Without Ideology or Order
No. 4 2009 October/December
Timofei V. Bordachev

Doctor of Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies
Academic Supervisor;
Valdai Discussion Club, Moscow, Russia
Program Director


SPIN-RSCI: 6872-5326
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ResearcherID: E-9365-2014
Scopus AuthorID: 56322540000


E-mail: [email protected]
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Address: Office 427, 17 Malaya Ordynka Str. Bldg.1, Moscow 119017, Russia

The greatest achievement in Russian foreign policy over the past
20 years has been the renunciation of messianism as Russia
abandoned attempts to impose its own model of social relations on
other countries. The Russian political class was very relieved when
it no longer had to position Russia’s ideology as the only systemic
alternative to the global dominance of liberal democracy. Economic
advantage was expected to become the key guideline in domestic and
foreign policies.

Yet today Russia has to choose again between a policy based on
global ideas, one that is mainly pursued by the United States, and
sovereign pragmatism, which is characteristic of the foreign
policies of China, India, and – increasingly – Europe.

The final triumph of pragmatism in 1991-2000 was foiled by the
commitments that Russia had to make in order to comply with the
system of international relations. Among the most important
obligations it had to honor were the need to maintain its status as
the second nuclear superpower, responsibility for the fate of the
majority of former Soviet republics, and the need – which Russia
felt rather than realized at that time – to play an active role in
containing any aspirants to global leadership.

During the larger part of the 1990s, Russia took on a bona fide
but reluctant role to contain U.S. hegemonic ambitions and carried
this burden into the 21st century. In the first half of the current
decade, Russia began to backtrack to its habitual, imperial model
of foreign policy, tempered by various restrictions of
international law. However, as the U.S. experience of 2003 (the
invasion of Iraq) and Russia’s experience of 2008 (the war with
Georgia) showed, a country that considers itself an empire does not
hesitate to step beyond such restrictions if the circumstances
require it.


Russia seems to have been able to get rid of ideology as the
main pillar of its foreign policy. As a result, its course in the
international arena has been marked by a paradoxical combination of
regulatory integration with the European Union (in accordance with
the model of relations envisioned by the Partnership Agreement) and
rivalry with the EU in the territory of the former Soviet Union.
The first is dictated by pragmatic considerations: the European
norms of state regulation of the economy are indeed better and more
effective. The second is explained by Russia’s struggle to regain
the potential and prestige that befit the empire. Moscow attempted
to overcome this paradox within the framework of the sovereign
democracy doctrine: while remaining part of the outside world,
Russia insisted that the national specifics of its policy should be
reckoned with.

It should be noted that the very fact of the recognition of such
specifics, unique in each particular case, implies a voluntary
withdrawal of the Russian model of social order from the
international contest. In other words, history for Russia is not a
struggle to the final victory between developmental models, but
their peaceful, although competitive, existence. This markedly
differs from both the liberal views of Anglo-Saxons and classical
Marxism, which was the core of education for the majority of
Russian elites.

But the question still remains open: Can a state that rejects
global aspirations count on more than regional influence? If yes,
and if an attractive ideology is no longer the necessary attribute
of foreign policy, Russia will have to compensate for the lack of
this factor of influence by boosting other factors. If no, and if
it is impossible to be a big player without ideology in the
contemporary world, Russia will be unable to hold a pragmatic line
for long. It will have to look for new ideas, possibly borrowing
them from abroad.

There are few options here. Judging by the number of program
speeches and academic papers, Europe is gradually abandoning
universalist ideas in favor of preserving a sovereign nation state
as the only guarantor of democracy. The logical consequence is a
gradual departure from the ideologization of external relations,
readiness to cooperate with regimes hitherto viewed as unacceptable
partners because of their disrespect for human rights and other
principles inherent in the liberal outlook. Europe is trying to
pass through, as Sergei Karaganov has aptly noted, the stage of
“overcoming the overcoming.” In other words, it wants to abandon
its ideologized and, at the same time, sterile foreign policy,
which once aimed to neutralize destructive nationalism, while at
the same time steering clear of nationalistic traditions.

China, although it considers itself a great world power, is by
no means inclined to extrapolate its ideology to other countries
and regions (if such an ideology has existed at all since 1978).
Adhering to the precept of Deng Xiaoping that “it does not matter
what color a cat is as long as it hunts mice,” Beijing ignores the
color of the partner, showing interest only in the profit and
political influence necessary for gaining it.

India seems to have withdrawn into itself. The huge scope and
depth of the country’s problems, together with religion, frustrate
the appearance of even insignificant messianic aspirations. Aside
from that, the local ruling class, with a thousand-year-old culture
and traditions of statehood, has developed a rather haughty
attitude to foreigners. The authorities even frown on the Hindu
gurus who teach yoga abroad: they believe that sacred things are
not for export. Unlike Europe or Russia, India is self-sufficient,
and does not need close allies.

The last “bride-to-be” ideology is liberalism, which advocates
the interrelation between domestic and foreign policies, the
interdependence between the countries of the world and the
possibility of international control over actions by national

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made particularly liberal
comments at an international conference in Yaroslavl in September
2009: “The problems that emerge in the territory of one or several
states assume a global proportion, and this happens instantly,
while incompetence, or sometimes an unwillingness to resolve one’s
own problems, causes damage not only to one’s own country, but also
to a large number of other states. The ineffectiveness of state
institutions generates international conflicts.”

These words express the essence of liberal institutionalism and
look as if they were borrowed from such classical works as Stephen
Krasner or James Rosenau. It is another matter that these and a
number of other authors never questioned the sovereignty of the
U.S. One might assume that Russia is trying on a similar gown. The
problem is that the U.S. has long staked out the place as the
leader of world liberalism. There can only be one unchallengeable
authority in this community, as in NATO. But it is unlikely that
Russia will reconcile itself to the role of a junior partner. The
history of the past two decades has convincingly refuted this


On December 26, 1991, we woke up in a multipolar world. The
lowering of the Soviet flag the previous day was a pivotal occasion
that put an end to the history of the bipolar system of
international relations. Russia, which hoisted its tricolor above
the Kremlin on December 25, became one of the centers of a new,
multipolar world, together with the U.S., China and India. It was
Russia – because its military-strategic capabilities were a match
to those of the U.S. – that had to play the key role in keeping the
new structure of international relations.

With a few exceptions, Moscow’s foreign policy concept in
subsequent years was formed – voluntarily or not – in the vein of
“containing” the U.S., the most likely aspirant to world hegemony.
All these years the U.S. was busy asserting itself as the only
political center in the world, but its efforts were unavailing. The
system that emerged in the wake of 1991 was not shaken. The
one-pole model of world governance remained no more than an

Even before the breakup of the Soviet Union, bipolarity had not
been absolute. In the middle of the 1960s, China openly confronted
the Soviet Union, while France withdrew from the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization. From then on the capability of the two
superpowers to fully control countries standing below them in terms
of importance (the main characteristic of the system of
international relations, unique in human history) was stated with
certain reservations.

Nevertheless, until 1991, only those two states had been much
stronger – militarily and politically – than any of their immediate
rivals. Also, they were almost equal in power to each other. This
parity enabled them to dictate their will to other countries on the
key issues of war and peace. This created a semblance of
international governability. In the economic sector both
superpowers controlled the development of their subordinates with
confidence, although it took a great deal of effort.

The multipolar system which emerged after the breakup of the
Soviet Union is far from the theoretical classical construct as
well; that is, it does not envision the equality of more than two
powers by the main parameters of power. One of the countries has
remained much more powerful than its immediate competitors. In
1997, for example, U.S. defense spending was larger than that of
the six states standing next to it in terms of military power put
together. Also, U.S. GDP accounted for 20 percent of the world’s
GDP at that time.

Kenneth Waltz, a classic in the science of international
relations, notes that “the numbers give a sense of disparity in
capabilities but they are hardly impressive.” It follows that the
arithmetic understanding of unipolarity (i.e. the U.S. would be the
only center because it has the largest GDP and defense spending) is
quite conventional. In reality, to justify it, one would have to
ignore the parity between Russia and the U.S. in strategic nuclear

Meanwhile, the missile-nuclear parity, inherited from the Cold
War era, continued to play a crucial role. It is this parity that
remained the “tough foundation” for Russia’s opposition to
America’s unipolar initiatives during the entire period from
1991-2009. Both Moscow and Washington were well aware that the end
of the Cold War dramatically reduced the practical value of nuclear
weapons, but the responsibility imposed by nuclear parity never
allowed Russia to agree to be “the junior partner” to the U.S.

Of no less significance is the multipolarity in people’s
mentality; that is, an awareness of the independent nature of other
states. Sergei Karaganov underscored in one of his recent articles
that “Russians… came out of the Cold War without feeling defeated,
and expected an honorable peace” with flags flying. The West has
traditionally underestimated the role of this factor in Russia’s
foreign policy-thinking. Meanwhile, the defeat in the Cold War is
not at all obvious to the Russian establishment and population.

Of crucial significance is the ability of the multipolar system
to block actions by one of the countries by means of the concerted
efforts of others, not the individual strength of each player in
the international arena. This ability is primarily tested in areas
that the contender selects as the floors for establishing his
hegemony, be it international institutions or norms for the use of

The multipolar world of 1991-2009 was not ideal, like no models
of international relations in the past have been. In the first
century AD, Rome, Parthia and China were not equal in all respects
either, but that fact did not interfere with their balancing each
other out in the international arena. To test this relative
equality in practice in all combinations was not possible due to
the considerable distance between the Roman Empire and the Middle
Kingdom. This factor ceased to be of crucial significance as new
transport opportunities emerged in the 19th century, and it became
redundant in the era of globalization, communications and


“The moment of unipolarity,” about which neoconservative
intellectuals wrote in the first half of the 1990s and which
Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld tried to implement, never
happened. From 1991-2008, the system of international relations was
consistently blocking U.S. attempts to attain global domination.
Each time the contender encountered resistance from open or hidden
coalitions of other centers of power. Russia always played an
important role in these coalitions, as the most powerful
participant in the multipolar system in terms of military

At first, the opposition manifested itself by sabotaging
Washington’s leadership initiatives, which it was trying to
implement “in an amicable way,” within the framework of
international institutions inherited from the Cold War, above all
the United Nations. The Democratic administration in the U.S.
regarded the UN Security Council as a prototype for a U.S.-led
world government.

Attempts to configure a unipolar world order were made by truly
virtuous methods in that period. However, resistance from other
leading players did not differ much from the classic struggle put
up against the aspirant to world hegemony in the time of Charles V,
Louis XIV, Napoleon I and Adolf Hitler. In 1992-1999, Russia and
China consistently foiled America’s attempts to dictate to other
states what decisions they should support at the UN Security

Russia even went as far as to start the debate challenging the
right of the U.S. and its close allies to suppress Slobodan
Milosevic’s revolt against the new European order. Like the rest of
the former “Socialist camp” in Europe, the Balkans were put under
the absolute hegemony of the West after the Cold War. The Russian
economy was in a sorry state and the government was unable to meet
its welfare commitments in full measure. However, even this
economic turmoil did not prevent Moscow and Beijing from making
NATO’s actions lose international legitimacy. Meanwhile
international legal recognition of unipolarity was precisely what
Washington was seeking to achieve at the UN in those years. The
Russian paratroopers’ accelerated march to the Pristina airfield in
June 1999 was a striking example of the defiance of the U.S.’s
leading role.

The multipolar system continued to grow in strength. During the
1990s, India and Pakistan worked intensively towards developing
nuclear capability. As a result, the aspirant to global dominance
was unable to stop New Delhi and, later, Islamabad from acquiring
nuclear status in 1998, or to punish both states. The rapid spread
of nuclear weapons after the Cold War is the most vivid example of
the negative effect on international stability and security of the
attempts by one state to attain world hegemony.

The events of September 11, 2001 put an end to the first
campaign to establish a unipolar world as the U.S. encountered
problems in ensuring its own safety. The sabotage of the
U.S.-proposed model of international governance, which took the
form of resistance by other centers of power, enormously expanded
the moral and material opportunities of a non-system participant in
international relations that delivered a blow to the territory of
the would-be hegemony. Not surprisingly, the second attempt by the
U.S. to change the system of international relations involved the
use of force.

To establish a unipolar world, Washington opted for “the hard
way.” And again, a predictable reaction by the multipolar system
followed. The more radical the U.S. was in its actions, the tougher
the response: Washington’s closest allies in Western Europe came
out against it, not mentioning Moscow, which naturally fit into the
“coalition of the unwilling” created by Paris.

The initial reaction of many countries to the rapid increase in
the opportunities of non-government players was the
unheard-of-solidarity in suppressing them. The unprecedented unity
of all poles in fighting the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the
Taliban regime in Afghanistan was a natural response by governments
to attempts by their rival – a non-government organization – to
destroy the state’s monopoly on violence. Russia’s positions are
very close to that of the U.S. in what concerns fighting
international terrorism, especially its non-systemic and
potentially catastrophic forms. Within just several months, the
problem of the “Al Qaeda-zation” of a whole country was
successfully resolved. This done, the antiterrorist coalition
dissolved immediately.

Having rebuffed the attack on its territory, the aspirant
country commenced taking measures to establish a unipolar structure
of international relations. The first practical task was to obtain
the right to determine, at one’s own discretion, the main threats
and the states whose activities must be stopped. The task was
solved by achieving a military victory in Iraq, but the U.S.
suffered a diplomatic defeat because even its closest allies
refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the operation.

As a result of a series of actions and counteractions in
2002-2009, the U.S. lost in practically all the directions in which
it sought hegemony status. The quest for the unipolar world ended
in the ignominious bargain of the would-be leader with the least
noticeable participants in international relations over the
deployment on their territories of missile defense facilities as
part of the global strategy of dominance (missile defense
facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland), the recognition of
the inability to fully control the actions of its smallest
satellite, Georgia, in the Caucasus and its defeat in a war by the
minimal taskforce of another center of power.

The economic crisis in the U.S. in 2008 aggravated its problems.
Admittedly, the supreme efforts in establishing financial-economic
unipolarity can be viewed as one of the most significant reasons
behind the crisis.


Amidst the crisis, the American people elected Barack Obama as
president. The most important change in foreign policy announced by
the new administration was its renouncement of unilateral actions
for the sake of resolving problems worrying the U.S. and the world
at large. Instead, the strategic minds in Washington and the
president himself wish to lean on the “community building” method,
which Obama used at the beginning of his political career.

The essence of this method is voluntary cooperation between
world countries, similar to the collective clean-up of dog
excrement by Chicago residents on a frosty morning. Or, as the new
U.S. president stated at the UN, “Now is the time for all of us to
take our share of responsibility for a global response to global
challenges. […] The cooperative effort of the whole world. Those
words ring even more true today, when it is not simply peace – but
our very health and prosperity that we hold in common.”

On the surface everything looks quite attractive. Nobody forces
you to do anything; everybody is aware of the importance of the
problem and does something towards its solution. But you cannot
voluntarily clean streets all the time. Sooner or later (possibly
sooner) one will have to enact laws against those who do not care
for their pets properly. Then these new laws will have to be
enforced. Barack Obama said during his visit to Moscow “as we keep
our own commitments, we must hold other nations accountable for

The problem is that it is not that easy to find volunteers to
act as enforcers, as the experience of the previous U.S.
administration showed. To do it on one’s own means to return to the
foreign policy of the Republicans. The only remaining option is
developing a new model of global governance.

Nobody sets aside the hypothetical objective to establish a
semblance of order in world affairs. Governability of the world as
the universal and reliable protection from threats to national
security is the main unrealizable and cherished dream of many

The dream is cherished because one can never have enough power.
The assumption of the possibility to rule the world in principle,
though unattainable, has such a strong hypnotic effect that it
makes one forget about the crucial (and also hypothetical)
condition of governability – the necessity to share power on a more
or less equitable basis.

The dream is unattainable because any contender’s aspiration to
absolute power automatically encounters resistance and thereby
increases anarchy in international relations. At best, one might
hope for an illusion of governability, a semblance of which existed
during the Cold War. Generally speaking, the impossibility of
governing the world remains the main characteristic of global
politics and proof that relations between countries are competitive
in nature.

The Russian foreign policy discourse has always proceeded from
the principal necessity to make the world governable. In this
respect it is close to the U.S., Western European, and, partially,
Chinese approaches. The basic difference is Russia’s assumption
that governing the world does not require uniformity of the models
of socio-economic and political development.

In the Russian discourse, it stands to reason that there is no
link between the set up of international relations and the national
government systems of the countries that build these relations –
something the liberal foreign policy philosophy does not accept in
principle. Russia acknowledges that the suppression of an
individual (by soft or tough methods) and his renouncement of part
of his rights are the inevitable conditions of peace within
society. Yet Moscow also assumes that other laws should operate at
the level of relations between the elements of the international

Speaking about the governability problem, it is necessary to
note that we do not mean the hypothetical possibility to extend the
model of national governance (be it a liberal democracy, a monarchy
or a totalitarian state) to the international level. The
possibility of international governance is rather questionable.

The second unpleasant surprise for the policy of the new U.S.
administration is that any public movement needs a leader. Barack
Obama and his advisers naturally assign this role to the virtuous
America. But will Europe, China, India, Russia and other countries
of significance – whose numbers are growing – agree to it? Judging
by the discussions concerning measures to overcome the consequences
of the crisis, no signs of accord are in sight.


Throughout its brief history the U.S. has sought to become the
world’s spiritual leader, while political leadership has been its
objective since the beginning of the 20th century. International
institutions and unilateral actions were the means to attain
supremacy. At the newest stage, it means the ability to be more
adept than others in using the opportunities which, as prominent
U.S. specialists point out, are provided by the increasing
significance of network connections.

The U.S. has all the formal reasons for this: it is the most
competitive economy and is a developed democracy with the largest
number of individual freedoms. The U.S. also has huge advantages in
terms of the requirements set by the global information and
communication milieu. Yet one thing is missing: the readiness of
the rest of the world to acknowledge this leader in principle,
regardless of its personal virtues or the number of

The main question is whether or not America will be able to
reconcile itself to the fact that world hegemony – good or evil –
cannot be achieved by one country alone in practice, even though
such an outcome may be welcome in theory. History does not know
such instances, but it does know the states whose military and
economic capabilities at that time were comparable to and even
surpassed modern U.S. resources. Over the past 18 years, even such
relatively weak opponents as Europe, China and Russia have been
preventing the U.S. from arranging global governance under its
leadership. It is unlikely they will let Washington do it now that
the U.S. is objectively weakened.

Many Russian and foreign analysts explain the failure of U.S.
foreign policy during the presidency of George W. Bush by the
erroneous strategy of proliferating democracy, equally pursued by
both presidents Bill Clinton and Bush in “the quest for
unipolarity.” At present, liberal pragmatists in Washington even
acknowledge the possibility and – moreover – the necessity of the
co-existence of states with different development models.

However, in the opinion of U.S. analysts, the objective of the
proposed “strategy of respect” is a “new, truly universal order.”
They cannot simply grasp the idea that order has been and remains
an unattainable form of the existence of the international system.
Even if they have an inkling they reject it outright, although all
of human history testifies to the non-governability of the world
rather than to the possibility of ruling it.

The Roman Empire set up its “pole” by conquering new territory.
Parthia was content with the tribute paid by the neighboring tribes
and mostly focused on the confrontation with the Roman Empire. The
enlightened Chinese emperors dished out titles of kings and royal
seals to the rulers of adjacent states, collecting taxes in
exchange. None of them was seeking to export their government
system to other cultures, and neither were the Concert of Europe
members in the 19th century. Even in China’s case, the symbols of
submission, as historians note, did not spread farther than the use
of the Chinese calendar by the vassals of the Celestial Empire.

Generally speaking, the expansion of the political system to
other cultures as a necessary condition for the central position of
this or that country is not a proven fact; in the first place
because history has never been a competition between different
development models (with the exception of seven decades in the 20th

For their part, the advocates of the liberal unipolarity of
1989-2001 believed that the export of the development model is a
necessary attribute of the policy of poles in the system of
international relations. The starting point of their discourse is
the conviction that – as Francis Fukuyama wrote – “while all other
aspects of the human social environment – religion, the family,
economic organization, concepts of political legitimacy – are
subject to historical evolution, international relation is regarded
as forever identical to itself.”

Therefore, we have a simple extrapolation of the “laws” of
society’s evolution to international relations. In his book The End
of History, Fukuyama refers to Marx and Hegel, and Charles Kupchan
wrote in a recent article that even in the diverse world of the
future, “liberal democracy must compete respectfully in the
marketplace of ideas with other types of regimes.”

To compete in ideology is to try to edge out one’s opponents, in
order to take their niche. The difference from the concept of “the
end of history” that emerged 20 years ago is only seen in the
expected timeframe of the victory, which one of the competing
models gains over its rivals. Or it can attain absolute prevalence,
as is the case with Microsoft’s operating system, with Apple and
others lurking in the background, although Microsoft acknowledges
their existence. It is a question of perspective.

Moscow feels differently about the competition between
development models. In 2007, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
wrote in Russia in Global Affairs (4/2007): “Today, value
benchmarks and development models have also become matters of
competition.” But Russia interprets the competition between
ideologies as a drive towards a pluralistic coexistence and even a
synthesis of various models, and rejects “the end of history.”

The 21st century, which some observers have dubbed
“post-American,” will be a routine century in human history. The
20th century was the only exception when international relations,
at some point, indeed turned into a struggle between ideologies:
Marxism and liberalism.

So far, self-isolation has been considered as the only possible
alternative to this or that form of the spiritual or political
leadership of the U.S, but the physical impossibility of such
policy in the globalized 21st century leaves the U.S. no such
option. A real alternative is the awareness of oneself as an
ordinary nation state, no different in its behavior or mentality
than Russia, France or China. Or there will appear some other
alternative ideology to return the U.S. to the atmosphere of the
last century.


The structural approach implies that unipolarity is the least
stable of all the possible configurations. It can only secure a
rather low level of stability for the international system. This is
explained by the inevitably irresponsible behavior of the hegemon
(absolute power breeds absolute corruption), the siphoning of its
forces, and the suspicions and desire to become stronger on the
part of other states.

However, the continuous struggle, in which all the poles would
fight one contender for sole leadership, can lend an even lesser
degree of stability to the international system. Each subsequent
round of this struggle requires from the contender country and
other participants in international relations new efforts towards
building up their strength. Consequently, it foils the appearance
of even a semblance of the balance of forces.

It is not surprising that in all cases, interaction between the
U.S. and other participants in international relations resulted in
increased anarchy – incidentally, the most common state of world
politics since the emergence of the state as such. A practical
manifestation of anarchy is the inability to govern the main
international processes not just from one center, but even
collectively and within the framework of existing institutions and
norms. The most serious threat anarchy is fraught with is the high
probability of war between the centers of power. Given the
stockpiles of nuclear weapons, it might have tragic consequences
for humanity.

Overcoming anarchy in international relations was the crucial
task in the establishment of a unipolar world. The understanding
that the task is unfeasible makes us look for new solutions. Of the
proposed options the one that deserves the most attention is the
concept of autonomous governance, put forth by liberals in the
U.S., and the idea of collective leadership, which has been
promoted for quite some time by part of the Russian establishment.
The benefits of the latter approach were discussed by Sergei
Lavrov: “Collective leadership of the world’s leading states – in
addition to international institutions, most importantly, the
United Nations – offer ways for solving the governability problem
in the contemporary world.”

Both the Russian and American concepts proceed from the
recognition of the multipolar – temporary or permanent – nature of
the international system. Stable relations between the poles depend
in the first place on their ability to contain a potential
contender from gaining global dominance before it takes any
practical action. Of crucial significance here is the strengthening
of each key player to the necessary degree.

Despite the military-political failures and economic crisis of
the U.S., the growing poles – India, China and Russia – have been
unable to catch up with the U.S. Actually they have not needed to
so far. The multipolar system emerged and survived in the period
from 1991-2009 without active efforts by these countries to match
the indicators of their might to the U.S. Furthermore, this system
has achieved much success in restoring its natural anarchy, which
is quite unsafe for small and large countries and which provokes,
as any anarchy, a search for totalitarian methods of

But are these opportunities sufficient for lending at least the
minimal stability to international relations? Today there is one
missing link that prevents the above-mentioned international
players from blocking the U.S. and becoming its equal; that is the
ability to offer one’s own model of social order as an objective
for directing the creative effort of humanity. That is, to offer
the world a development ideology that would replace the one Russia
gladly abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.