What Diplomacy Does Russia Need in the 21st Century?
No. 4 2011 October/December
Igor Ivanov

Former Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs (1998-2004) and former Secretary of the Russian Security Council (2004-2007), is currently President of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, and a member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs.

When Ideas Are More Important Than Material Things

A magazine article is hardly the best place for a detailed analysis of the landslide developments the international system has seen over the past two decades. It was a dramatic period, indeed – there were great hopes and great disappointments, there were revolutionary changes and desperate attempts to preserve the status quo, and there were historical achievements and tragic mistakes. Another reason why it is so difficult to talk about it is that the process of fundamental restructuring of the global system, which began in the mid-1980s, is far from complete; apparently, we are in the middle of a long historical cycle of change. Many transformational trends are still gaining strength and their effects will fully manifest themselves no earlier than in several decades’ time.

But already now one can say that the transition has proved not just long, but very painful as well. For everyone; not just for those who were considered to be losers in the Cold War, but also for those who fancied themselves the winners. To a large extent that was due to the fact that the old system collapsed virtually in no time, in historical terms – almost instantly. No one had any handy tools or contingency plan to suit the occasion, no one could boast of having a well-mapped long-term strategy. Everyone had to improvise, relying not so much on the experience of senior colleagues and teachers, as on one’s own intuition and imagination. Some improvisations were successful, while others were not. So it would be unfair to rate politicians of the past two decades from today’s perspective. Sometimes they simply could not have foreseen the immediate consequences of their decisions, let alone the long-term ones.

However, an analysis of events, successes and failures – objective and impartial as possible – is a vital need. At least in order to confidently move forward without stepping on the same rake over and over again. Moreover, we should analyze not only our own mistakes, but also the miscalculations and delusions of other players.



Today it is evident that twenty years ago, the countries of the West – primarily, the United States – succumbed to triumphalistic moods. They fell into the trap of such illusions as the “end of history,” “unipolar world,” and the universality of liberal values. Triumphalism prevented a sober assessment of the scale of unsolved problems that gave rise to the illusory idea that the international system would regain stability almost automatically, without strenuous effort, without large-scale political and material investment, and without compromise with old-time foes and new opponents. This triumphalism would have to be paid for dearly – and not just with a host of international crises and long-term foreign policy challenges, but also with missed historical opportunities.

If we take a look at the United States, it can be readily seen that over the past twenty years that country had in front of it at least two real chances of becoming a recognized leader of the global community. It missed both. For the first time, it had a stroke of luck in 1989-1991, when the world Communist system collapsed, and with it, the Soviet Union. The authority of the U.S. in the world was then at a record high, the Americans were being looked at with hope for new ideas, strategic vision and long-term leadership in restructuring the global system. Instead, Washington preferred to take advantage of the favorable situation for the sake of tactical, short-term gains. The illusion of a unipolar world was too tempting, so the United States embarked on the bandwagon of dictating its interests to other countries, and an opportune moment for global restructuring was hopelessly lost.

The other historical chance followed in 2001 when after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington there emerged a real opportunity for creating a broad coalition to fight international terrorism. Moreover, it was still possible then to start a fundamental discussion of reforming international security in general, of the fundamental problems of international law, of restructuring the UN bodies, etc. The level of sympathy for the United States, of solidarity with the Americans at that time reached a peak. And? Washington took the path of unilateral action again to promptly waste the credit of trust, which could have been used to implement systemic changes in world politics. Deadlocked regional conflicts, a swollen U.S. military budget, budget deficits and other accompanying economic problems, as well as an upsurge in anti-American sentiment around the world were the net effect. Tactical diplomatic victories quickly gave way to strategic defeats.



What about Russia? Looking back, we must acknowledge that we were not always able to avoid illusions and foreign policy blunders. Far from that. Probably the main Russian illusion of the 1990s was a romantic vision of the world after the Cold War. Then we thought that in the changing system there was a reserved place for Russia and that partners would easily understand our current difficulties and help us address the outstanding issues. In fact, we had hoped – though no one uttered that aloud – that someone would do our work for us just because Russia had unilaterally ended the Cold War and abdicated from much of the Soviet heritage. We significantly underestimated the harshness, even cruelty of modern politics and overestimated the preparedness of our partners for strategic vision and ambitious solutions. The realization of this came after a long while and was very painful.

It has become fashionable to criticize Russian policies of the 1990s, to present them as a chain of unilateral concessions to the West, as a time of reckless and careless surrender of positions, unmotivated severing of relations with traditional allies, and a sharp decline in the professionalism of Russian diplomacy. Such blanket criticism is unfair. Of course, there were mistakes, including some very hurtful ones. Uncritical attitude towards the West was a fact of life then, too – especially in the first half of the decade. But let’s not forget about the conditions in which our policy was formed and carried out in the 1990s.

Russia’s new statehood was embryonic, the material basis of foreign policy was almost non-existent, one domestic political crisis followed after another, and the economy was in a state close to free fall. In such circumstances, developing and implementing a long-term foreign policy strategy was simply impossible. Sometimes our diplomats performed miracles of ingenuity and resourcefulness in solving tactical problems. In the context of a catastrophic shortage of resources they managed to minimize the inevitable international costs, which accompanied the fundamental domestic transformation of Russia.

In the West there has been much talk about “Putin’s U-turn” in Russian foreign policy, and frequent comparisons of Putin’s pragmatism and the romanticism of the previous period. But we should not forget that the early years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency (at least, 2000-2003) saw a distinct “integrationist” trend in foreign policy. It was then that decisive efforts were made to bring our relations with the European Union to a markedly new level. Russia agreed to U.S. military presence in Central Asia to support the anti-Taliban operation in Afghanistan. The NATO-Russia Council was established, and there was a breakthrough in relations with the World Trade Organization.

Of course, even ten years ago, Russia’s foreign policy remained multi-vectored. We sought to actively develop relations with Eastern neighbors. Impressive progress was made on the Chinese track, the dialogue with India was invigorated, and we came to grips with the painful search for a solution of the territorial issue with Japan. It could not have been otherwise – in a country such as Russia one simply cannot imagine some “exclusive” geopolitical focus: our interests are too diverse and involvement in the affairs of various regions of the world is too deep.

And yet it will not be an exaggeration to say that in the early years of the 21st century the Western track was a priority. Moscow repeatedly demonstrated its readiness for solid political investment. I want to stress this: Russia has not taken a single step, it has not taken any decision, or come out with any international initiative that the Western partners might interpret as unfriendly or harmful to their legitimate interests.

And what did we get in response to the desire for strategic partnership with the West? NATO’s enlargement continued – in defiance of persistent objections from Moscow and of the obvious doubts over the feasibility of the alliance’s strategy of geographic expansion from the military point of view. The United States unilaterally withdrew from the Soviet-U.S. ABM Treaty, thereby undermining the system of strategic balance between Moscow and Washington that had taken decades to establish. The beginning of the U.S.-led allied military operation in Iraq once again raised questions about the rule of law in world politics. The West exerted great efforts in terms of political penetration into the territory of the CIS countries to weaken Russian positions there.

Of course, the Western counterparts argued then and they keep arguing today that their actions – the enlargement of NATO, the operation in Iraq, the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the penetration into the post-Soviet space – “in reality” was not directed against Russia and by no means harmed its “true” interests. This subject can be argued about, but there remains the hard fact that Russia’s concerns, regardless of whether they were reasonable or not, were invariably ignored. Our arguments fell on deaf ears and the “integrationist” course of “early Putin” was taken for granted.

All this could not but cause disappointment. Therefore, “Putin’s U-turn,” which culminated with the famous “Munich speech” was, obviously, to some extent inevitable. A significant part of the responsibility for it lies on our Western partners. The very logic of development in the early 21st century brought Russian politicians to the disappointing conclusion that in this world only strength enjoys respect, that nobody will ever guarantee Russia anything, and that one’s interests must be defended firmly and resolutely. That U-turn was based on the recognition of the fact that Russia had passed the point of its maximum weakness, the resource base for an active foreign policy got stronger with every year, and therefore Moscow was able to and should talk to the West in the language of an equitable partner.

Apparently, this came as a surprise for Russia’s Western partners, who felt that the rules of the game, seemingly established once and for all (even though they were not formally recorded anywhere) had begun to be violated. We were accused of all mortal sins – from the intention to put together a global coalition of anti-Western regimes to the desire to recreate the Soviet Union. But, on the other hand, it was then that Moscow’s point of view began to be listened to, and Russia’s support was no longer seen as a default option.

Perhaps historians will keep arguing to what extent “Putin’s U-turn” increased or decreased the effectiveness of Russia’s foreign policy. One can enter into polemics about whether it was proportionate to the circumstances, or redundant and excessive. However, probably both the firmest supporters and the irreconcilable critics will agree about one thing: today it is extremely important not to repeat the U.S. mistakes of the recent past. And that means steering clear of the euphoria over the past decade of growth in the capabilities of Russia’s foreign policy, not succumbing to the temptations of unilateralism, not abusing tough rhetoric and not pinning all hopes on comparative advantages – whether those in military strength or energy resources.

The American experience can teach everyone another lesson: opportunism and leadership are incompatible. One cannot lay claim to supremacy in world politics and at the same time stick to opportunistic approaches to particular problems and situations. Opportunism is the choice of the weak, those who use every opportunity to achieve at least a marginal advantage and somehow strengthen their positions. Leadership is a feature that distinguishes strong states, ready, if need be, to sacrifice short-term interests in the name of strategic objectives, including systemic problems that do not fit into the framework of the immediate national interests. For most of the last twenty years Russia was forced to resort to opportunism – it lacked the strength to act otherwise in such cases. But exceptions cannot be allowed to turn into rules.

Of course, the world is tougher, more cynical, and more selfish than we had anticipated it to be twenty years ago, but concepts such as “international law,” “world opinion,” “political reputation”, or “balance of interests” are not just promotional candy wrappers, masking the egoistic interests of the major powers. These are real and important parameters of modern life. A policy based solely on cold-blooded cynicism and national self-interest often is not the most effective one, as the very same American experience can demonstrate.



Over the past twenty years the world has drifted farther towards interdependence. Integration processes in the global economy, science, culture, and the social and political development of the modern world are accelerating. No country – even the strongest and most self-sufficient one – is able to solve all of its problems on its own. Isolationism, for all of its ostensible attractiveness, is a dead end – it dooms a country to stagnation, backwardness and inevitable decline, while effective involvement in the global political, economic, technological, social and other processes requires extremely fine tuning of many foreign policy instruments, most of which we are only learning to use.

The fundamental question for twenty years to come is whether Russia will learn to use the tools political scientists refer to as “soft power.” Being realistic in assessing the dynamics of global development, we have to admit that Russia’s opportunities of using the traditional foreign policy tools (such as military or economic power) will most likely be shrinking. Not necessarily because the country is doomed to wilt. Many other participants in world politics will be building up their military, technological, economic and demographic potentials at a faster pace. For the first time in several centuries the continental environment of Russia in Eurasia (primarily China and India) has turned out to be more dynamic and more successful than Russia itself. The relative weakness of the foreign policy’s material basis will have to be compensated for by building up advantages in “nonmaterial” dimensions.

An analogy with the economy is appropriate. Russia’s opportunities for economic development stemming from the use of its natural resources will gradually reduce. Hence the task of drastically diversifying the economic base – through the development of the economy of knowledge and innovative technologies, the promotion of small businesses, etc. Without creating a new “smart” economy, we will be losing positions with each passing decade and even year – even if the prices of energy and raw materials stay high. The economy of the future will be a smart economy, and not a raw materials-based one. Similarly, the foreign policy of the future will be “smart,” and not based on using a very limited set of military or energy tools.

Of course, I am not calling for scrapping the armed forces or stopping to use the potential of the energy industry for foreign policy purposes. In the world of the future hardly anyone will be able to do without energy or military force. But we must be aware that the importance of these two assets in international relations will diminish over time. The question remains how fast and smooth this decrease is going to be, and how much time there is to spare. For Russia, it is vital to use the current relatively favorable geopolitical situation to fundamentally diversify its assets beyond the scope of military force and energy resources.

States that have a more substantial and quickly growing resource base at their disposal can afford to have “linear” and traditionalist foreign policy strategies. Countries that have already firmly established themselves in multilateral integration groups are able to pass part of the foreign policy development burden over to supranational bodies. Russia will have no such opportunities in the foreseeable future.

Over the next few years, the Russian foreign policy, just as the Russian economy, should become “smart.” This does not mean, of course, that so far it has been inefficient; up to now we have used (and often very effectively!) what was at hand and what we inherited from the past – in particular, the preserved military-technical potential and the available energy resources. In today’s world this is not enough to keep the international positions of Russia, let alone strengthen them.

Let me stress again, the transition to a “smart” foreign policy cannot be confined to improving the mechanism of making and implementing decisions. Also important are detailed expert research into our future initiatives, the radical improvement of interagency coordination of foreign policy, the involvement of civil society institutions in foreign policy projects, the use of different models of public-private partnerships in foreign policy, etc. Without this, no “smart” policy will work.

Similarly, greater flexibility and faster decision-making are not the sole prerequisites of a foreign policy’s “smartness.” True, both parameters are acquiring particular importance these days, because politicians and diplomats have to respond to the rapidly changing environment, to take into account a large number of independent variables, and the opportunities that have been missed once may not offer themselves again. The price that has to be paid for mistakes and miscalculations, even tactical ones, and the price of delays or inaction increases dramatically.

Still, the mechanism of making and implementing a foreign policy or the degree of its flexibility and efficiency are not the most important factors of all. In my view, the issue of the day is fundamentally different: we need to drastically update and expand the range of foreign policy tools, which Moscow can employ in international relations. A “smart” foreign policy requires the ability of the political leadership to make use of the widest range of assets at the disposal of a particular country and a particular society. Including, of course, the nonmaterial assets, which were often ignored or at least seriously underestimated by the traditional diplomacy of the past.

It is very human to feel fear of what is beyond one’s understanding and ability to control. We still lack understanding of, and certainly are unable to control, the major trends in 21st-century world politics – such as the widespread proliferation of new communication technologies, a sharp increase in international migration flows, globalization of education and science, an unprecedented flurry of public diplomacy, the inevitable climate change and much, much more. So far these trends have been perceived in Russia primarily as a challenge to our security and our interests, as threats against which the country must be protected in some way.

Psychologically, the desire of many politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats to turn a blind eye to the new dimensions of world politics is understandable. These new dimensions do not fit in with the traditional logic of the political game, they are difficult to calculate, and even more difficult to use, and the consequences are not always predictable. But the one who tends to fence off oneself from everything new not only screens oneself from problems, but also shuts windows of opportunity – and very likely some very promising opportunities that would be available over the coming decades. But the problems will be still there, no matter how much one may try to deny their importance or their very existence.

Russia, like any other country in the world today, will be unable to isolate itself from changes afoot around it. Only active involvement in the growing globalization processes is capable of securing national interests adequately. A “smart” foreign policy can prove to be the decisive trump card, compensating for the relative scarcity of material resources – for the simple reason that the importance of “nonmaterial” components is likely to increase. Just as the importance of “nonmaterial” dimensions of human life in general.

I shall illustrate this with just one example from everyday life. The communication gadgets that are so popular around the world these days – the iPad and the iPhone – are assembled in China by Chinese companies. But no one, except for specialists, knows the names of these assembly plants, as well as the names of their managers. But everyone knows the California-based corporation, Apple, and its regrettably deceased founder Steve Jobs. It was Jobs and Apple that have invented and developed the concept of electronic communicators of a new generation. They proposed a revolutionary idea that changed the attitude of tens of millions of people in different countries to the Internet. And so it is quite fair that Apple, and not its Chinese contractors, has risen to first place in the world by market capitalization. It was an idea, and not a standard material resource, that proved to be the decisive economic advantage in competition. Similarly, an idea, and not a material resource, will be the decisive political advantage of the state in a globalizing world.


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Russia’s transition to the “smart” policy level will open up new opportunities in terms of international influence and prospects for integration into the world system that is evolving right before our eyes. But it will require major effort from the authorities and society – on all of the “smart” policy tracks.

Compare, for example, two global markets – the market of military hardware and the market of educational services. Arms export has always been an instrument of traditional diplomacy, while the export of education is a relatively new phenomenon. The two markets in terms of today are comparable to each other, although the export of education is growing more rapidly than the export of arms. On the arms market, Russia is represented well, while its education market position is more than modest. Is it a surprise? Probably not. Indeed, the export of military equipment is Russia’s national business, involving many departments and agencies, where top policymakers act as lobbyists, where billions of dollars are invested, and for which purpose federal programs are launched. The export of education remains a task (and not a top priority!) of the Ministry of Education and Science. No political or financial resources of the state are involved, inter-agency coordination is virtually absent, and some universities often have to compete with each other in implementing their programs for the export of educational services.

From the perspective of a “smart” foreign policy, this state of affairs is unacceptable. For all the value of the export of military equipment, the export of educational services will be a much more effective tool. Not to mention the fact that this market has more growth prospects than the global arms market. And that means that it is necessary to develop a nationwide strategy to promote Russian education, to allocate appropriate resources, to coordinate the work of ministries and departments, universities and private businesses – in short, to consider the export of Russian educational services as a top priority.

The same strategic approach is needed in other key areas of world politics, ranging from the uses of the Internet to the control of international migration. Russia will not necessarily achieve rapid success in all these areas: it depends on too many factors, and not all of them are within our control. But the foreign policy campaign should be conducted on the widest front possible to ensure that an advance in one policy area should entail progress in others.

On the world scale the “smart” foreign policy is still in its infancy. At this point it is not an established political practice yet, and not even an integral project, but an assorted collection of innovative ideas, which sooner or later will transform the international system.

Today,, Russia has at least one tactical advantage over the other leading players. We are at the beginning of a new political cycle, and therefore have the advantage of medium-term planning – at least for six years ahead. Most other countries that have been considering “smart” foreign policies lack this competitive edge – their current political cycles are shorter and nearing completion. So why shouldn’t Russia try to spearhead the looming intellectual breakthrough?