Tag Archives: West

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.

Mutual lack of critical introspection

Every so often, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow publishes a forecast of where Russia and the world are headed in the near future.  At the end of last year, the Institute of International Relations in Prague published an English-language version of the latest IMEMO forecast in its journal New Perspectives. Now the journal has issued a set of responses to the forecast by several Western scholars and a member of IMEMO. They’re worth a brief look.

A common theme runs through all the responses. The authors all agree that when analyzing current East-West tensions, Russians have a tendency to see their own country as essentially reactive – that is to say that they portray Russia as simply responding to Western provocations. In doing so they deprive Russia of agency, and so deny that it may be in part responsible for the current crisis in Russian-Western relations. Instead, the West is held to be entirely at fault.

Thus Mark Galeotti, in the first response to the IMEMO forecast, remarks that, ‘What is most striking is that Russia is presented throughout this report as object, not actor. It may be a victim or a beneficiary, but the initiative is always elsewhere.’ This, he continues, ‘demonstrates a determination to paint Russia as the geopolitical victim, which is in itself a form of passivity, a sense of a country as lacking the capacity to influence, let alone master its fate.’

Likewise, Tuomas Forsberg of the University of Helsinki accuses the Russians of ‘attribution bias’, which ‘conveys the image that the criticism of Russia in Europe is mainly an outcome of malevolent intentions and not related to Russia’s own behavior.’ And Ruth Deyermond of King’s College London speaks of a ‘strengthened perception amongst Russian analysts and politicians that the US political establishment is irredeemably Russophobic’ and notes that Russian elites view foreign affairs through a ‘prism of grievance’.

I have some sympathy with these complaints. As IMEMO’s Irina Kobrinskaya writes in the final article in the journal, ‘While external factors certainly act on Russia, Russia also acts.’ Portraying oneself always as responding to the actions of others is a useful way of declining responsibility for one’s own behaviour, but also self-deceptive and liable to prevent one from a proper analysis of why one has ended up where one has. If Russians persist in viewing themselves solely as victims, then they’re unlikely to come up with constructive solutions to their problems.

But, as the saying goes, ‘it takes two to tango’. In another article in the journal, Minda Holm of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs speaks of a ‘mutual lack of introspection’. Holm complains that according to IMEMO,

the Russian state merely reacts to an antagonistic partner defined by ‘anti-Russian hysteria’, and nothing is said of where that sentiment, however exaggerated or unfair, emanates from. Whilst the roots of the ‘Russia factor’ lie in both past stereotypes and strategic needs, Russia’s own actions are also clearly part of the cause.

‘This form of one-sidedness is an impediment to any hope for an improved relationship’ says Holm. At the same time, however, she notes that Western analysts are equally guilty of the same intellectual failing. As she writes,

The current desire, and/or reflex, to cast Russia as an external enemy is strong in liberalWestern epistemic circles. Unwanted domestic political developments are often connected to Russia based on circumstantial evidence, and/or a reduction of the agency of others.

Thus, Holm concludes, ‘I am sympathetic to their [Russians’] critique of the tendency in self-defined liberal states to cast Russia as the enemy with little critical introspection.’ Russia-West relations’, she says, ‘seem locked in a mutual negative dynamic where nuances are increasingly left out of representations of the Other.’ Each side views themselves as purely reacting to the malign activity of the other. Each side therefore fails to understand its own responsibility for the breakdown in relations. What can done about this? ‘For a start,’ says Holm, ‘academics working on these questions have a particular responsibility not to fall into the traps of unproblematically reproducing simplified enemy images.’

Regular readers of this blog will hardly be surprised to learn that I completely agree. I would say also that it’s not enough just to understand that one has committed mistakes. Returning to the attribution error, it’s all too easy to designate one’s own misdeeds as ‘mistakes’ while attributing the misdeeds of one’s adversaries to their malignant character. Critical introspection has to go beyond admitting error and also involve admitting wrongdoing. The only caveat I would add is that in engaging in this critical introspection one shouldn’t overdo things. It’s one thing to understand that one’s own side has behaved badly; it’s another to then conclude that one’s own side is always wrong and the other side always right, and end up going full-blown Noam Chomsky or Gary Kasparov (a comparison which is probably a bit unfair on the former).

That caveat notwithstanding, let me finish by quoting the Gospel of St Matthew:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Every now and again I come across something I wish I’d written myself. ‘Mutual lack of critical introspection’ is a case in point. It hits the nail firmly on the head.

 

Poking the bear

What sort of guy thinks that it is a good idea to deliberately provoke a nuclear-armed power? Answer: the sort of guy who writes for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a think-tank which claims that its purpose is to ‘bring about positive change in Central-East Europe and Russia by strengthening NATO’s frontline, better understanding the Kremlin’s strategic aims, promoting greater solidarity within the EU, and bolstering Atlanticism.’ CEPA ‘experts’ include the Economist’s Edward Lucas and the Power Vertical podcast’s Brian Whitmore. In short, it’s the kind of institution you go to if you think that Western politicians and journalists are being far too soft on the Russians. In line with its mission, every now and again CEPA brings out a report about the evils of Russian aggression and disinformation. Its latest, entitled Chaos as a Strategy: Putin’s ‘Promethean’ Gamble is a doozy.

chaos

The authors of Chaos as a Strategy are CEPA president and CEO Peter Doran, and Senior Fellow and former diplomat Donald Jensen. Their report is a classic example of what I call ‘conceptual flipping’ – i.e. taking a concept created by one’s opponent and then flipping it around. As Ofer Fridman shows in his recent book, Russian thinkers such as Aleksandr Dugin and Igor Panarin were accusing the West of waging information warfare against Russia for years before Westerners took the idea, flipped it around (on the basis of the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’) and began to accuse Russia of the same. Similarly, for some time now, Russians (most notably Sergei Glazyev) have been accusing the West of deliberately sowing chaos around the world in order to weaken potential rivals and secure American hegemony. Glazyev calls this ‘world chaotic warfare’. Doran and Jensen now flip this over: Russia, they say, is using a ‘strategy of chaos’ against the West. Specifically,

In recent years, Russian leaders and strategists have developed a set of methods aimed at spreading disorder beyond their borders for strategic effect. Their goal is to create an environment in which the side that copes best with chaos wins. The premise is Huntingtonian: that Russia can endure in a clash of civilizations by splintering its opponents’ alliances with each other, dividing them internally, and undermining their political systems.

Doran and Jensen call this strategy of chaos ‘Promethean’, a term used by Polish leader Josef Pilsudski to describe the policy adopted by Poland toward Russia in the inter-war period. Whereas Glazyev’s ‘world chaotic war’ is primarily economic in nature, Doran and Jensen’s ‘Prometheanism’ is centered around disinformation and propaganda, these being seen as the primary tools used by the Kremlin to sow chaos in the West. Despite its claims to be revealing something novel, Chaos as a Strategy therefore rapidly disintegrates into a simple repetition of all the normal claims about Russian disinformation, hybrid warfare, the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, and the like. Consequently, I found its analysis of Russian behaviour very unoriginal and not in the slightest interesting. It’s just one more example of analysts leaping on the information warfare bandwagon without adding anything new.

What is somewhat interesting, and perhaps a little bit scary, is the report’s recommendations. Doran and Jensen are of the view that the West has been far too reactive in the face of Russian information warfare, and believe that it ought to be taking the initiative. They recommend that the West should:

Prioritize the sequencing of the ‘carrots and sticks’ offered to the Kremlin. Sticks first. This means initially increasing the penalties imposed on Russia for continued revisionist behavior and the sowing of chaos. We can start with tougher sanctions, wider travel bans, greater restrictions on access to the global financial system, and financial snap exercises. Presently, some of these tools are used – but they are underused in most cases. This needs to change. Particularly, in the domain of information warfare, the West must hit back harder. … Our responses for now should serve the shorter-term goal of forcing Russia to place more defense and less offense. For this purpose, we should lessen our preoccupation with ‘provoking’ the Kremlin. It is hardly a basis of sound policy to prioritize Putin’s peace of mind.

Back in my youth, we used to talk about the importance of ‘confidence building measures’. The idea was that potential enemies could reduce the chance of conflict by reassuring each other that they did not have hostile intent and thereby giving one another ‘peace of mind’. But now, supposedly sane foreign policy ‘experts’ think that it’s a good idea to provoke nuclear-armed powers and that peace of mind is dangerous. What these experts seem to want is the very opposite of confidence building – the creation of paranoid foreign leaders who are continued worried about their security. This is most foolish. Fear is not a good basis for decision-making. Inciting fear in others, therefore, is not a good idea, and especially not a good idea when those others have some powerful resources at their disposal.

The whole point of provocation is that incites the provoked party to do something stupid. Doran and Jensen seem to think that this will help the West. The logic is that of a zero-sum game – if the Russians harm themselves by reacting to our provocations, the West gains. But the world doesn’t work like that. When provoked, people don’t generally back down and surrender – they strike out even harder than before. In the process the person doing the provoking finds that the problem he was trying to eliminate has become worse rather than better. Perhaps your enemy goes down, but he takes you down with him.

The problem we face at the moment is that rather than framing issues in terms of disagreements and seeking to come up with mutually acceptable ways of resolving those disagreements, too many people on both sides of the current East-West divide are framing issues in terms of threat and thus of ‘enemies’. Consequently, they devise ‘solutions’ designed to weaken the ‘enemy’ rather than resolve the underlying problems. Such solutions are not solutions at all, but risk accelerating the cycle of escalation. This report is a striking case in point.

I’ve come across some fairly irresponsible policy proposals in the past few years, but ‘let’s worry less about provoking the Kremlin’ takes irresponsibility to a new level. It reveals that for some in the West, escalating the confrontation with Russia is a deliberate choice. Russians will of course notice this, consider their fears justified, and respond accordingly. That response may not help them, but they have sharp claws, and it certainly won’t help us either. Poking the bear has become a popular pastime of late. We shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end well.