Without the West

Brexit, Trump, no-vote in Italy: 2016 shows that the tide has turned, says political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov. The model of a global structure under the leadership of the US has become a thing of the past. Europe has plunged into deep introspection. Russia skillfully used the blunders and mistakes of the West. The multipolar world order has arrived: a new era is dawning. But what is Russia's plan?

by Fyodor Lukyanov

It may still be a little early to draw end-of-the-year conclusions about international relations, although after some shocks everything seems to have calmed down by now and the main results seem clear. The world is entering into a new phase of development. Neither the results of the June referendum in Great Britain, nor the victory of Donald Trump in the American elections in November are the direct causes of these changes. They are just symptoms of the changes we are going through.

Trump als matrjosjkaThe new world order, what will it look like?

The model of an open and all-encompassing global structure under the leadership of the United States and its allies has become a thing of the past. Under pressure of their own citizens the ruling elites of leading countries are forced to turn their attention to domestic affairs - far too many neglected issues have piled up there. This is the beginning of a pause in external expansion, political, economic and ideological.

The tide has turned

Western expansion will not come to a complete halt, the West is not disappearing, but the drive to expand itself was from time immemorial one of its main characteristics. But the rush towards world dominance the West had launched after the Cold War had been mighty and dazzling in historical perspective; now the tide has turned.

Speaking in terms of market theories it is time for a major correction, for taking an inventory and incorporating recovered assets. And most probably the next few years will be devoted to doing just that.

For Russia this means the start of a new era, too.  Russian foreign policy after the Cold War, in general and in particular, can be assessed in different ways – that is a matter of taste and ideological preferences. But one index has not changed – since the downfall of the USSR the point of reference was the West and the necessity in one way or another to relate to the Western model of world order, to find a place within or outside of that order. Priorities wavered, from the invincible craving to accommodate to the West at any price to (never clearly formulated) claims to offer an alternative.

But through all stadia of vacillating back and forth there was one consistent factor (sometimes open, sometimes hidden) in the desire to fight Western pressure. Even in the earliest and most sincere pro-Western phase Russia was not ready to change itself totally into the direction the West was pointing to. At the same time domestic changes were a conditio sine qua non for taking part in that same Western project.

Hybrid discussions

The debate about what Europe, as the nearest personification of the West, means for Russia has been going on for at least 200 years and in that respect the discussions that were waged at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century were  not unique. And they always had a mixed (or as it is fashionably named these days – hybrid) character – combining internal with external aspects.

This means that Europe, if we leave current geopolitical circumstances aside, was always considered an important element of internal development [in Russia], a source (more often) of attraction or (sometimes) of repulsion.

The period after the Cold War became the quintessence of that attitude. The discussion boiled down not merely to the question if Russia had to reorient itself to a European development model, but even to the possibility/necessity to enter into western political structures. For more than two decennia these issues became defining for the international world order. That was the main strategic decision of the beginning of the 90’s – the new world order was to be based on existing Western structures (i.e. the structures of the Cold War) and not on the creation of new structures that would correspond to the era after the confrontation.

The agonizing path of Russia between 1991 and the mid 2010s is a separate subject. That quarrel will continue endlessly and fruitlessly, as is often the case in our country. For some this era signifies the catastrophical failure to become a ‘normal country’, for others these were fatal illusions that have almost destroyed the state.

But this trajectory has led to a totally clear result – as we moved into the twenty-first century Moscow’s efforts shifted more and more to resistance to Western aspirations to expand the model it considered just and necessary.

Make America Great Again

From c. 2015 on this development came to resemble more and more a fullfledged Cold War and in autumn 2016 it even took the gloomy appearance of a possible direct confrontation. Then in the West the aforementioned turning point took place.

Now the situation has changed. There may still be a vague ambition to ‘change’ Russia or to ‘correct’ some other countries among the more ideological representatives of the American and European establishment, but it will no longer be seen as a priority of governments, far less a realistic task.

Good old logic of containment

In Washington, probably, the good old logic of containment will return. Many people said that the ideal of Donald Trump – the ‘greatness of America’ that he wants to restore – is back to the 1950’s, the period of the economic boom, the self-confidence after a victorious war and the absence of phenomena like political correctness. Remember: this was the period of the nervous genesis of the containment idea and the principle of strategic stability (the rules of nuclear confrontation). Yet at the same time it was also the era of McCarthyism (the recent creation in the American Congress of a commission to counter the secret influence of Moscow is a good illustration of the fact that occasionally we appear to see history repeating itself).

Europe has plunged into deep introspection and the question of its attitude towards Russia in the coming months can become a serious factor of the internal evolution of the Old World. 

Merkel PoetinSoon Germany will be the only European nation to put pressure on Russia

Germany (the new leader of the ‘free world’, as a European diplomat recently said only half-jokingly) can turn into the main champion of putting pressure on Russia. France, with elections coming up, will most probably turn out its own version of ‘East policy’. Whatever will happen, not a trace remains of the Leitmotiv of the years 1990-2010 - that Russia should somehow become an integral part of ‘Big Europe’.

Credit to the Kremlin

For Russia, foreign policy conditions are changing. Over the past years its response was mostly reactive – for obvious reasons. Western activism forced it to come up with responses all the time. To give credit to the Kremlin and Smolensk Square, they quickly picked up speed and accuracy of response (there could have been more preventive reaction, but that does not change the essence – it was the West that decided the rules of the game).

Two circumstances gave Moscow’s actions compactness and made them successful. In the first place the suspiciousness and sometimes fear felt by many non-western states that the bold policy of the United States in the end will affect them as well stimulated consolidation founded on an anti-western basis. Secondly America and Europe committed too many blunders and mistakes, mainly for ideological reasons, and Russia used them skillfully.

Reduced activity of the US and the internal crisis of Europe give space to independent steps, that are not merely a response to impulses from the West. The multipolar world that we for so long have hoped for, has arrived. Now the question is how it will be arranged. Of course we can continue to fight American hegemony and western influence, but neither will completely disappear. In any case there will have to be major changes: the content of foreign policy must change.

Everywhere demand for ideas will grow – how can a new world function that qualitatively alters all parameters – social, technological, geopolitical? Since the final stage of the USSR in Moscow almost nobody was thinking about these subjects – there were other priorities and there was no external urge.

Now we have to come up with something of our own, not just oriented towards the fight against outward pressure or the defense of our own interests, but something that encompasses the ‘common good’.

In the heat of Realpolitik we have long forgotten (and this regards not only the ruling class but Russian society as a whole) that in the end progress in history is achieved by those who think in these categories. Mostly, such people are also more succesful when defending their own interests.

This article was first published at Gazeta.ru.