During a talk on Russian foreign policy I gave in Berlin a couple of years ago, the political analysts in the audience complained about Moscow’s “inconsistency” and “unpredictability.”
I couldn’t help but agree with them on some points. It is true that Russia’s behavior is often based on contradictory domestic interests that have little in common with the national interest and on the duality (East-West) of its national mentality. Russia indeed has a propensity to be reactive on the world stage. In short, its foreign policy has been short on strategy. But I pointed out that this is true of all countries to varying degrees, and that a strategic foreign policy is all but impossible today. The world is changing, and no one knows where it is headed. None of the major international players knows what will happen in the medium, let alone long term.
This last point was met with incredulity bordering on outrage. One of the participants attempted to show me the error of my ways. While this may be so for some countries, he said, the European Union has a clear policy and will consistently execute it.
I expressed my reservations, but they fell on deaf ears.
This was two and a half years ago, if memory serves. When I look at what’s happening in Europe and America now, I often recall the words of that German political analyst. It is difficult to say if his overconfidence was borne of naivety or arrogance, but the world is now paying for it.
When the panic unleashed by the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 finally subsided last year, everyone thought they had learned their lesson. Few had thought that the West could be the main threat to global financial and economic stability.
Europe is now grappling with domestic problems, while the euro, the would-be second global reserve currency, has become a giant headache for Europe and the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, the United States has shown the main danger of hegemony: political polarization in the dominant country can plunge the entire global economy into a deep crisis.
In both the EU and the U.S., the problem is essentially political.
The EU’s inability to promote harmonious economic and political integration (it is impossible to have a common currency and 17 national economic policies) has had repercussions for the world.
The United States, for its part, has run up against a conceptual contradiction. The gradual realization that unconditional U.S. global leadership, a goal formulated in the late 20th century, is unmanageable has reignited age-old debates about the nature of America and its relations with the rest of the world.
Since globalization acts as a magnifying glass for any process, this debate in America has grown particularly heated, as exemplified by the political stalemate over raising the U.S. debt ceiling. Lost in the internal debate in America is the fact that global stability hangs in the balance. But the Americans don’t seem terribly concerned about the rest of the world.
The modern international environment is very complicated and even chaotic. Of course, the traditional principles of international relations, dating back to Thucydides and Machiavelli, are as true as ever. But they have come under assault by a host of new factors that distort traditional mechanisms and make clear-eyed analysis difficult.
In today’s interconnected world, the actions of individual politicians and countries, especially big ones, can have enormous consequences for the rest of the world. As our actions are guided by our own often skewed perception of reality, political actors must take greater care to minimize risks for the rest of the world.
Western domination in global politics and the global economy has prompted many questions, but there is still no organized opposition to it. Russia cannot challenge it, the Islamic world will spend many more years trying to understand itself, whereas the emerging economies either do not care about revisionism (Brazil and India) or think (like China) that the time is not right, that they should grow stronger before acting.
The current consensus is that it would be better to maintain the current global order for want of a better option. China is extremely dissatisfied with the U.S. Federal Reserve’s emission policy, which is depreciating the dollar, but has little choice but to play by the established rules.
The great paradox is that politicians in America and Western Europe, on whom the future of the world depends, have become the main obstacle to preserving the status quo and a smooth recovery from the crisis. Now is not the time for a showdown, especially in the United States, even if the arguments are valid.
The U.S. and Europe risk causing more damage to their reputation and standing than ever before because the recklessness of the Western elites and the discrepancy between their stated ambitions and actions have become more glaring than ever.
The policies of great powers have repeatedly resulted in catastrophe, especially in the 20th century, and this has gradually killed the illusion that people can learn from their mistakes.
Is Russia unpredictable? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t exaggerate – its randomness often follows a consistent pattern. But is the world at large predictable? The past two decades have seen all forecasts refuted more than once and have taught us only one thing – to be ready for any change. This column is on what the nations and governments are facing in the era of global uncertainty.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.
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