The Danger of Isolationism

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Russia has only two allies -- its army and navy." This phrase, which was originally uttered 150 years ago by Tsar Alexander III, has become quite popular over the past several years to describe Moscow's shortage of allies.

It isn't that Russia has no need for external allies and partners, but that relying on strategic partnerships in the modern world is a risky affair. The world is indeed a tough place, and the competition is cutthroat. Vladimir Putin's comments during the 2006 Russia-EU summit in Sochi perhaps best sums this up. When responding to European complaints about gaining access to Russian energy reserves, Putin said, "If our European partners expect us to let them into the holy of holies of our economy -- the energy sector ... then we expect reciprocal steps. This is like the boy who goes into his courtyard clenching a piece of candy tightly in his sweaty first. Other boys approach him and say, 'Hand over the candy,' and the boy answers, 'What do I get out of this?'"

Russia has become stronger, wealthier and more self-confident, but this doesn't always please other nations. This is part of the reason that Russia doesn't have a lot of friends in the world. If Russia suffers some kind of a political defeat, it tends to blame its woes on its opponents' machinations or pathological Russophobia.

This is why a strategic partnership with the United States hasn't panned out, why Russia still has no new agreement with the European Union, why relations with the Baltic states remain strained and why there has been no progress on integrating the former Soviet republics into a real alliance. It is also explains why there is no alliance with Belarus -- Russia's Slavic neighbor and its "closest ally" -- and why Moscow continues to be denied admission to the World Trade Organization.

Yes, the world is difficult, unpredictable and, at times, cruel. But is it correct to attribute all the country's failures and miscalculations on the machinations of the West? Is it wise to return to the old, worn-out idea of a global conspiracy against Russia? Does it make sense to reject from the very beginning the possibility of cultivating reliable allies in this difficult international environment?

On the surface, Russia seems to have gotten by on its own without strategic allies and can buy everything it needs with its seemingly endless oil wealth. But the primitive policy of "Let other nations hate us as long as they fear us" is doomed to fail in today's world.

Isolationism is a country's admission of its inability to cope with the realities of the modern world. Russia is again trying to fence itself off from the troublesome world with the help of an anti-Western campaign in the media and hooliganism directed at foreign embassies, as well as by pushing Western businesses out of its economy and demonstrating an unwillingness to be diplomatic and tactful when negotiating with difficult international partners.

Some people might consider a fortress to be an ideal home. Indeed, there are many people among bureaucrats, military personnel and businessmen who benefit from exaggerating the threat from the country's "enemies."

But isolationism and a siege mentality are self-destructive models. Russia cannot modernize its economy, develop human capital or derive any benefits from globalization if it does not integrate with the rest of the world. It should not be content with being "Europe's gas station," while naively gratifying itself with the notion that it is an "energy superpower."

Moreover, it should not define its foreign in terms of opposition -- opposing NATO expansion, opposing deployment of U.S. missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, opposing independence for Kosovo, opposing the EU's energy charter, opposing the British Council's activities within Russia and opposing Polish meat in Russian stores.

The Kremlin now has the opportunity to implement a truly global, modern and long-term foreign policy. What's more, other nations would benefit from a stronger Russia that is more active in international relations. We can play a significant role in setting the agenda for global affairs, reconciling conflicting interests and reforming outdated international organizations.

Many politicians believe that the goal of the Kremlin's foreign policy should be to demonstrate the country's newfound power and influence. But Russia's greatness lies not in its ability to block decisions it doesn't like, nor in distancing itself from the outside world through a model of sovereign democracy. Rather, it can best demonstrate its greatness by playing an active and constructive role in resolving the most difficult problems facing the world.

But most important, Russia needs to change its traditional attitude toward the rest of the world. After all, the world is not a playground where bullies can snatch candy away from a child. It is a common home that we must build and maintain together with our neighbors and partners.

Andrei Kortunov is president of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow.