Shrunken, Proud and Awkward

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The greatest disappointment of the post-communist era has been the failure of the West -- particularly Europe -- to build a successful relationship with Russia. Most policymakers and experts expected that, after an inevitably troublesome period of transition, Moscow would join the United States and Europe in a strategic and economic partnership, based on shared interests and values. The pace of change might be doubtful, but not its direction.

Today, shared interests have shrunk and values have diverged. A resurgent Russia is the world's foremost revisionist power, rejecting a status quo predicated on the notion of a Western victory in the Cold War. Its two superpower assets -- nuclear weapons and energy -- make it a potential leader of all those lesser powers dissatisfied with their position in the world. A potential Russia-China axis based on shared resistance to U.S. hegemony carries the seeds of a new bipolarity.

Western expectations of post-communist Russia's trajectory rested on three assumptions that proved to be mistaken. First, most of Moscow's elite rejected the view that the loss of empire was irreversible. Second, Washington's unilateralism shattered the belief that the United States would continue to provide the world with "multilateral" leadership; indeed, U.S. unilateralism was a cue for the Kremlin to pursue its own unilateral policy. Third, Russia has not yet become economically integrated with the West, especially Europe, as was expected.

What happens when the pull of a country's imperial history meets the constraints of its current international position? Will it try to weaken the constraints? Or will it adjust to them? The first option may involve international conflict, and the second option -- domestic conflict.

I believe that the attempt by the Kremlin to impose "liberal empire" or "sovereign democracy" on the post-Soviet states will fail. Of course, Russia is bound to exercise strong influence in the former Soviet territories, but it will have to share that influence with others. Moscow has too little to offer for exclusive dominance.

The European Union, the United States and China offer the former Soviet republics opportunities for balancing against Russia. Of course, it is not very difficult to envision the voluntary reincorporation of the ethnic Russian populations of Belarus, eastern Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan into the Russian Federation -- but only in a context in which Moscow emerges as a true regional leader on a par with the EU. Alternatively, Russia might discover a new business center of gravity in Central Asia and East Asia, though this would hardly be the "liberal empire" that Unified Energy System head Anatoly Chubais once imagined, for it would be based on the mutual attraction of autocrats.

Russia also will not transform its economic system along British or U.S. lines. Apart from their incapacity to do so, the Kremlin is well aware of the faults of the British-U.S. model. We may see some compromise between European capitalism and an authoritarian, protectionist model with a lot of industrial policy. This is the kind of choice that sovereign countries are entitled to make for themselves.

The territorial and economic imperatives of empire will continue to make it difficult for Moscow to develop a political system that conforms to Western norms. The middle class will expand, but there is no assurance that it will become "liberal" in the Western sense. So Russia's political system will probably remain autocratic for the foreseeable future, with a facade of democracy. While this is disappointing, it is an improvement on anything the country has ever experienced, except briefly.

It is hard to see Russia offering the world a new type of universalism, as it once did with communism. The country's strain of political messianism is pretty much exhausted. Nevertheless, Russia may be able to develop an attractive alternative out of its own spiritual and cultural resources to both the U.S. and European models, provided it achieves long-run economic success.

If Moscow fails in its attempt to become an independent center of power to rival the United States -- and eventually China -- what role will it play? A suggestive analogy may be to France during the long period of British-U.S. hegemony. Broadly speaking, France has been the "awkward partner" in the British-U.S. club, a role it played right up to its orchestration of opposition to the Iraq war in 2003.

Twice in the 20th century -- in 1931 and again in 1969 and 1970 -- France helped to bring down the world monetary system. Charles de Gaulle took France out of the NATO military alliance in 1966. France, uniquely in Western Europe, built its own, independent nuclear deterrent, and it has been a champion of creating a European military capacity outside NATO. Without explicitly challenging U.S. leadership, France tried to build its own "Ostpolitik" with Russia, and to use its axis with Germany to create a European position on foreign policy.

France has been the most insistent that Europe has interests that are not identical to Washington's -- particularly in the Middle East, where Paris has been pro-Arab. And, like de Gaulle, Putin has sought to rescue his country from humiliation and defeat by carving out a role consonant with popular feelings of national mission and pride, with national interest interpreted as "sovereignty."

The Gaullist dream of creating an independent power center never succeeded, but the role of "awkward partner" has given a distinctive flavor to French diplomacy, and it may be equally viable for a shrunken, proud, but no longer hegemonic Russia. Being an awkward partner may offer the Kremlin its best hope of reconciling its yearning for independence with the realities of the modern world.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University and a board member of the Moscow School of Political Studies. © Project Syndicate.