Struggle for recognition

‘Every state’, said Hegel, ‘is sovereign and autonomous against its neighbours’. But, he continued, ‘A state is as little an actual individual without relations to other states as an individual is actually a person without rapport with other persons’. What makes a state a state, therefore, is its relations with other states, which in turn means that what makes a state is its recognition as a state by other states. ‘When wars and disputes arise,’ Hegel concluded, ‘the trait which gives them a significance for world history is that they are struggles for recognition’.

One can view the history of Russian foreign policy as one long struggle for recognition, driven by the desire of Russian rulers to be recognized as an equal by their European ‘partners’ (or during the Cold War by the United States). Tsars, General Secretaries, and Presidents have longed for this recognition from the West, have yearned to be accepted as an equal by it, only to find themselves rejected time after time. As long as this struggle for recognition continues, conflicts between East and West will continue also.

There are only two ways out of this situation: either the West finally recognizes Russia as an equal, or Russia stops looking for recognition from the West. To be quite honest, the first isn’t likely, at least not in my lifetime. So what about the second?

Much has been written about Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’. Rebuffed by Western institutions, suffering from economic sanctions, and observing the shifting balance of global economic power to Asia (most notably to China), the Russian state has in recent years begun to shift its attention eastwards, expanding its economic and military ties both to China and to other Asian states.

In this context, Vladimir Putin’s comments to the Valdai Club this week about a possible military alliance with China are bound to excite interest. Asked about the possibility of such an alliance, Putin remarked that, ‘we don’t need it, but, theoretically it’s possible to imagine it.’ Putin pointed to recent joint Russian-Chinese military exercises as evidence of the two countries’ growing cooperation, and noted that Russia has provided China with modern technology to enhance its military power. Speaking of a possible alliance, Putin concluded that, ‘Time will show how it will develop’, adding that, ‘we won’t exclude it.’

The pivot to Asia is an inevitable product not only of the rise of China but also of the fact that Europe is governed by international institutions established during the Cold War, most notably the European Union and NATO. These are by their very natures incapable of including the Russian Federation. Russia can push and push as much as it likes, but the aspiration for a Europe ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’ is not going to come about.

There is, it seems, a growing realization in Russia that this is the case. In essence, it is increasingly understood that the struggle for recognition with the West is pointless, as the West is incapable of providing the recognition that Russia desires.

This at least was the sentiment behind Vladislav Surkov’s 2018 article ‘The Loneliness of the Half-Breed’ which argued that the time had come to admit ‘the completion of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the end of numerous fruitless attempts to become part of Western civilization, to join the “good family” of European peoples.’ Russia should give up the effort, Surkov said, and go its own way.

Surkov has always been a bit of an oddball, so one could hardly view his article as proof of a fundamental shift in thinking by the mass of Russia’s ruling class. But this month we have seen somewhat similar ideas coming out of the mouth of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In response to the threat of more EU sanctions, Lavrov commented:

People who are responsible for the Western foreign policy and do not understand the need for mutually respectful dialogue, we probably have to suspend dialogue with them for a while. Especially since [President of the European Commission] Ursula von der Leyen is saying that geopolitical cooperation with the current Russian authorities is not working. So let it be if that’s what they want.

The talk of ‘mutually respectful dialogue’ is straight out of the politics of struggle for recognition. What’s new is the willingness to walk away, to say ‘you won’t recognize us, well in that case “screw you”.’ The question then is whether this is just a tactic to try and force recognition, or whether it constitutes a truly new way of viewing the world, in which the struggle for recognition from the West has been abandoned.

Certainly there are some Russians, especially among Eurasianists and what I call ‘isolationist’ conservatives, who would like it to be the latter. But I feel that in reality it is the former. Not for a moment do I think that Russia is ever likely to forge a formal military alliance with China, not only because the Russians surely understand that they would be by far the junior partner in such a marriage, but also because there exists a huge cultural divide between China and Russia. Rather I suspect that the spectre of a Russo-Chinese alliance is a tool used to scare the Americans to try and knock some sense into them.

More generally, it seems to me that for all the frustration with the West, it remains the essential ‘other’ to which Russian elites look. Watch TV talk shows, for instance. They complain about the West all the time, but in the process of complaining about it, they talk about it. By contrast, they hardly talk about China at all. For all the sense of injured pride, they look West. It’s Courchevel they go to for vacation, not Chongquing.

In short, while it’s obvious that for pragmatic economic and geopolitical reasons, Russia will inevitably focus more on the East in decades to come, I still feel that it will never abandon the desire for recognition from what the Slavophile Aleksei Khomiakov called ‘the land of holy wonders’ – the West. And the West in turn will continue to deny it. I hope I’m wrong (and I often am!), but if I’m right, the struggle for recognition will continue unresolved for a long time to come.

22 thoughts on “Struggle for recognition”

  1. It was highlighted in an RT piece that Putin noted Germany as a rising power, while suggesting that his criticism was against a predominating Anglo-American foreign policy outlook (as in the neocon/neolib flat out Russia hating type).

    These thoughts underscore that the West historically hasn’t been so monolithic – two world wars, Napoleon, US civil war as examples.

    No one prejudice has completely died. Anti-Russian bigotry remains quite strong, as evidenced by some remarks from James Clapper and The NYTs’ Juliet Macur, in conjunction with the lack lack of outrage towards them.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Too much generalizing, methinks. What’s Lavrov’s “Western foreign policy”? US, UK, Canada, Poland, the Baltics, and Germany recently? What about Greece, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia?

    And I don’t think where people go skiing has anything to do with this. Tens of millions of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans travel to Europe every year, so what.

    Elites struggle for domination, or, in the case of Russian elites, yes, for recognition, for a place at the table. These struggles dictate geopolitical and military alliances. But the cultural stuff, I don’t think it has much to do with it.

    As for the talk shows, American political shows have had a lot to say about Russia too, in the last four years.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Kudos to Orban for not clinging to the kind of narrow-minded bunk being pushed within neolib, neocon and flat out Russia hating circles.

        BTW, what’s the story with the Brit based Ali Miraj, who fancies himself as a contrarian, which he certainly isn’t, after listening to him and some France 24 hack in a just aired BBC segment?

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      2. …come to think of it, they already had recognition: G8, remember? You can’t get more recognition than that. It’s interesting that the military intervention in Georgia in 2008 produced virtually no hysteria in the West. Not in the establishment “mainstream”, anyway.

        But then the usual suspects (what’s the right term: ‘sorosiata’? ‘neocons’? ‘liberal interventionists’?) decided to mess up Ukraine, and this is how it all started. So, it looks like something changed around 2012-2013. It could be interesting to analyze why it happened.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. In overall terms, Russians from Russia living in the West versus Chinese from China living in the West don’t seem to indicate (at least IMO) that the divide between Russia and the West is greater than that of China and the West.

      Recall the US based alien and sedition act motivated against the Chinese.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “One can view the history of Russian foreign policy as one long struggle for recognition, driven by the desire of Russian rulers to be recognized as an equal by their European ‘partners’… As long as this struggle for recognition continues, conflicts between East and West will continue also.

    What an utter bullshit! Primitive sentimental essentialism.

    “Rather I suspect that the spectre of a Russo-Chinese alliance is a tool used to scare the Americans to try and knock some sense into them.”

    Or because this is idealogically the most “correct” thing for you to faithfully believe, Professor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One can view history as the West having some chauvinists who project their faults unto others. Russia has been a great country with considerable potential which isn’t so willing to be a stooge, thereby prompting a misguided backlash in some influential circles.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I am very much a supporter of a Russia-China military alliance against the West. But I think China has to do something also to make itself more “open”. A lot of the “cultural differences” are due to the language barrier. China needs to make it easier for Russians and others to learn their language and cultural; and do more to promote inter-cultural experiences and more travel, etc.
    Well, that’s just my opinion.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I know it’s historical but I no longer understand why Russia seeks the approval of the West, the US is in the early stages of collapse, Britain is a bankrupt non entity so obsessed with its past that there is no room for a future, the EU is in disarray and can’t agree on anything – there being an ever clearer split between the pro US atlanticists (like Van Der Leyen) and the full on Europeans who see Russia as an allie (which includes most of German big business) Is Europe even capable of replacing the US in geopolitical terms? Russia needs to continue to plough its own furough, the West is in a lot of trouble in multiple spheres and it is of their own creating. It is history that gives its respect and approval not a bunch of cowboys with dementia which is what the US has become, corrupt from top to bottom, let them get on with it, Russia can look after itself … and remember Catherine the Great, a time when the whole of Europe beat its path East to revel in Russian culture.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I sort of understand why Russia still feels nostalgic about “Old Europe”, I mean, for a while, in the past, Europe represented the absolute pinnacle of cultural achievements in art, literature, music.
      But America? Give me a break. I can never understand why any Russian would worship America. Well, for sure, there used to be some literature, art, music there too. But nowadays?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “I can never understand why any Russian would worship America. Well, for sure, there used to be some literature, art, music there too. But nowadays?” I can understand that sentiment, but one has also to realize that, especially in this century the MSM largely ignores most everything that is happening in America with respect to the arts. Thus to know what is really happening one needs in turn to ignore the MSM accounts and “reviews” of pseudo-cultural products and events, i,e, the neutered effusions of the “culture industries” of the Frankfurt school theorists, and go out on one’s own, following mostly word of mouth suggestions, to discover the important cultural innovations that are still happening but only without any “recognition” from the captured US MSM. Thus, just to deal with music, which I know best, there are still hundreds of great “independent” musicians around who are still pushing the various musical genres forward despite receiving almost no public recognition or monetary support, and most cases being forced to live a meagre and marginal life out of devotion to their art. But one now needs to search them out on one’s own, something which far fewer Americans, it seems, are willing to do. All and all the arts, and I mean the really innovative arts, music and literature in the US have been largely left by the neoliberal corporate-capitalist/imperialist establishment to try to somehow survive on their own with little to no public support from either the US cultural elites or, all to often, even the public at large. Considering how poorly they are respected, remunerated, or indeed, socially “recognized” it is a wonder that American culture manages to carry on at all!

        All of this makes it deeply ironic that many in Russia do still see the West in general, and the US in particular, as ‘the land of holy wonders’ when every day those “wonders” are dying on the vine, just as they are no longer state supported in the now neoliberalism-captured, austerity-pushing governments in the East, especially in Eastern Europe, where previously cultural workers of various types, including even many avant garde artists and performers, received support, albeit fairly minimal support, from state stipends. These days, the “sink or swim” imperative seems to rule over the most innovative arts everywhere, and each year thousands of truly original cultural artists of all varieties eventually find that swimming against such a torrent of ideological neglect, ignorance and censure is no longer viable for them and their families and thus abandon their often amazing efforts altogether in order to simply have a better life.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Russia don’t seek approval from the West. It’s professor’s interpretation of Russian geopolitical interests which clearly indicates his lack of understanding of what motivated Russian foreign policy in the past and what motivates it now. From the Russia’s perspective, as a country with traditional values, she isn’t looking to be “accepted”, “recognized” or “approved” by the godless West (even though some rich Russians vacation in French Alps in winter). Russia refuses to be intimidated, don’t mistake it for “seeking approval”.

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  6. The current state of the coronavirus pandemic suggests that Russia can learn and benefit from China much more than from the West.

    Incompetence, bureaucratic overreach, corruption, cronyism, and crime do exist in most countries, but China does something against it. The anti-graft campaign, which started with the National Congress of the Communist Party in 2012, is still going on with 485.000 officials punished in 2019 (among them top securities regulator Liu Shiyu).

    The blatant corruption in the USA, called euphemistically lobbying or campaign financing, would not be tolerated in China.

    One should not forget, that social responsibility, solidarity, and compassion are part of communist ideology, though Chinese political culture is probably more determined by the 5,000 year old history of Chinese civilization (Confucius, Lao-Tsu) with its emphasis on duty, commitment, and discipline.

    The exemplary success of China in reducing poverty could be a model not only for Russia but also most other nations, while habitat destruction, chemical or radioactive contamination, unsustainable exploitation of resources, and bind faith in technological progress unfortunately characterize both Chinese and Russian economic policies.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In general, I find this article to show a deep and sophisticated, quite nuanced, understanding of what, following Hegel, we might think of as the ever unfolding dialectical relationship better the Western “masters” and the Russian “slaves,” indeed an understanding which belies the ostensibly easy lucidity of the text. Clearly “recognition,” or more precisely the lack thereof, is at the heart of Russia’s perennial, already three centuries old, agonizing frustrations with the domination of Western, and, a fortiori, American cultural products, and indeed, mostly with the inferior commercial pseudo-artistic products churned out each year in the same manner as new F-16 fighter jets for export, and with roughly the same level of subtlety. I also agree that for better, or [mostly} for worse, this agonizing dialectic between the West and Russia will remain the primary cultural dialectic for Russian artists, musicians, writers and critics. How could it be otherwise when the overbearing reality of the situation is that Russia has always been, and probably always will be, an essential part of Western culture, despised little step-sister though she may yet remain!

    There may well come a time when Russian engagement with the still secondary dialectical relationship with Chinese cultural products and events may well come to the fore, but such an emerging cross-cultural engagement must be many decades away in my opinion. For now, it seems, Russia is culturally “stuck with the damn West,” even if in the economic and political realms she now has, for the first time actually, the ability to, and a deep interest in, telling the still rabidly Russophobic EU and US, as the article succinctly puts it: [If] ‘you won’t recognize us, well in that case “screw you”. In the political realm especially, as we have seen in Russia’s to my mind only rather tepid, overly-cautious support of its Syrian ally against the regime change machinations and military interventions of the entire West, such a big “screw you!” is, as, say, Paul Craig Roberts has argued from even before the dismal Ukrainian conflict put the issue front and center, long overdue.

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