibly. The Georgian conflict not only
exacerbated NATO’s profound internal divisions but also underscored
the West’s lack of strategic vision and purpose.

In the foreseeable future America will remain the world’s sole
military superpower, but – especially since the disaster of Iraq,
Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib – the U.S.A. (and her allies) have
lost credibility and the moral authority to claim global
leadership. Support for Mikheil Saakashvili’s reckless aggression
and his corrupt regime revealed once more Western double standards
and the Atlanticist disregard for genuine democracy and

Similarly, the economic crisis spelled the end of the
neo-liberal ‘Washington consensus’ and confirmed the failure of the
Western-dominated international architecture to regulate global
finance or to reduce worldwide poverty and inequality. In
conjunction with the demise of laissez-faire free-market ideology
and the extension of state capitalism, new economic and financial
centers will emerge in the BRIC countries as well as the Persian
Gulf and South-East Asia. The rest of the world will no longer
gravitate towards the Western orbit. Thus, the “Atlantic unipole”
(Ira Straus) has already ceased to shape and direct global
geo-politics and geo-economics. The utopia of a unipolar world
order that was proclaimed by the Project for a New American Century
now lies in utter ruins.

Paradoxically, the deepening recession that will dominate both
national politics and international relations makes a pan-Eurasian
security settlement more important and pressing than at any point
in time since the end of the Cold War. From the economy via energy
and ecology to secessionism, terrorism and cross-border crime, the
leading countries in Eurasia have a strong and growing mutual
interest in security cooperation. A new framework is all the more
necessary since the prevailing security and defense organizations
in East and West like NATO or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO) cannot cope with the emerging global constellation of
overlapping spheres of influence where the rival, trans-national
interests of “great powers” collide and their client states clash.
This constellation portends more insecurity and conflict across the
Eurasian space, especially in parts of Eastern Europe, the Balkans,
the Caucasus and the Caspian, as well as Central Asia.

Presidents Medvedev and Obama face a fundamental choice. Either
each continues the strategies and policies of his respective
predecessor or both decide to put East-West relations on a new
footing in order to try and avert further confrontation and
conflict. If they can retrieve their foreign policy ideas as
outlined in Berlin, then there will be sufficient common ground for
an overarching security community extending from Vancouver to
Vladivostok. If, moreover, the U.S. and Russian leadership can
translate this vision into an institutional framework with real
decision-making powers, then there will be sufficient substance for
such a community to take shape.


Reactions to the crisis in Georgia revealed just how confused
and outmoded the dominant thinking on European security and
East-West relations is. Terms such as “totalitarianism,”
“appeasement,” “imperialism” and “New Cold War” were applied to
complex events that manifestly escape such easy categorization.
Over-simplification is a poor substitute for cold-headed analysis
and judgment.

Many Western politicians and pundits likened Russia’s action in
the Caucasus to the 1938 Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland or the
1939 Soviet invasion of Finland. Based on such dubious comparisons,
they denounced what they saw as U.S. and EU appeasement of Moscow’s
growing belligerence. Those who draw these sorts of parallels live
in the past but don’t know their history. The new Russia is no
liberal democracy, but anyone with basic knowledge of the Soviet
(or Nazi) regime understands that the charge of totalitarianism and
aggressive expansionism simply won’t wash. Nor is it particularly
persuasive to claim that the Kremlin is bent on rebuilding the
Soviet Union. Instead, Russia under the diarchy of Prime Minister
Putin and President Medvedev combines populism and authoritarian
state capitalism with a neo-tsarist projection of central power and
military force.

Likewise, regular Russian condemnation of Western colonialism
and imperialism fails to acknowledge today’s reality. Unlike
Napoleon’s 1812 march on Moscow or the 1941 Nazi invasion of the
U.S.S.R., the U.S.A. and the EU do not have any plans to annex all
ex-Soviet satellites or to colonize the whole of Russia. This false
paranoia is reinforced by a culture of conspiracy and victimhood
that besets large strands of Russia’s post-Soviet elite.

However, it is hard to deny the growing hostility towards Russia
now prevalent in America and the “new Europe.” By recognizing
Kosovo’s independence, expanding NATO eastwards and establishing
the U.S. anti-ballistic missile shield in Russia’s Czech and Polish
neighborhood, the West has betrayed its own promise of a strategic
partnership with Moscow. Little wonder that the perceived
humiliation of the Kremlin and the treatment of Russia as a
third-rate power generate resentment and revanchisme.

The trouble is that when amnesia and historical illiteracy shape
policy- and decision-making, a local crisis gets blown out of all
proportion. Moscow’s use of force in Georgia was not at all of the
same order and magnitude as the Soviet suppression of Hungary’s
uprising in 1956 or the Prague Spring in 1968. U.S. interventions
in Washington’s own Central and Latin American backyard in the
1970s and 1980s may prove a better comparison. Except, of course,
that the White House and the Pentagon tend to engage in pre-emptive
warfare and to practice regime change by force, whereas the Kremlin
has thus far been largely reactive and left hostile governments in

Rather than Russia’s excessive retaliation in response to
Georgia’s reckless aggression, it was in reality the escalating war
of words between East and West that prompted unwise action and
brought simmering tensions to boiling point.  But history
never repeats itself. The latest East-West confrontation is not a
rerun of the Cold War. U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals
notwithstanding, neither country openly threatens the other’s
existence. Nor are East and West any longer divided by ideology.
Rather, what we are seeing across the northern hemisphere is a
nationalist-protectionist backlash against globalization, a
(temporary) strengthening of the centralized bureaucratic national
state at the expense of free-market global finance and a worrying
intensification of post-democratic managerialism and political
populism (as Colin Crouch has extensively documented in his book
Post-Democracy published in 2004).

As such, the new East-West fault line is neither military nor
ideological but instead geo-strategic. Not unlike the U.S.A. and
its European allies, Russia and her fellow autocratic regimes in
Central Asia seek to consolidate and extend their sphere of
political, economic and cultural influence. What we are witnessing
is a contest between rival blocs vying for trans-regional hegemony
within the wider Eurasian space, with each “great power” backing
client states and waging war by proxy. The latest examples include
the West’s support for Kosovo against Russia’s ally Serbia and the
Russian intervention in South Ossetia against the pro-Western
regime in Georgia. Of course, there is no strict moral equivalence
between East and West, but in geo-politics and international
relations there never is. America, Europe and Russia have at
different times been on the wrong side of aggression, war and
occupation. Surely the world is not divided between good and evil,
with Russia “either with us or with our enemies.”

As things stand, Eurasia faces the prospect of more
confrontation between the “great powers.” The trouble is that in
trying to extend their sphere of influence, they provoke each other
and stir up small-country nationalism – from Croatia, Serbia and
Kosovo to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. This, coupled with the
threat of separatism, raises the specter of a Eurasian arc of
insecurity stretching from the Balkans via the Caucasus to Central
Asia and beyond.


Across the post-Soviet space and elsewhere in Eurasia,
territorial borders are notoriously unstable. However, recent
interventions on the Balkans and in the Caucasus have changed the
dynamic in favor of secessionism. Taken together, Western
recognition of Kosovo and Russia’s support for South Ossetia and
Abkhazia have strengthened the cause of violent separatism and
unilaterally declared independence. However legitimate their claim
to self-determination, breakaway provinces are little more than
pawns in an escalating “great power” game. Moreover, unless a new
security umbrella is put in place, violence could erupt in the
other “frozen conflicts.”

After the brutal confrontation in Georgia, a return to the
status quo ante – as demanded by the U.S.A. and the EU – is both
unrealistic and undesirable. The post-conflict settlements of the
early 1990s settled nothing. The ceasefire accords failed to stop
inter-ethnic strife and paramilitary fighting. Worse, separatist
regions were abandoned in a geo-political no-man’s land. A mix of
U.S. disinterest, European indecision and Russian weakness limited
direct foreign interventions and preserved an uneasy East-West
truce. With the 1999 NATO war on Russia’s ally Serbia over Kosovo,
this fragile and vastly imperfect equilibrium became unhinged.
After 9/11, the Bush administration continued President Clinton’s
NATO expansion and extended American unilateralism to Russia’s
southern rim, building military bases in the Caucasus and Central
Asia and supporting pro-Western regime change through “color
revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and beyond.

A resurgent Russia is determined to halt and reverse what she
sees as Western expansionism in Moscow’s backyard and a direct
threat to Russia’s national security. Prime Minister Putin and
President Medvedev’s intervention in the Caucasus is the first
military fight-back in an attempt to restore Russia’s “natural
sphere of influence” and to defend what President Medvedev called
in the aftermath of the Georgian war Moscow’s “privileged
interests” in countries with which Russia has extensive historical
and cultural ties. In response, the U.S.A. and its partners in
Central and Eastern Europe have pressed for NATO enlargement to
Georgia and Ukraine and called for international containment and
isolation of Russia, all in the name of enlightened interests that
serve sovereign nations and uphold the values of the self-anointed
“international community.”


The defense and pursuit of “privileged” or “enlightened”
interests risks violating the principle of national state
sovereignty (whose roots can be traced to the 1648 Peace of
Westphalia). This principle, which has been repeatedly invoked by
Russia, is of course one of the cornerstones of international

By effectively elevating Russian national interests over those
of its neighbors, the Kremlin comes perilously close to inventing
its own variant of the Monroe Doctrine – with the key difference
that America tends to see U.S. interest as synonymous with the
interests of mankind and the rest of the world, whereas Moscow’s
outlook does not so far extend much beyond the post-Soviet

However, the existence of “great power” spheres of influence
undermines the very foundations of the international system by
causing permanent instability and provoking proxy wars. Indeed, as
early as 2003 – the year of regime change in Iraq and Georgia – the
Bush administration blamed the Westphalian system of state
sovereignty for competition and war and sought to replace it with
an alliance or federation of democracies under the sole leadership
of America – an idea that inspired Sen. John McCain’s call to
abolish the U.N. in favor of a “League of Democracies.”

Far from being a post-9/11 invention, the underlying
neo-conservative ideology inspired the liberal interventionism of
Clinton and Blair in the second half of the 1990s. Not only did it
legitimate “humanitarian warfare” on the Balkans and in Kosovo, it
also led to a fundamental change in international law, as codified
in the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” adopted by the U.N.
in 2005.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with limited military
interventions aimed at preventing or stopping ethnic cleansing or
genocide. However, without a transcendent account of justice and a
proper supranational authority, the “Responsibility to Protect” –
with few exceptions – has become an instrument of blackmail,
intimidation and selective interference in the hands of the “great

More fundamentally, the international system in its present
configuration is caught in an irreconcilable contradiction between
the twin principles of national sovereignty and territorial
integrity on the one hand and the right to national
self-determination and the “Responsibility to Protect,” on the
other hand. In the absence of a proper global and universally
recognized authority independent of national veto power, individual
“great powers” – chief of all the U.S.A. – arrogate to themselves
the right to decide on legality and legitimacy. In so doing, they
cease to be subject to international law whilst at the same time
purporting to embody and defend the values and principles of the
international community. Russia’s sterile appeal to international
law is therefore unlikely to prevent or mitigate the clash between
rival, overlapping spheres of influence and interest.

Moreover, the core problem with international law is that it is
constitutively incapable of limiting the power of states. This is
so because the state monopolizes sovereignty in this sense that it
alone has the power to decide on the “state of exception” – the
suspension of the law for the sake of protecting the law against
external threats and enemies (as political theorists like Carl
Schmitt and, more recently, Giorgio Agamben have shown). In its
present form, the inter-state system is clearly grounded in the
primacy of national state sovereignty over international
trans-statal law. As a result, unmediated absolute sovereignty
creates the potential for violence within and between states that
the central state purports to regulate on the basis of its monopoly
on the use of physical force (as Max Weber argued).

While it is true that globalization and civil society have to
some extent diluted central power and diffused state sovereignty,
it is equally true that the ongoing economic turmoil has once more
strengthened the power of the state in collusion with the market –
at the expense of intermediary institutions and local communities.
Crucially, recent security threats such as Islamic terrorism or
cross-border crime have been used by states as a pretext to extend
executive power to the detriment of legislative scrutiny and
judicial oversight. However, not unlike transnational markets,
transnational security threats have not as yet led to
trans-national structures which pool national state sovereignty in
order better to protect collectivities. These problems are also
reflected in the inadequate security arrangements in the Eurasian


If international law cannot effectively limit the power of
sovereign states, the only alternative to a clash of “great powers”
is to pool sovereignty and to establish shared security structures.
The Georgian crisis revealed once more how inadequate the
prevailing security arrangements in the wider European and Eurasian
space are. None of the existing organizations is capable of
adjudicating trans-national, inter-state territorial disputes or
resolving the fate of regions that seek autonomy. What Europe and
Eurasia require is a different security architecture that can
minimize the ubiquitous risk of conflict contagion and provide
long-term political settlements.

Unsurprisingly, the dominant security organizations in Eurasia
are all ill adapted to this imperative. NATO in particular lacks a
coherent conceptual basis. Originally designed to provide
collective defense guarantees in exchange for limited national
sovereignty, the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization has been
transformed into an attacking alliance, waging “humanitarian
warfare” on the Balkans and converting Afghanistan to democracy by
force. The NATO-Russia Council is nothing more than a talking shop
designed to pacify Moscow and to provide a semblance of
Euro-Atlantic cooperation. Eastward expansion has already proven
divisive and destabilizing, precisely in Georgia and the

Moscow looks to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as
NATO’s eastern rival, especially at a time when the West faces a
growing insurgency in Afghanistan and mounting resistance by
Pakistani militants who threaten to cut off supply routes. By
coming to NATO’s aid in Afghanistan, member-states like Russia and
China hope to establish and legitimate the SCO internationally.
Moreover, the Kremlin hopes to forge closer ties between the SCO
and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military
alliance of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan,
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that includes mutual security guarantees.
Yet Russia’s current alliances are limited in scope and reach. More
fundamentally, both the SCO and the CSTO are founded on the
absolute supremacy of sovereign states and do not have any
provisions to pool the sovereignty of their members.

The European Union is the only framework where sovereignty is
bounded and shared by member-states and power is diffused.
Moreover, the EU is a growing civilian force and Eurasia’s single
largest trading partner. But its post-national constitution and
economic clout are not matched by its geo-political weight. Since
the 1991 common foreign and security policy, the EU has neither
developed a shared geo-strategic vision nor put in place the
necessary military capabilities. Crucially, the Union is deeply
divided over Russia, with the UK and “new Europe” opposed to the
EU-Russia strategic partnership favored by Italy, France and
Germany. Without a collective Ostpolitik, how can Brussels hope to
engage Russia and offer a credible alternative to NATO?

With 56 member-states from Vancouver to Vladivostok, the OSCE is
of course the only genuinely multilateral forum that focuses on
conflict resolution and conducts field missions in the Caucasus and
elsewhere in Eurasia. However, the organization’s effectiveness is
seriously undermined by a lack of political authority and the
absence of independent capabilities.


Dmitry Medvedev’s speech in Berlin on June 5, 2008 on his first
trip to the West as President set the tone for renewed reflections
on an expanded Euro-Atlantic Community that includes Russia not on
Western but instead on shared terms. Sen. Obama’s speech in the
same city on July 24, 2008 echoed the desire to overcome the
current East-West divisions and to build a new global order on the
basis of universal values.

Critics will contend that all this was empty rhetoric void of
any substance. They will assert that a 21st-century pan-European
security community is utopian and that East and West will continue
to diverge, as they have done since at least 2003. However, without
a common framework that is based on new rules binding on all and
that extends to Russia (as well as possibly China and some Central
Asian countries), trans-regional security threats in the wider
Eurasian space such as terrorism or separatism and cross-border
security problems such as organized crime cartels will only
intensify. The Obama administration has already acknowledged that
the U.S.A. is unable to solve global problems alone and that
America will have to forge new partnerships in order to confront
shared security threats. There is thus a unique window of
opportunity to develop a new security doctrine and a new security

Indeed, all the dominant security concepts since the end of the
Cold War are conceptually flawed and geo-politically obsolete. The
post-1989/90 world order of multilateral cooperation and boundless
globalization failed in Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans. Post-9/11
U.S. unilateralism and conversion to democracy by force was
defeated on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as,
more recently, in Georgia. The “global war on terror” that briefly
brought Russia and the Atlantic community together was purely
tactical and always lacked any substantive geo-strategic basis.

By contrast, the post-Cold War vision of a Euro-Atlantic
security Treaty as enshrined in the 1990 Paris Charter that
transformed the CSCE into the OSCE might have provided a starting
point for a pan-European “security community” (Karl Deutsch) – had
it not been for the “unipolar moment” (Charles Krauthammer) that
drove a permanent wedge between NATO and Russia and prevented any
genuine rapprochement between East and West. Now that the “Atlantic
unipole” has conspicuously failed to provide an effective and
reliable security umbrella even for the West and its new allies, it
is imperative to replace U.S.-led Western unilateralism with a
pan-Eurasian settlement that includes Russia and perhaps also China
and Central Asia.

President Medvedev has repeatedly offered his European and
Atlantic counterparts to put in place a Treaty on European
Security. In his address to the World Policy Conference on November
8, 2008 in Evian, President Medvedev stated that his idea is to
convene a pan-European security conference with the participation
not only of individual states but also of international
organizations active in Europe, including the EU, NATO, the Council
of Europe and the OSCE. Dubbed “Helsinki-2,” President Medvedev’s
plan is of course modeled on the OSCE’s forebear, the CSCE – a
two-year process of sustained east-west engagement in the 1970s
that was instrumental in mitigating the binary logic of the Cold
War and establishing a common framework for regular discussion and
multilateral negotiation. With the OSCE’s remit effectively reduced
to the “low politics,” neither the NATO-Russia Council nor the EU’s
strategic partnership with Moscow ever provided a comparable

President Medvedev’s plan lays emphasis on international law,
but given the existing tensions and contradictions, what is
required is a profound overhaul of the international legal system.
Based on a revised set of principles that codify shared
sovereignty, a European Treaty on Security could make a
contribution to a proper reform of international law. Here there is
common ground with the EU’s post-national political structure.

In addition to internal inconsistencies, the main obstacle to
President Medvedev’s initiative is a lack of political will on the
part of EU leaders and the U.S. government. It is clear that
President Medvedev’s intention is to change the terms of the debate
on the future of security in Europe away from NATO towards a new
body that includes Russia as a founding member. As such, his
proposal is unacceptable to most EU countries and virtually all
NATO allies.

With NATO determined to press ahead with eastern enlargement and
the EU divided on Russia as well as lacking a coherent
geo-strategic vision, President Medvedev will make little progress
at a multilateral level. The Kremlin has long given up on joining
NATO or forging a substantive partnership with the Union in the
area of security or even defense. It views NATO as a Cold War relic
and the EU as little more than a common market with some crisis
management capabilities. As a result, the Russian leadership will
probably try to rally bilateral support for its initiative among
major European powers such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
However, the greatest and most pressing challenge will be to
convince the Obama administration to take the Russian proposal
seriously. President Medvedev needs a road map that sets out a
credible process from the status quo to a new pan-Eurasian security


Left unchallenged, the current dynamic that drives East-West
relations will lead to further estrangement, confrontation and
conflict by proxy. Neither Russia’s full integration into the
North-Atlantic alliance nor her total encirclement is realistic or
desirable. Now the choice is between isolation and engagement on
common terms. The West needs to give Russia equal ownership of a
joint framework to devise principles and mechanisms for a new
security doctrine. By accepting equal ownership of a joint process,
the West could in exchange press Moscow for a permanent political
settlement of Europe’s outstanding territorial conflicts.

A first step would be to set up a high-level U.S.-Russian
commission charged with rethinking bilateral relations. Based on
the wide-ranging agreement signed in April 2008 by former
Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, such a commission
could recognize shared interests in addressing common security
problems in the Eurasian space and coordinate joint action to fight
the most pressing threats. With confidence-building measures,
improved U.S.-Russian relations are a condition sine qua non for an
overarching Eurasian security structure.

A second step would be to convene a security conference with the
participation of the U.S.A., Russia, the EU, possibly China,
separatist regions and their (former) masters. The participant
parties to this conference could then debate and devise new
policies and mechanisms for crisis prevention and crisis
management. In addition, they could devise new criteria for dealing
with unrecognized states, and agree new rules of military
engagement in the event of separatism that would be binding on all

If successful, such a security conference could gradually evolve
into a pan-Eurasian security community. Building on the
achievements of the OSCE, such a community could help develop a
shared security strategy. One concrete purpose could be to invent
new concepts and policies dealing with the tension between national
sovereignty and territorial integrity, on the one hand and national
self-determination and the “Responsibility to Protect,” on the
other hand. In the event of sufficient political support from the
main powers, such a community could set up a permanent security
council and regular ministerial meetings to exchange information
and best practices, oversee the implementation of peace accords and
political settlements, as well as work on arms control and the
reduction of nuclear warheads.

Western politicians and pundits will contend that this is to
fall into a bear trap. Surely the Kremlin is pushing for a
collective framework in order to veto NATO enlargement, block the
U.S. anti-missile shield, bring in China to dilute Western power,
as well as impose neutrality on Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
Perhaps. But within a multilateral framework based on strong
bilateral relations, it is unlikely that Moscow could dictate
conditions unilaterally.

*  *  *

At the dawn of the 21st century, East and West appear to have
adopted a 19th-century mindset of “great power” spheres of
influence in order to address security problems left unresolved by
20th-century institutions that are either divisive (like NATO) or
divided (like the UN and the EU) or just feeble (like the OSCE and
the Council of Europe). Little wonder that violence and war erupt
with frightening frequency.

With East-West ties at their lowest since 1986, President Obama
and President Medvedev have the opportunity to change the current
dynamics and to put U.S.-Russian relations on a new footing. But a
new détente between global powers requires more than better
bilateral cooperation. By reconfiguring the prevailing security
arrangements in the wider European and Eurasian space, the U.S.A.
and Russia could lock in progress in their bilateral ties and
extend this to their allies and partners in Europe and Central
Asia. The existing institutions lack a coherent conceptual basis to
address contradictory principles and the reality of diffuse
sovereignty and a complex power matrix. Within an overarching
pan-Eurasian framework, states and organizations could come
together to develop new concepts and policies in order to adapt the
norms of international law to the new geo-political constellation.
They could also devise new ways of blending global principles with
local practices.

Now it depends on the political will and courage of the American
and Russian leadership to translate their common vision of a
multi-polar and multilateral order into the reality of shared
institutions and concrete policies. Nothing less than a new
security doctrine is at stake. As the symbol of absolute war,
East-West division but ultimately a world that stands united, what
better name than – Berlin Doctrine?