Discussions of Russian foreign policy typically boil down to one question: will the pro-Western or anti-Western tendency prevail? This is an unproductive way to frame the discussion. The world has changed, and dividing it into “the West and the rest” is becoming less and less meaningful.
The West no longer exists as a political community, as Russia has come to know it. It still exists, however, as a cultural and historical space, although this too will change as the share of the population with non-European roots continues to grow. But the close political alliance between Western nations only emerged in the second half of the past century. Before that they fought each other at every turn. It was only the defeat of Nazism and the specter of communism that ultimately drew together these once mortal enemies – France, Germany, Britain, Spain and the United States, to name a few.
Their alliance was ostensibly based on common values. However, the glaringly undemocratic nature of the regimes in Spain, Portugal, Turkey and South Korea did not prevent them from siding with genuine democracies to counter the Red threat. It’s fair to say that Washington and the more advanced European capitals always felt uneasy about cooperating with autocrats, and so they enthusiastically welcomed democratic changes in these countries in the 1970s.
The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the existentialist threat that bound the West together. When the euphoria over the triumph of Western values faded, Western countries began to realize that they had far less in common than they once thought.
Apart from having competing interests, Europe and America don’t command the same influence. As the only superpower, the United States pursues a global strategy and projects its power (in all its forms) throughout the world. Europe is increasingly withdrawing into its shell and limiting its ambitions due to economic and political exigencies. In other words, Europe is primarily focused on its “near abroad,” the European periphery.
The difference in the allies’ strategic horizons affects their political thinking: the New World continues to rely on force whereas the Old World prefers “soft power.” Both are facing serious problems. America has had to realize that even the world’s leading power is not all-powerful, as its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown. Europe has lost much of its appeal (the backbone of its “soft power”) as a result of the EU’s deep and protracted crisis.
The two coasts of the Atlantic are still members of one and the same political alliance. They still speak about their alliance’s importance and immutability. But despite all the high-sounding rhetoric about NATO’s bright future, there is still no clear-cut mission to draw Europe and America close together. In the Middle East, they can at least count on there being no conflict of interest (America seeks regional dominance while for Europe this region is backyard and gas station). As for the potential for greater confrontation in the Far East, Europe is not enthusiastic about it at all, whereas for the United States this is the main area of future global competition.
To sum up, the West as we’ve come to understand it no longer exists. There is Europe, America, Japan, Turkey, South Korea and others. Each country has its own interests and its own independent policies. America is interested in strategic relations, primarily in the nuclear sphere, and global security. It devotes little attention to foreign economic relations, and there are no prospects of close relations, although cooperation on specific issues is possible. Europe is involved in the economy and business. It devotes little attention to security, but the confluence of commercial interests and cultural community creates the prospect of a stronger alliance.
Turkey is a growing regional power, like Russia, that belongs to Europe historically but has more dimensions. Russia is also a major energy supplier and partner/rival in the great game in the Middle East.
Japan and other pro-American Asian countries are potential counterweights to China’s growing influence and participants in the program for the development of Siberia and the Far East. All these roles do not exclude but complement one another in an intricate way.
The meaning of the words “East” and “Asia” have also changed. Asia was associated with backwardness in Russian discourse, whereas now it has come to symbolize the most dynamic and promising development. Relations with Beijing are at the top of the list of priorities for the near future, but Moscow will have to elaborate a new model for them because for the first time China is ahead of Russia in most indicators. This fact is forcing Moscow to maneuver between the need to preserve excellent relations with Beijing and to avoid dependence on it. Moreover, this aspect of Russian policy should in no way depend on progress in relations with America or lack thereof. Regrettably, Moscow often links the two.
Post-Soviet countries have also ceased to be an arena of fierce geopolitical battles. On the one hand, major international players have too many problems of their own to pay too much attention to the problematic states of the ex-Soviet periphery. On the other, the risks involved, for instance, in the future of Afghanistan, are so high that it would be useful to try and coordinate action there rather than fight for influence. The U.S. departure in 2014 will leave a security vacuum there and nobody knows what to do about it. Russian attempts to forge a regional strategy in the CSTO and SCO have been unsuccessful so far.
Ideological and geopolitical borders are disappearing and traditional relations are eroding in global politics. It is vital for Russia – with its trans-continental geography and interests along its entire, enormous border – to keep a free hand and demonstrate flexibility in order to be able to cooperate with anyone, if need be. There is no need for a pro- or anti-Western policy, at least not until a new, stable system of relations takes shape. But this is not even on the horizon.