The Russian Bridge Over the Atlantic
No. 1 2002 December
Vladimir Lukin

Russian diplomat, politician, and international relations expert; former Ombudsman of the Russian Federation (2004–2014), Research Professor at National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

What role will be played in this century by Russia, a country that had on the eve of the 21st century lost nearly all its positions on the international stage? Does it have a chance to become a leading power on which the vector of world development will depend to a large extent?

Don’t hasten to include me among the dreamers possessed by the mania for insane suppositions. Let us first think about what, in the coming decades, will shape the drama of world politics, primarily the system of relationships along its leading axis – the Eurasian-Atlantic one.

Some scholars believe that the main international political problem of this century will be a clash of civilizations. There have always been frictions between civilizations and one cannot rule out an intensified confrontation in the future. But in the first decade of this century, one of the most substantial political problems is not so much a conflict between civilizations as inside them. At issue are increasingly serious and deep differences between the two great democratic poles on either side of the Atlantic – American and European.

One can, of course, reduce the U.S.-European conflict to a set of political discrepancies, such as the differing interpretation of international law as a whole, and as applied to the situation with Iraq; the attitude to the Kyoto Protocol; Europe’s objections to the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty; the differences concerning the destruction of biological weapons; and the clearly negative U.S. attitude to the European idea of establishing an International Criminal Court. This is to say nothing about the usual competitive struggles, accompanied by regular trade wars between the Old and the New Worlds.

One gets the feeling that it is not only a matter of political and economic competition but also a question of dissimilar basic notions of contemporary life and future paths of its evolution. Over the past quarter-century, having overcome the complex of a “former European province,” the U.S. became an increasingly less “European” country in the economic, cultural, national and ethnic respects.

Europe and the U.S. do indeed have a common system of values (democracy, market economy, priority of human rights and so on) and this is constantly stressed on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, the U.S. and the European views on ways of the state’s self-realization differ greatly. Old and wise Europe is becoming aware that the Westphalian principle of national sovereignty, dominant in international relations, is becoming increasingly less applicable. In Europe, they believe that the time has come to make more resolute steps toward establishing a comprehensive world legal order, one where it will be possible to accommodate both Europe’s own interests and the interests of other serious world players. The traditional European view of the world relies on the Cartesian principle of doubt and thus generates the propensity for compromise and permanent self-adjustment.

Being relatively young, unprecedentedly powerful and thus self-confident, the U.S. reduces international relations to the following simple principle: “What is mine is mine, and what belongs to somebody else is also potentially mine.” This view of the world is based on the notion instilled by the Founding Fathers of U.S. democracy, of America being somehow “chosen” and of its special mission in the world as the “country closest to God.”

Very much depends on how the relations between Europe and America will develop. If they manage to overcome their differences (which is quite possible), the situation in the world will become more predictable and the threat of conflicts will be reduced in many regions, including where there are elements of competition between civilizations.

Conversely, if the “intra-species” struggle between the U.S. and Europe increases, the confrontation will sharpen the world over: in the Asia-Pacific region, in South Asia, and in Latin America.

Russia and America

Over the long term, Russia may substantially influence the political climate on both sides of the Atlantic. Historically and culturally, Russia is a European country par excellence and an Eurasian culture in geopolitical terms. At the same time, the very specificity, so to say, the “chemistry” of Russia’s relations with the U.S. is unique by virtue of many historical, psychological and strategic circumstances.

A number of parameters suggest the Russian mass consciousness is substantially closer to the American than to West European. Both countries have vast territories populated by many peoples of different religions. The Russians and the Americans have always had the sense of superpower status. The long period of confrontation along the fronts of the Cold War has, in a way, brought them closer together: the two have grown accustomed not only to fear but also to respect each other.

It appears that these psychological circumstances hide a paradox: at the height of the Cold War in the Soviet Union there was almost no clear feeling of anti-Americanism at the level of everyday consciousness. It arose, rather, precisely in the years of reforms and upheavals as a feeling of frustration over the perceived U.S. failure to fulfil the promise to turn us into a “second America.” But the feeling of proximity, a “connectivity,” remained. This manifested itself immediately in the wake of the September 11 events of 2001, when Russia’s president was the first to express solidarity with the U.S.

Russia and Europe

In Europe, two tendencies are now in conflict in regard to its Eastern neighbor. One proceeds from the assumption that Russia should remain an “external factor” in regard to the integrated Europe, a mineral resource and energy “underbelly” and do the “dirty work” (discuss disputable strategic issues with the U.S., the EU being assigned to a “number two” role acting behind Moscow’s back; participate in the settlement of local conflicts, supplying human resources, ordinary military equipment and so on). For the rest, the EU must clearly regulate the degree of Russia’s involvement in Europe, confining itself to decorative, external forms of cooperation.

Adherents to the other trend are aware that the role in a global world rather belongs to a Europe which unites all states – from Lisbon to Vladivostok. To maintain its leading positions in the international arena until the middle of the current century, the Old World will need to concentrate all its economic, technological, geopolitical and cultural resources. This second current tends to regard the Russian-European situation in less practical terms, without rejecting outright the strategic perspective of Russia turning into an “internal factor” of European integration.

In any event, there is a growing realization in Europe that any intelligible European policy is impossible without accommodating the factor of Russia. The recent developments (Iraq, Middle East) demonstrate that the U.S. has tended to heed the Russia-EU duet while the soloist — the EU without Russia or Russia without the EU — is immeasurably less significant for it.

An “Inter-Atlantic Integrator”

And so, Russia at the turn of the century is returning to Europe with its baggage of perfectly special relations with the United States. This provides Russia with an historic chance to take the niche of an “inter-Atlantic integrator” – a country positioned in the inter-Atlantic space between the two Atlantic poles, assuming the mission of eliminating the political gaps and striving to be the catalyst and initiator of concerted tripartite political actions.

This foreign policy line and the related diplomatic strategy and tactics are the best way of a stage-by-stage, long-term return of Russia into Europe with the consent and support of the United States. This is the most effective way of establishing favorable international political conditions for modernizing the country and turning it into a “subject,” not an “object” of the world economy, politics and culture of the 21st century. If Russia does not miss this chance, it will, even with its limited possibilities, already in the near future become an active political force in the world and exert serious influence on the destinies of the world.

One ought to point out that, in the foreseeable future, no other country can realistically claim the role of an “inter-Atlantic integrator.” The desire to take such a niche is sometimes observed in British foreign policy. However, today’s Britain is hardly prepared to fulfil the uniting mission. On the European continent, London is sometimes perceived as a U.S. Trojan Horse rather than an “honest broker.” In addition, being an EU member, Britain cannot play for one team while being the referee of the game.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, many analysts believed that a global political role in the early 21st century could be played by Japan rapidly moving to take the position of the third world center after the U.S. and the EU. It soon turned out, however, that its political possibilities were clearly inadequate. And in the economic sense Japan entered a stage of structural stagnation, and one has difficulty seeing prospects for it emerging from the stagnation in the foreseeable future.

Within the context of Russia acquiring a long-term inter-Atlantic status, the position definitively expressed by Russia’s president in the first hours following the September 11 terrorist attack undoubtedly played a positive role. Another indispensable prerequisite was another initiative of Russia’s president – proclaiming Russia’s European course as a strategic priority. The Kremlin then made it clear enough that the course of rapprochement with Europe was not a political maneuver, albeit of a long-term character. It marked the return of the “prodigal son” to his organic civilized environment, abandoned after the stormy and tragic cataclysms of the early 20th century.

Earlier, Russia had also tried to wedge itself in-between the two Atlantic coasts, playing on the specific relations between Washington and the European capitals. For half a century the U.S. regarded itself as the guarantor of the security of Europe experiencing pressure from the East. The Europeans, however, were not completely confident in the reliability of U.S. guarantees (including nuclear) in the event of a conflict between the North-Atlantic Alliance and the Warsaw Pact.

In periods when relations between Moscow and Washington became exacerbated, the European capitals did not rule out that Washington could sacrifice Europe for its own salvation. To avoid this eventuality, the Old World strove to get increasingly closer to the U.S. Moscow would be told that, to engage Europe in a successful dialog, it ought to establish constructive relations with Washington. When the USSR strove to relax tensions in its relations with the U.S., the European leaders would seriously begin to suspect Moscow and Washington of wishing to come to a separate agreement and to relegate Europe to the periphery of world politics.

Incidentally, there was some ground for suspicion, especially when the Republicans were in power, a party that traditionally has more respect for force than for law. Those were usually the peak periods of detente in U.S.-Soviet relations.

In the post-Soviet time, one still feels the inertia of the old approach making itself felt from time to time, but the counterpoint message, characteristic of Russia’s European policy, lost any sense. When Russia turned out to be weakened militarily and politically and the U.S.-EU confrontation grew sharper, Europe cautiously but insistently began to seek its own foreign-policy and defense identity. Today the U.S. is needed increasingly less by the European Union as the “strategic guarantor” in the old sense. There is no need for a guarantor if there is no threat. Moreover, Russia is increasingly regarded as a possible new guarantor in equalizing the threatening pressure from the traditional “guarantor.”

Indeed, on quite a number of significant political issues Russia occupies “European” rather than “American” positions. It is most important that Europe should not get the impression that Moscow strives in a purely Soviet style to use the contradictions between the two Atlantic poles. Russia must “inscribe itself” into this space and become its internal factor. Only then will it be able to manifest its originality to the maximum extent.

Unity in Diversity

It goes without saying that Russia very much differs from other subjects of the common Atlantic space which, incidentally, is not fully homogeneous itself. Spain and Greece are very different from, for instance, Sweden and Norway, although they are also members of one civilized family of nations. As frequently happened in Russian history, now, at the turn of the century, it is time to decide whether Russia is the most Eastern country of the West or it is the most Western country of the East. Where, in what macrostructure, is the Russian originality materialized? Where is Russia’s creative potential fulfilled most fully and where is the destructive potential contained? In my opinion, the answer is clear: Russia’s specificity, which has already exerted a most benefical impact on world civilization, is capable in the 21st century of manifesting itself in the optimum way inside the common Atlantic space rather than outside it.

This determines the basic parameters of Russia’s foreign-policy strategy for the coming decades – to remain in the Euro-Atlantic “habitat” and, in the process, stay the political and diplomatic integrator of the two Atlantic poles so as, on the one hand, to avoid an open domination of one of them and, on the other, to prevent overly acute conflicts among them.

It is my conviction that such a position holds out the greatest promise for Russia in terms of the cardinal interests of its security and prospects of socio-economic growth. It can only be implemented if the line is not crossed, beyond which we will no longer be regarded as a kindred community, albeit complex and specific.

Contemporary history has repeatedly demonstrated how important it is to follow these principles. Thus, Greece during the times of the “black colonels” fell out of the field of Euro-Atlantic civilization, despite successes in the social and economic fields. The country paid dearly for the years of isolation. On the contrary, de Gaulle’s France, very much testing the nerves of the U.S., Canada and European partners, never permitted itself to abandon the common Euro-Atlantic space. Despite all his arrogance, globalist ambitions and a certain nationalism, Charles de Gaulle was clearly aware of the line dividing civilizations and never crossed it.

Neither should the present and future politicians of Russia forget in any circumstances the need to combine the specific interests of expediency, on the one hand, and the long-term interests, on the other. Russia has its interests in the East and in the South and in different overseas regions. It is important not to confuse the means and objectives and not to lose sight of the basic priorities.

If we hold on to this strategic line, stick to it by not becoming a victim of morbid imagination and nostalgia, we will accomplish the main thing – relatively calm, sustainable development over the next two or three decades. In addition, this goal can be accomplished not through refusal to participate in international relations but rather through revitalizing foreign policy in a really pivotal direction. In this way, Russia will use a unique chance to become a factor leading to a balance of interests and positions inside a kindred (and in this sense “unipolar”) Atlantic space, united in its diversity.

On the whole, Russia did not make a mistake taking the course of integrating into Europe: the nation’s importance in the world increased, its economic and political potential has grown, and the political situation at home has improved. Of course, far from all of Russia’s political and diplomatic steps, taken from the time the European course was proclaimed two years ago, corresponded to the course chosen. Sometimes one had the impression that the routine of official diplomacy, like a quagmire, swallowed up all long-term strategic planning and each time the “strategic choice” was the country where another summit was planned. (It shall be noted for the sake of justice that European bureaucracy is not always up to the mark either.) It will be possible to maintain a correct line only if the Russian leadership proves capable of pursuing on a systematic basis a home policy based on state interests, i.e. a policy that does not boil down to a timid maneuvering between various interest groups seeking goals that by far do not coincide with the interests of the state.

One should not forget the main thing: Russia’s strong foreign-policy strategy, aimed at assuming a new global role and emphasizing the Euro-Atlantic factor, is only possible on the basis of a strong and purposeful home policy, a gradual and consistent expansion of democratic principles and institutions. This is an objective difficulty and, at the same time, a great historical challenge.