Don’t Throw Stones in a Glass House

9 august 2008

Alexei Arbatov is Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Director of the International Security Center at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations; a member of the Russian delegation to the START I negotiations (1990); and Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma (1994-2003).

Resume: A “machismo” – completely down-to-earth, highly anti-idealistic and rigidly pragmatic – position by Russia cannot but evoke a strong response from the majority of the national elite and the general public. This hard stance looks especially appealing if one recalls the na?ve idealism of the late 1980s and the political tossing about and humiliations of the 1990s.

Russia in Global Affairs has for a number of years kept internationally high standards in the systemic approach to and topicality of the issues selected for publication, and it has been a high benchmark of professionalism and style of the materials. That is why many of the articles appearing in this journal sometimes provoke a desire to express one’s own ideas on the problems discussed. One such thought-provoking article, A Time to Cast Stones, was written by Timofei Bordachev and Fyodor Lukyanov and published in the April/June issue.

Its main theme is cited as an epigraph to an entire section of this journal:

“A transition from the Cold War model to a new status quo of some kind – the character of which is yet to become clear – continues, and in this situation it would be risky for the Russian state to begin ‘to gather stones together’ in an attempt to build a new system of relations with its outside partners. There is a great risk of being peppered with stones thrown by those who continue to toss them.”

The authors substantiate their idea by the claim that the world has grown out of control, as the previous world order gave way to chaos rather than a new world order. U.S. pursuits to spread its hegemony worldwide and NATO endeavors to create a system of security in the Euro-Atlantic zone and beyond are beginning to collapse. Global financial, economic and energy systems are getting out of control, while the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and international institutions of the past era have failed to adapt to the new realities and it looks like their time is coming to an end. The system of treaties aimed at restricting the proliferation of armaments is falling apart.

These developments have led Bordachev and Lukyanov to the conclusion that those who play by the old rules or try to restore them will certainly lose. Russia is correct in not feeling remorse anymore over acting in discrepancy with international agencies, norms and treaties once it changed over to a “powerful and rigid promotion of its fundamental interests” in the early years of this decade. This line is revealed in Moscow’s tough criticism of the OSCE, the intractability toward the IMF, and a diminishing interest toward the World Trade Organization and toward a new general agreement with the European Union. It can also be seen in Russia’s resolve to veto Kosovo independence at the UN Security Council, suspend the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), and possibly abandon the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The authors recommend keeping the same line in the future as well.

Frankly speaking, such a “machismo” – completely down-to-earth, highly anti-idealistic and rigidly pragmatic – position by Russia cannot but evoke a strong response from the majority of the national elites and the general public. This hard stance looks especially appealing if one recalls the na?ve idealism of the late 1980s and the political tossing about and humiliations of the 1990s. Still, let us clarify the essence of some basic assumptions and conclusions.


For a start, let us plainly state that the governability of the world in the 20th century as compared to the 21st-century world is grossly overstated. Even if one leaves out the two World Wars and focuses entirely on the period from 1945 to the end of the Cold War, the current impressions about the past reveal a sense of nostalgia rather than an unbiased historical analysis. This is easy to explain psychologically: bipolarity is naturally associated with stability, all the more so that present-day Russia’s predecessor – the Soviet military superpower and global empire – was one of the poles.

However, governability and predictability were by far much more an illusion rather than a reality after 1945. For almost forty years the world lived in fear of a total thermonuclear war that might erupt in the wake of a sudden aggression, a sudden escalation of a crisis or a technology failure. The great powers inadvertently drove themselves to the brink of a nuclear war on at least four occasions – in 1957, 1961, 1962 and 1973 – and they almost stepped over the critical line during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. At that time humanity was saved more by a stroke of luck rather than by cautiousness on the part of the Kremlin or the White House.

The superpowers did not co-govern the world; they just split Europe and the Far East into spheres of influence silently, while the terror of a nuclear catastrophe forced them to avoid direct confrontation in the course of geopolitical contentions elsewhere. Nonetheless, the period was marked by dozens of large regional and local conflicts that claimed more than 20 million lives. More often than not, these conflicts would erupt all of a sudden, progress uncontrollably, have undeterminable ends, and result in defeats for the great powers. Suffice it to recall the war in Korea, two wars in Indo-China, four wars in the Middle East, the wars in Algeria, Hindustan, the Horn of Africa, Angola, Rhodesia and Afghanistan, to say nothing of incalculable internal coups and bloody civil cataclysms.

Dividing the world into “friends” and “foes” would regularly put the superpowers in the face of unpleasant surprises. China, for instance, was the Soviet Union’s “great Eastern friend” at first, but eventually turned into a major military, political and ideological adversary. Egypt, Moscow’s main Middle Eastern client under Nasser, veered off to the U.S. under Sadat.

Take France – when it pulled out of NATO, thus dealing a heavy blow to the alliance’s rearward infrastructure. Also, there was Iran – the pillar of American influence in the Persian Gulf that purchased huge amounts of weapons from the U.S. under the Shah, but then became its bitterest foe with the arrival of the ayatollahs. Iraq, which attacked Iran, was a U.S. ally at first; but then it invaded Kuwait and turned into America’s number-one enemy. This list could run on and on, yet one can already see clearly how fictitious governability was during the Cold War.

There is no arguing that after the onset of variegated globalization the world has become far more complicated to understand and, consequently, to govern by concerted efforts of the leading powers. Nor is there any doubt that the post-Cold War euphoria and hope for a general harmony has proven to be na?ve. But in spite of all the contradictions and competition between the great powers, there are not any antagonistic contradictions between them now. There is no threat of a major war and no one is willing to destroy anyone. Whatever the degree of displeasure, the leading countries have with one another, not a single one of them (except for the marginal political lunatics that one can find everywhere) wants to see a collapse or disintegration of the U.S., Russia, the European Union, China, India, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine or Kazakhstan. All of them realize that the unpredictable aftermaths of black holes formed by the elimination of rivals will bring far greater damage than benefits.

The fundamental community of interests of the multipolar world and its economic and social interdependence dictate a greater necessity of “corporate solidarity,” restraint and a much more careful selection of instruments for attaining objectives than the fear of a nuclear catastrophe did in the past century. There are no conflicts between the leading powers and their allies that would compare in scale and number of victims with the regional wars of the 20th century. The only exceptions are the wars in Yugoslavia and Tajikistan, spontaneous violence in the failed states of Africa, and the terrorist campaign going on in Iraq under the U.S.-led occupation. Still, these are neither direct nor mediate conflicts between the great powers.

In other words, there are many more favorable prerequisites now for resolving current international problems – the financial crisis, the shortage of energy resources and global warming – however complex they may be, and the world has gained more security in general than it had during the Cold War. There is a certain reservation about the spread of nuclear missile armaments and international terrorism, which opens up the possibility that nuclear weapons might be used by third countries or terrorist groups, but reacting to that threat, as well as the solution of other problems, depends on the subjective policy of the ruling order in leading countries, and it is in that very policy where the biggest problems lie.


After the era of bipolarity drew to an end, Washington had a unique historical opportunity to tie international policy to the supremacy of legal norms; to leading legitimate international institutions – first of all the UN and the OSCE; to a selective nature and legitimacy of the use of force for self-defense or for ensuring peace and security as stipulated by Articles 51 and 42 of the UN Charter. It is quite obvious that the U.S. blatantly missed its chance to take the helm in the process of creating a new multilateral world order based on a balance of interests.

The U.S. unexpectedly found that it was the world’s only remaining superpower and its political elite plunged into euphoria, narcissism and smugness. It would increasingly often substitute international law for the use of force; legitimate UN Security Council decisions for the directives of the U.S. National Security Council; and OSCE prerogatives for NATO actions. The military operation against the former Yugoslavia in 1999 offered the boldest instance of this. After the Bush Administration gained power in 2001 and after the jolting shock of the attacks of September 11, 2001, this line of conduct became absolutely prevalent. Following a justified, legitimate and successful operation in Afghanistan, the U.S. invaded Iraq (under a contrived pretext and without UN sanctions) with the hope of further reformatting the entire Greater Middle East in order to suit its own economic, military and political interests.

As a result, the U.S. became mired in a hopeless war of occupation in Iraq that could have a more telling defeat than the Vietnam War; undermined the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan; and split the antiterrorist coalition. Washington’s policies triggered an unprecedented surge of anti-American sentiments around the world, generated a new wave of terrorist activity, and spurred the proliferation of nuclear and missile armaments.

NATO’s ungrounded eastward enlargement is behind a new standoff between Russia and the West, for which neither side has either the motives or the resources and which runs counter to their economic and political interests. By overfocusing on geopolitical expansionism for the past fifteen years, NATO has proven to be unable – and reluctant – to reform itself (quite like the Russian Armed Forces in the absence of a genuine civilian leadership). NATO – the world’s most powerful military alliance – maintains a 1.8 million-strong army in Europe for God knows what purpose, but is unable to find several supplementary helicopters and battalions for the peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan.


NATO was an offspring of the Cold War and the difficulties it has run into at present are quite explicable, although they do not evoke any sympathy. The problems faced by the EU arise from its hasty and irrational enlargement, but they will most probably be solved over time. The UN is a different story, though. Bordachev and Lukyanov surmise in this connection: “The UN was founded in conditions of tough confrontation between two poles of power […]. Now it cannot be readjusted to meet the demands of either an imperial or a multipolar world”

The latter thesis is a questionable assertion. The UN was established in 1945 when the anti-Nazi coalition was still alive and it envisioned formalization of the executive ‘concert of nations’ consisting of victorious powers in the capacity of permanent members of the Security Council – that is, multipolarity – plus an international lawmaking parliament in the form of the General Assembly. But the UN dived into an almost forty-year-long paralysis and turned into a forum for propagandist polemics exactly because the coalition split and the Cold War set in.

The UN experienced a short-lived Golden Age after the end of the Cold War, and for the first time in history it got down to performing its primordial functions as a legitimate institution in charge of ensuring international security. Remember that 36 out of the 49 peacekeeping operations ever held under UN auspices were organized after 1988. And although not all of them were successful – due to local conditions – they were much less expensive and much more fruitful than unilateral actions by the U.S. or NATO to coerce anyone to peace.

It was not multipolarity or the new sophisticated problems at all that dealt a blow to the UN’s efficiency in this decade. That blow came from the unilateral policy of the U.S. from the position of force. No one will argue that the world has changed beyond recognition since 1945 and the UN needs a profound and well thought-out reform. But contrary to what Bordachev and Lukyanov say, it is not the genetic inadequacy of the UN that should be blamed. The root cause of the problem lies in the deteriorating discords among the Security Council’s permanent members and Washington’s resolve to act beyond the format of international law when the Security Council counterparts appear to disagree with it.

The U.S. administration has already paid dearly for such policies in Iraq. In all probability, the administration likely wishes it could reverse the march of time and that it had listened to the arguments that Russia, France, Germany and China offered against the ill-grounded military operation in 2003. Similarly, the West has yet to pay a huge price for its methods of resolving the Kosovo problem. The U.S. got bogged down in Iraq and it does not have enough vigor to attack Iran unilaterally. The U.S. itself undermined the UN Security Council’s authority, thus furnishing Tehran with a pretext for ignoring four consecutive resolutions on the Iranian nuclear program.

The system of international treaties on disarmament has not become an anachronism after the end of the Cold War either. As evidenced from the events of the past twenty years or so, the nuclear nonproliferation regime will be unviable if it does not rest on a solid platform of disarmament systems and processes.

There is a myth suggesting that the end of the Cold War whipped up the spread of nuclear armaments, but this is not true either. As many as seven countries – the Big Five, Israel and South Africa – became nuclear during the four decades of the Cold War, and three more countries – India, Pakistan and, with some reservations, North Korea – did so after its end. The biggest breakthroughs in disarmament came from 1987-1999: the INF and CFE treaties; the Chemical Weapons Convention; the Protocol of Control over the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; the START-1 Treaty; simultaneous reductions of tactical nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russia; the START-2 Treaty; the framework agreement on START-3 and on theater defense missiles; the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; and the Adapted CFE Treaty.

This period was certainly the most productive in terms of nonproliferation, and this was not accidental, as 40 countries, including nuclear powers like France and China, signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was prolonged indefinitely. The world community put into effect an Additional Protocol designed to strengthen the safeguards regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and seven countries – South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Brazil, Argentina and Iraq – gave up their nuclear weapons voluntarily or were compelled to do so.

However, Washington’s reckless policies brought forth a dismantling of the disarmament system in this decade, beginning with the Nonproliferation Treaty and ending with the bulk of the aforesaid agreements. The U.S. did all that it could to get a free hand in promoting national defense programs, but in effect it untied the hands of countries seeking to obtain nuclear weapons and missile technology and thus undermined cooperation between the great powers.

At present, the nonproliferation system and regimes are creaking at all the seams. North Korea has pulled out of the treaty and has held a nuclear test. Iran is moving steadily toward the same objective through dual nuclear technologies, and a dozen more countries have made public their plans to follow this example. The market for contraband fissionable materials and technologies is broadening, and terrorists may get access to a nuclear fuse through it.

Russia, on its part, imposed a moratorium on the CFE Treaty recently and hinted at a possible withdrawal from the INF. After START-1 expires in 2009, the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) signed in 2002 will lose any significance as well. The latter document is effective through 2012 and stipulates that the U.S. and Russia must reduce their nuclear warhead arsenals to 1,700 to 2,200 items, but it does not have a control system of its own and is unrelated to START-1 regulations.

Nuclear disarmament will be slashed then to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban treaties of 1963 and 1976 and several symbolic documents. If so, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will also become practically defunct.

This cannot but incite a feeling of alarm, but what does it have to do with “multipolarity arising amid a dilapidation of global institutions” that Bordachev and Lukyanov write about? What we are witnessing is a deliberate and irresponsible pulling down of those institutions and norms, which is largely orchestrated by the U.S. administration and supported by some of their allies. Alas, Russia has joined them too by now.


It is unlikely that anyone will object to the policy of “a build-up of its [Russia’s] own relative strength” and “a powerful and rigid promotion of Russia’s fundamental interests”. The only problem is with the way one interprets these interests. Some ex-liberal TV commentators in Russia have been tossing around a theory suggesting: “Grab anything that’s not in the right place and then wait and see.” Another option presupposes determining one’s own foreign policy priorities and real capabilities and projecting the results of what one will do several steps ahead.

What benefits would Russia get from pulling out of the INF Treaty? A deployment of several divisions of longer-range SS-26 Stone missiles? But this would furnish the U.S. with a powerful argument for a further ramification of the missile defense structure in Europe and with a legitimate opportunity to rehabilitate the Pershing II missiles. Or to deploy newer missile systems with shorter flight times – in the Baltic countries this time, not in West Germany.

A formal recognition of the independence of Abkhazia, South Ossetia or the Dniester Republic would change nothing in their material status above the broadening of economic and humanitarian ties with them, started by Moscow. On the contrary, it will play into the hands of those who advocate NATO’s encompassing Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova and will motivate these countries toward a military untangling of secession problems, all the more so that none of the CIS countries except Russia – and possibly Armenia – will recognize the breakaway territories. China, India and many other partners of Russia that currently criticize NATO for its stance on Kosovo will also dissociate themselves from that recognition. In the future, armed separatism may again raise its head in Russia itself and get direct support from abroad, especially in the face of growing demographic problems.

Moscow had enough grounds for changing the “rules of the game” that took shape in relations with the West in the 1990s. The paradigm of this relationship dates back to the time when Moscow had to meekly take its policy cues from the U.S. and to put up with the arrogant treatment of its own interests and opinions, but this is totally unacceptable today. Russia has gained much more economic and political strength now, while the positions of the U.S., EU and Japan have weakened – largely due to their own fault. The problem of Russia’s foreign policy is not in its growing activeness or independence. It is the thesis about the importance of a continued “throwing of stones” that invites the biggest objection.

It is not enough to simply say ‘No’ to something. It is vital to construct a fruitful and well-specified alternative to the main issues. For instance, it would make a lot of sense for Russia to clearly formulate a long-term vision of relations with NATO and former Soviet republics while it protests the engulfing of Georgia and Ukraine by the alliance. Military organizations and forces as strong and ramified that both NATO and Russia have cannot peacefully coexist without paying attention to each other and engaging solely in their own business. They will either start a closer cooperation and integration, or they will become suspicious of each other over hostile designs and preparations for an armed conflict.

The campaign fanning fears about a renewed “threat from the East” that started in the West recently – citing reports on the flights of Russia’s strategic aviation, long-distance exercise cruises of ships and firing exercises of naval detachments – provides a vivid example. The same suspicions are aroused by Russia’s new voguish defense doctrine of a “threat from space” and the development of a potential for rebuffing it, which in practical terms implies a major war with NATO.

Russia needs to decide for itself whether it should count on a military confrontation or on deepening cooperation with the U.S.; setting up a joint rapid deployment corps for peacekeeping operations in Europe and beyond; for fighting terrorism and for checking the illegal trade in nuclear materials. All of this suggests a new type of a defense union and a profound reform of NATO’s and Russia’s military organizations. The present situation leaves little hope for an initiative from the West in that sphere, and it is Russia that could put forth a long-term project while it continues to re-emerge as a great power. In this context, any objections to the alliance’s enlargement would look quite convincing, while sabotage by NATO’s new members would be much easier to overcome.

Proposals aimed at resolving the problems of neighboring countries and guarantees to their sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as plans for economic and humanitarian cooperation on the condition that those countries maintain neutrality would be very instrumental in this sense. On the other hand, all the talk about the secession of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Dniester region, the Crimea and the Donetsk coalfields consolidates the public and the political leadership in the respective countries on strictly anti-Russian sentiments and prompts them to turn to NATO as the only guarantor of their territorial integrity.

The U.S. plan for building a defense missile system in Central Europe offers a different case. Moscow was right to reject this plan since a missile threat from Iran has not materialized so far and the missile defense base will have a marginal capability for intercepting several Russian antiballistic missiles. Russia offered to cooperate in that sphere in the form of jointly running a radar station in Azerbaijan and establishing a Joint Data Exchange Center for the exchange of information on missile launches. However, by recognizing in this way the presence of a missile threat from the south, Russia cannot cite the radar and the center as an alternative to the missile defense system anymore, as they would need supplementary radars and interceptor missiles. The situation requires either the presence of a broad Russian national missile defense system or the construction of a joint missile defense with the U.S. and NATO, and this in itself implies a new type of military union.

Russian policies in both spheres have been sending encouraging signals of late. After the April 2008 summit in Bucharest, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin made clear statements suggesting that it would be reasonable for NATO to focus on developing better relations and cooperation with Russia instead of a hasty eastward enlargement, as many conflict issues would be seen in a different light then. Also, concerning the problem of missile defenses, Putin said that he could see a future solution to the problem in a joint missile defense system embracing Russia, the U.S. and Europe.
However, these ideas need a well-conceived defense/political and defense/technological content so as to look as something more than just a political declaration. This is where a whole host of work opens up, but neither government departments nor expert communities in Russia are in a hurry to offer their proposals. Many do not take the national leadership’s statements seriously; others are unwilling to assume any responsibility or to burden themselves with extra work; still others purposefully sabotage any such initiative in the hope that their positions inside the country will consolidate amid a growing confrontation with the West, even though this line of conduct inflicts huge damage on Russia’s national interests and security.

Bordachev and Lukyanov recommend throwing stones as long as “a transition from the Cold War model to a new status quo of some kind” continues, but this wait-and-see period may never end. In contrast with a unipolar or bipolar international system, the multipolar system is dynamic and changes by virtue of its very nature and it will never get any permanent status quo. Naturally, the current international system is immeasurably more complicated and globalized than the 19th-century European “concert of nations,” yet it, too, puts into a more lucrative position the nation or the coalition that builds better relations with other centers of power than the relations these centers have between themselves.

The construction of fruitful relations with other countries and international amalgamations presupposes agreement on crucial issues, greater efficiency of existing institutions and the setting up of new structures. A great power must not destroy a new system of international relations but, rather, should build it until others organize it without account of the great power’s interests. One should not follow the U.S. example and succumb to the lure of razing shattered international institutions and treaties to zero so as to grab quickly everything that comes into one’s hands. This policy has led the U.S. to disaster and undermined its world leadership despite America’s economic and military supremacy and huge influence on international organizations and institutions.

As Russia launches a new phase of its economic and democratic reforms, it is able to simultaneously wield a large productive influence on the formation of an entirely new system of international relations. But naturally, this is possible only if Moscow develops an awareness of what it really wants and if it begins to abide by strong principles and to display a coherent and predictable line of conduct – something that a great power should do. It must have an adequate picture of the world around it and measure its wishes against its capabilities.

Last updated 9 august 2008, 15:17

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