Notes of a Diplomacy Professional. S. Lavrov's Perspectives on the Past and the Future

14:57 31.10.2011 • Armen Oganesyan , Editor-in-Chief, International Affairs



Sergei Lavrov has been representing Russia as foreign minister in two dissimilar epochs, one marked by a fairly convincing growth of the world's economy, the other — by a deep global crisis which will likely continue into the foreseeable future. While those of the watchers who attempt to sound optimistic maintain that no causes for a lasting slide are inherent in the objective economic reality, it is an open secret to what extent subjectivity factors into modern history. As a result, the apprehension is running high that irrationality and chaos may easily prevail in today's world which, by the way, has never quite turned the page on its previous historical crisis triggered by the collapse of the bipolar system.

Paradoxically, the world shaped by untamed subjectivity must also depend increasingly on the balancing input from ahead-of-the-curve persons who generate unanticipated ideas and bold solutions. Credit must be given to S. Lavrov for offering a wealth of such ideas and solutions in his Between the Past and the Future, a collection of essays which, bearing a distinct imprint of Lavrov's unique personality, blends fluid policy analysis and much more fundamental philosophical regards.

S. Lavrov is known to show no signs of aloofness in interpersonal communication, his openness having nothing in common with the perfunctory democratism routinely shown off by the political top brass. Sincerity being a part of his wider creed, he often cites Russia's diplomacy genius A. Gorchakov who used to say that the best way to preserve accord with any government is to stay open about one's own views. Measuring today's politics against the standard, Lavrov remarks that  international affairs have become similar to what life used to be in Russia in the Soviet era, when serious themes could only be discussed in strict privacy, with precautions being taken to prevent those who were criticized from becoming aware of the invectives. Lavrov thoroughly explains to what extent the unhealthy climate currently harms the international community. By the way, Lavrov's statement that at the moment Russia is reliving a phase of inner concentration similarly carries a reference to Gorchakov's legacy.

It should be noted that, in addition to Gorchakov, Lavrov draws abundantly from P.A. Stolypin, the architect of a sweeping reform the Russian Empire implemented in its sunset days: “We suggest to the world exactly what we seek for ourselves:  an evolutionary development with no bumps down the road. The development must be completely organic and free of the kind of hyperactivity which is meant to impress but does not grow out of sustainable national interests in international policy or lacks existing internal potentials to back it”. Lavrov, similarly to Stolypin, believes in a large middle class as the guarantor of the stability of society and statehood, and, like Gorchakov and Stolypin, deems that not letting the international relations degenerate into confrontation is in all cases an optimal strategy.

Lavrov clearly means to cool confrontational expectations when he asserts that - even in the energy sphere - the present-day Russia harbors no hyper-power ambitions: “We are absolutely content with what we have at the moment, which is the status of one of the world's leading countries. We have no intention to dictate to our peers, we simply want to be heard and our views – to be taken into account”. Lavrov makes it clear, though, that the above does not mean Russia's giving up the right to criticize the US. Coining a formula which provides a stark criterion for differentiating leadership from hegemonism, he stresses that a global leadership bid is acceptable only if it generates “added value” in the form of seizable benefits for all. 

At the same time, Lavrov warns against anti-Americanism as a narrow-minded and risk-bearing approach which, if adopted, can lure Russia into serious confrontations. Those, as noted above, should be carefully avoided, and a period of neocons' grip on Washington's foreign policy is no reason to redefine the basics of Russia's vision of the US. Rather, “all of America's friends – and we surely count ourselves among them – should help the US land softly back in the multipolar reality”.

The theme of Western organizations' and alliances' eastbound expansion features prominently throughout Between the Past and the Future. NATO and the EU being phenomena of different nature, Lavrov, nevertheless, interprets the expansion of both as tightly interwoven political processes. “The EU and NATO are visibly losing flexibility and efficiency in pursuing their fundamental goals, which may sound like good news to those who hope that their eastward expansion will come as a prologue to  NATO's self-destruction and a collapse of Europe's integration project. The truth is that neither of the developments would be in the interests of Russia as a country with a sober worldview ready to help cultivate pan-European cooperation on the existing basis”, writes Lavrov. He, moreover, holds that “any ordered state of things is better than chaos”, a thesis likely to ignite controversy considering many of the episodes of the XX century history but understandable when put into the overall context of Lavrov's concept implying that genuine order should stem from inter-state or even global solidarity.

Russia's diplomacy chief does have to say that Russia, with its commitment to non-confrontational policy, permanently faces attempts to limit its options to either cooperating with the West on unilaterally-offered terms or to being locked in a conflict with the West. Lavrov, in response to the situation, cites former British ambassador to Moscow Roderic Lyne who called for fully recognizing Russia's right to defend its interests and to steer an independent course in international politics provided that the international law and the sovereignty of other countries are observed.

The search for a new set of values fit to serve as universal regulations and to help avert a crisis of global governance is an overarching theme in Lavrov's essays. According to Lavrov, the expectations that the democratic values would take the role have proved unrealistic as in the present-day world rivalries play out between entire civilizations with divergent axiological systems and irreconcilable and diffent of perceptions democracy.

For Lavrov, “critics of Russia's current development model have difficulty accepting that, with due regard for the universal democratic values, Russia would navigate its own way through the modern world rather than agree to any externally imposed trajectory, and would under no circumstances abdicate from its own historical traditions”. Moscow, furthermore, need not tolerate geopolitical games in the post-Soviet space aimed at implementing “ostensibly democratic agendas setting readiness to follow the West's lead as the key gauge of compliance with democratic standards”.

Repelling the criticism leveled at Russia over its combining parallel civilizational dimensions, Lavrov freely admits that such multidimensionality is Russia's traditional mode of existence and argues that the country can, as it has done throughout its history, act as a bridge between distinct cultures and civilizations. “The world's cultural and civilizational diversity will not disappear and needs to be respected”, opines Lavrov.

Upholding the world's diversity as the norm, Lavrov is at the same time immune to the fashion for relativism in handling value system issues. His strongly held view is that contemporary societies should be built on solid moral foundations which alone can cement relationships between nations, peoples and ethnic groups. Lavrov is open about his aversion to Pontius Pilatus-style indifference expressed in his famous reply “What is truth?”. Rather, he sees the crisis of the European society whose value system were eroded by what Z. Brzezinski described as “a civil war within the West” as the root cause of most of the XIX and XX century tragedies. Europe's dialog with other civilizations, writes Lavrov, will run into major roadblocks if it loses touch with its Christian roots, with the essentials of its original identity. Those who are oblivious to their own religious and moral basics cannot be expected to treat with respect the core religions of other civilizations. Lavrov quotes Francis Fukuyama who expressed the view that Friedrich Nietzsche's "Gott ist tot" (God is dead) was a thesis undermining the values of compassion, equality, and human dignity and predicts that it will take Western philosophy serious efforts to map a way out of the nihilistic quagmire. 

Between the Past and the Future abounds with aphorisms, one example being that “In politics, perceptions of reality occasionally outweigh reality”. The collection's crisp style makes one think of the authors “beauty of the mind”, a profound Byzantine concept which fell into disuse in the epoch dominated by B. Russell's arid brand of rationality.

Lavrov's essays are built around a set of key unifying  themes and combine seamlessly under a single cover. Hunger for a comprehensive political doctrine being a hallmark of our days, it is fair to say that Lavrov's  Between the Past and the Future, along with President D. Medvedev's definitive "Forward, Russia!" and V. Surkov's reflections on sovereign democracy, reads as a quintessential expression of the de facto ideology of the modern Russian statehood.

Rumor had it that, when J. Stalin appointed A. Gromyko instead of M. Litvinov as the Soviet Ambassador to the US, Roosevelt sent a message to Stalin asking why a real ambassador had to be replaced with a "mailbox". Time showed that Roosevelt's first-glance impression of the quietly professional Gromyko was completely false – he later rose to the posts of the USSR foreign minister and Politburo full member, and counted among the Soviet Union's key foreign-policy decision-makers on a par with heavyweights like D. Ustinov and Yu. Andropov.

In Russia, it is a presidential prerogative to chart the country's foreign-policy course, with Putin and Medvedev both extremely serious about this part of their mission. Staying unquestionably loyal to the incumbent, Lavrov never ended up serving as a "mailbox", not to mention the fact that as a professional he has proved many times to be superior to diplomacy ministers across the table. No doubt, Russia has every reason to be proud of its foreign minister.


Записки профессионала, или Сергей Лавров - о прошлом и будущем (RUS) 

Notes du professionnel, ou Serguei Lavrov : entre le passé et l’avenir (FRE)

Notizen eines Profis, oder Sergej Lawrow über Vergangenheit und Zukunft (GER)


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