Last week I gave a talk to the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa on the topic ‘Conservatism and Russian International Relations Theory.’ You can watch it here:
For those of you who don’t have time to watch the whole thing, here is a summary:
I began the talk by referencing a survey of the work of Russian international relations (IR) scholars which identified the most cited Russian authors in Russian IR publications. The results were as follows (with a couple of typos – it should be L. Gumilev and P. Savitsky):
The notable thing about this list is that the first three names – Danilevskii, Leontyev, and Panarin – are generally considered conservatives, as are several of the others. Given that this suggests that conservative ideas are influencing contemporary Russian IR theory, the purpose of the talk was therefore to determine more exactly what these ideas are.
To this end, I first pointed to an inherent tension within conservatism between its universalist and particularist elements, and suggested that Russian conservatives have attempted to overcome these tensions in two ways:
- One has claimed that Russia’s particularity is that it is the repository of the universal truth, and has therefore insisted that Russia must defend its separate identity for the benefit of mankind as a whole.
- Another has identified the universal good with the promotion of national diversity. This second approach has thereby rejected universalism while at the same time preserving the idea that Russia has a universal mission.
In line with this logic, I concluded that many Russian conservatives in the modern era argue that the development of a multipolar world, in which nations protect their sovereignty and defend their right to a separate path of development, serves not only Russian interests, but also those of humanity as a whole.
To make this argument, I then examined briefly the work of a number of conservative thinkers from the 1840s to the present day – the Slavophiles, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Danilevsky, Konstantin Leontyev, Ivan Ilyin, the Eurasianists, Lev Gumilev, Aleksandr Panarin, Aleksandr Dugin, and the post-Soviet ‘young conservatives’ (e.g. Boris Mezhuev). Inevitably, this involved quite a lot of simplification, but in the process I sought to identify a common core, in line with the thesis above.
At the end of the my talk, I discussed what influence these ideas might have had on Russian policy. I stated that it is important to note that the conservatism of the Russian state has nearly always been very different from the conservatism of conservative intellectuals. Indeed the Russian state has normally been rather suspicious of conservative intellectuals. It’s quite difficult to talk of the latter having much direct influence on the former. Having said that, conservative ideas have seeped gradually into public consciousness, albeit in a simplified form, and in this way have helped to shape policy choices. The main ideas, I concluded, were the following:
- Russia is different from the West. How it’s different, is a matter of considerable debate, with wide differences between Eurasianists, Russian nationalists, and others. But the key point that Russia is different is commonly accepted.
- As a distinct civilization, Russia is in possession of certain truths which the West does not possess, either because it never had them, or because it’s become atheistic and decadent and has forgotten them.
- Western liberalism cannot therefore claim to be universally valid.
- Different civilizations should therefore follow their own path of development.
- This is a good thing. Flowering complexity, diversity, polyculturalism are to be encouraged.
- World peace depends on recognition of civilizational difference.
- This requires Russia to protect its sovereignty and push back against attempts to impose Western liberalism on the rest of the world. How much Russia needs to push back is a matter of debate, with considerable differences between people like Dugin and Tsymbursky. But the idea that there has to be some push-back is common to all.
- And finally, in pushing back, Russia not only defends its own interests but also acts for the benefit of the world as a whole.
In this way, the pursuit of the particular serves the universal good.
[You can download the powerpoint presentation below.]