Q: Stephen Sestanovich, whom you know as US special envoy for New Independent States in the Clinton administration, on 4 November in The Financial Times prophesied a complete failure of Russia’s foreign policy round the corner. What could be your comments on that, given, among other things, your experience as policy planning director at the MFA?
A: Stephen Sestanovich makes clear his reason for this prediction, i.e. he doesn’t like Russian diplomacy’s success in turning things around in international community’s response to the Syrian crisis. He does omit, however, a few facts of real consequence. Syria’s chemical disarmament under UNSC Resolution 2118, indeed, represents a common denominator for all, including Russia and the US. But we didn’t impose it on our partners. What we did is called providing leadership when our partners were confronted with impossible dilemmas. Britain resolved its own on 29 August through a vote of Parliament. The Obama administration faced a similar prospect in Congress. What is important is that the legislators of both countries reflected the prevailing mood of their public opinion. What is more, it was British Parliament that was the first to encourage President Obama to go to Congress on Syria, which ultimately led to UNSC unity.
Like in the spring of 2003, Russia makes part of a broader diplomatic pattern. 10 years ago France and Germany wouldn’t support granting a SC mandate to the US-led coalition to use force in Iraq on very shaky grounds of alleged possession of WMD by Iraq. What makes the difference now is that common sence and principle have prevailed. Stephen Sestanovich prefers to ignore that. To him Russia’s position as a basis for the restored unity of P-5 is, obviously, a cause of frustration.
It is true that Russia has always been advocating values of classic diplomacy, including finding negotiated solutions to internal and international conflicts and strict observance of the rule of law in international affairs. As a matter of fact, our Western partners over a period of 20 years after the end of the Cold War, by trial and error, including experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have come to accept, though reluctantly, the basic wisdom of that view of the world.
This is something he wouldn’t recognize. So, he focuses on other things, which, in my view, are not convincing. Why being on worse terms with countries of the Middle East, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States is any indication of Russia’s declining fortunes in the region? We are on talking terms with everybody and have friendly and productive relationships with many nations of the region. The latest talks by Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Shoigu in the Cairo are a good case in point.
The region is in the throes of a momentous transformation. Those countries are trying to manage it to their advantage, while facing the prospect of being shaped by it. We truly believe that non-interference and non-use of force is the best policy, which doesn’t mean giving up on international effort to help parties to the conflict find ways to a political solution. The idea of Geneva-2, put forward by Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry is, after all, precisely about that. That is why his assertion that President Putin’s approach yields too little benefit for anyone begs to be supported by facts.
As regards Eurasian integration, it makes economic and developmental sense in that region, as it does in other parts of the world. It makes part of a broader pattern of strengthening the regional level of governance at the era of deglobalisation. A particular problem is that our EU partners are not willing to make good on the agreed objective of fundamental compatibility of various integration schemes in the Euro-Atlantic. Judging by the developments preceding the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius later this month, we may still have time to achieve that common goal.
It seems to me that accepting the post-Cold War reality, be it multipolarity (still anathema in US political discourse) or polycentric world order taking shape, net-worked or multivector diplomacy, issues of development coming on top of national and international agendas or diminished value of crude military force in world politics, is the real problem for Stephen Sestanovich. Unlike, for example, James Sherr, who in his recent book on Russia’s foreign policy admits to doing his analysis from the position of a Western-centric view of the world, he, in fact, proceeds from the assumption that a US-centric world order or a benign American global empire are forever. And that smacks of intellectual dishonesty all the more so, that unlike in early 90-ies with the “victory in the Cold War” euphoria, we are now witnessing a systemic crisis of the West, including mutation of liberal capitalism towards rent-seeking either in the form of sovereign debt, other debt instruments or various schemes to allow private investors to access taxpayers’ dollar/pound on a long-term basis.
It brings us to the issue of status quo, since all the critique of Russia as a revisionist power (and that is implied in Stephen Sestanovich’s article) means accusing us of undermining or subverting the perceived status quo. But what kind of status quo now that everybody talks of tectonic shifts in global landscape? Russian Ambassador in Vienna at the turn of the XXth century Pyotr Kapnist wasn’t a bright star of our diplomacy, but he coined the phrase that maintaining a status quo cannot be a final objective of any policy, which sounds to me a universal truth.
Any status quo is an illusion, a costly one for that. Russia has no stakes in the present state of affairs if it means preservation of the West’s domination of world politics, economy and finance. We are concerned over our place in a world taking shape around the UN, which was designed as collective security system for a polycentric international order. At the time of the Cold War it was distorted by the bipolar confrontation, which, by the way, made the XXth century a Russo-American century as Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in his Democracy in America.
This book is often quoted in the US, but very selectively. Its critical part is rarely mentioned. Though an aristocratic criticism of American experience, including conformism, intolerance of dissent and mediocratisation of public life and political elites, it explains a lot in the state of the US today. In particular, it explains why the US Government and elite grossly misjudged the post-Cold War reality, allowing itself to be carried away by the end-of-history notion (Francis Fukuyama, reflecting that mood, simply called a spade a spade). Stephen Sestanovich is part of that elite and must share responsibility for pushing America onto the path of self-distruction and self-defeat. The policies of the Bush administration merely made it obvious. But the guilt is collective and cross-party. The majority of academia just shut up in the years of the Bush administration, presumably, for patriotic reasons. Some foreigners, by the way, like Chris Patten, publicly called for a reasoned debate.
Alexander Pushkin in his draft of the famous letter of 19 October 1836 to P.Chaadaev wrote that A.de Tocqueville’s book had frightened him. Konstantin Leontiev at the end of the XIXth century developed a theory of secondary simplification as a stage of decline of a civilization. Personalities really matter as American history proves. Personalities like Abraham Lincoln, F.-D.Roosevelt and John Kennedy. They made difference as strong personalities capable and willing to go against the mainstream. All the three had undergone sort of personal transformation.
Now that we mark 50 years since John Kennedy’s assassination, it is depressingly clear, as never before, that his death robbed America and the world of a better future. The old America, through futile, dumbing motions of wars, intelligence coups and greed, coopted the baby-boomer generation into the nation’s march to the present impasse. The War in Vietnam and the entire Cold War national narrative were indispensable in nipping in the bud the promise of radical transformation of the American society, represented by the Kennedy presidency. That helped to keep people organized around the Orwellian consumerist trough, which was, as prophesied Alexander Pushkin and made obvious by the present crisis, doomed to get broken. Worst of all, the people, who claim to own America, ensured that succeeding generations wouldn’t develop the intellect, imagination and creative potential sufficient to bring about a real change. I cannot agree more with Simon Schama (The Financial Times of 16/17 November) in that John Kennedy and his presidency provided a perfect material for the study of profound connection between beauty and the truth.
Dr. Rowan Williams’ research on Dostoevsky shows why personality matters. To possess that capacity an individual ought to have a narrative of his own. For example, Prince Myshkin in the Idiot doesn’t have this life experience and, so, cannot save Nastasya Philippovna. In that he is as impotent as Nikolai Stavrogin. Sonya in the Crime and Punishment has that narrative, of which her religious beliefs make huge part, and helps Raskolnikov find his way to salvation, which requires repentance and redemption. Those categories seem to be beyond S.Sestanovich’s comprehension.
I wholly agree with Dr. Rowan Williams that Dostoevsky’s ideas are equally important for politics. Thus, open-endedness of human narrative denies the very notion of an end of history, or the last word as long as a person or nation lives. Lawrence Freedman in his latest book on Strategy, in fact, comes to the same conclusion at a practical level, starting with military strategies. I would add that those were, and hope still are, Russia’s history and identity that made it possible, at various times and always against immense odds, to defeat Napoleon and Nazi Germany.
Stephen Sestanovich seems taking it as personal offense that Russia helped Washington out, when it had driven itself into the corner. This magnanimity puzzles him, for based on his view of Russia we were supposed to do the opposite, similar to what Zb. Brzezinski, by his own admission, did to get the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan. Of course, our motives are suspect to him since such behavior doesn’t fit into American strategic mentality. But why cannot that be a cultural difference? After all, on Stephen Sestanovich’s watch in the administration we did pretty much the same at the Americans request, when helped them to find a way out of the futile bombing of Serbia. Later Strobe Talbott, his boss in the State Department, admitted in an interview that NATO solidarity would have cracked, had the bombing continued for another week.
By the way, it is instructive to know what we got in return from our American partners. When our militaries discussed in Helsinki the arrangements for our participation in KFOR in Kosovo, an agreement was reached on the basis of some maps that our brigade (two battalions) would de facto control a sector. Later, on the ground, it turned out that those maps were incorrect and the two areas, each responsibility of a battalion, didn’t, after all, make a contiguous territory. So, it was then, in Helsinki, at the drawing board of our presumably joint military planning, that withdrawal of our brigade from Kosovo really started.
It may sound petty, but this petty-mindedness (how does it relate to the claims to Grand Strategies?) has been pervasive in the US/West’s policy towards Russia post-Cold War. In pursuit of having their way on specific foreign policy issues, which as it turned out on successive occasions, was untenable and represented intrinsic desire to continue living in a world that was fast disappearing, the sight was lost of the fundamental objective of engaging Russia on a sustainable foundation of equality and respect for each other’s interests.
Dr. Rowan Williams also concludes that silence as opposed to speech and disengagement are a sign of spiritual and, ultimately, physical death. Yes, President Obama postponed his visit to Russia. But President Putin, nevertheless, chose to talk to him in Saint-Petersburg. Now we know that the idea of Syria’s chemical disarmament was born out of that talk.
This escapism, maybe not that much institutionalized as in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, still, is innate for the US political elite. And here again, Russia seems to be standing in the way. As Virginia Woolf wrote on illusions, “he who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life”. Tom Graham explained (in his recent article in the then IHT) why Russia is blamed for all America’s ills. We were supposed to admit our perceived defeat in the Cold War, which is only complete when the defeated subscribe to domestic and other policies of the victors, i.e. give up their inalienable right to freedom to decide for themselves and, ultimately, freedom of thought. Lawrence Freedman explains this intuitive devotion of the West to things simplistic, not going beyond math. This attachment was proved by us to be wrong in 1812 and 1945. Why should it be any different now?
Our Prime Minister at the turn of the XXth century Sergey Witte said that “Russia’s best and truest ally is time”. It somewhat explains our foreign policy philosophy today. Unlike Sun Tzu (quoted by Lawrence Freedman), I would draw parallels with Laozi, his worship of non-action, moderation and humility. Most of all, if applied to policy-making, it is about sober analysis and the ability to see things as they are, in particular, defining trends of global development. It’s bare minimum in the art of creating power. If not riding atop the tide, one could then at least have time and history on his/her side. Which is where we all, hopefully, are now in Syria, and probably, in Iran. In the latter case nobody must forget that the “3 plus 3” provides a multilateral cocoon for Washington and Tehran to resolve their bilateral differences, which lie at the core of the nuclear programme problem, and other players shouldn’t interfere with that.
It may be coincidence, that S.Sestanovich’s piece was published on the same page where Edward Luce wrote on irrelevance of politics of power and control, when the US soft power is damaged by things like the Edward Snowden affair. Edward Luttwak, a leading American military strategist, recently tried to explain to the Russian public opinion (for Senator John McCain couldn’t find The Pravda newspaper for his piece), why America is an exceptional power. He didn’t say whether it means, among other things, abuse of one’s privileged position in the international monetary system and a life at the expense of the rest of the world (to the tune of $1 tn or 8% of the GDP, a combined figure of Federal Budget’s deficit and Current Account deficit on the eve of the present crisis).
What he didn’t say either is that this idea is rooted in the views of Protestant fanatics, who didn’t accept the settlement of the Glorious Revolution and insisted on their self-appointment as chosen people, the position never vacant in Christianity. The real question is what impact thus borrowing, or rather usurping, another nation’s narrative will have upon both the Middle East and the future of a particular shade of capitalism in a global environment where issues of identity become key. As we can see from the history of the Soviet Union, quasi-religious claims to universality or possession of the ultimate truth (what other evidence is required to prove the Reformation’s influence in our history?) can be disastrous for all. Why not come back to the New Testament, or simply, as D.H.Lawrence put it (in Mellors’ letter to Connie), to the trust in something beyond ourselves?
S.Sestanovich’s choice of words implies either subservience or subordination for Russia vis-à-vis America. It is a far cry from reality. That is why it would be good for all if the US tried to be a normal country, as Russia has been doing since 1991, however much our Western partners’ foreign policy choices interfered with that process. As other nations, including Britain, also start thinking of doing. After all, losing an empire was not exceptional after WWI and after WWII. It has not been exceptional after the Cold War either.
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