From Vancouver to Vladivostok

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President Dmitry Medvedev has made a number of foreign policy statements since taking office. His speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum has drawn the most attention, although it was lacking something new in content. But his June 5 speech in Berlin was remarkable, especially in the context of the rejection a week later of the Treaty of Lisbon, a document that represented a watered-down version of the failed European Constitution.

The theme of his Berlin speech was continuity -- a word popular in Russia now. But here, it was used in a broader sense than simply continuing the course set by Vladimir Putin when he was president. Continuity here refers to the whole period of Russia's re-emergence as a major player in the global arena. Medvedev's speechwriters tried to refute the widely held view that the country's foreign policy has been a zigzag of different courses that were adopted over the past 20 years. What follows logically from Medvedev's remarks is that Moscow's foreign policy had been more or less constant but that circumstances abroad had been changing during those years.

The idea of a "Euro-Atlantic space from Vancouver to Vladivostok" resonated strongly. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also called for a radical reconfiguration of the global system without existing political blocs. The idea of creating a European system of security is rooted in the perestroika period, although it resurfaced again in the 1990s. And the idea of an all-European summit as a means for creating a fundamentally new agenda has been put forward more than once.

What is different about the return to that idea now? Conditions in Europe have changed. When Gorbachev spoke of "new political thinking," world leaders perceived it in different ways, although few took it very seriously. While world leaders and analysts might have admired the unorthodox and progressive Soviet leader, many suspected ulterior motives on his part. Others were struck by Gorbachev's naivete.

Prudent realists ended up carrying the day. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the winners in the ideological confrontation began to measure the size of their new geopolitical prize. European politics moved in what the winners considered a natural direction -- the expansion of Western institutions rather than the creation of something new and universal.

During the next stage, Russia's international influence dramatically decreased for objective reasons. Although Russian diplomats had accomplished a great deal and held many good ideas in the 1990s, the balance of power in the world did not allow for their realization.

Then, under Putin's presidency, Russia changed its course. The hopes and expectations that observers pinned on his first term gradually gave way to disappointment and annoyance with Moscow by the end of his second. Nonetheless, Russia's foreign policy potential grew significantly, and this was one of Putin's most important accomplishments.

The European outlook has also changed over the last two decades. The euphoria that marked the unification of the Old World -- beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and culminating in the accession of the former Eastern bloc countries into the European Union and NATO early in this century -- started to fade midway through the current decade. It became clear that world events were developing differently than had been expected when the Soviet Union disintegrated, at which point some optimistic political scientists and analysts declared the "end of history."

The international system has come to a state of imbalance, and the pillar of Western politics -- trans-Atlantic unity -- is now in question. With the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a common threat, it became clear that the countries on either side of the Atlantic held divergent views. Although Europe and the United States share basic values, their understanding of how to apply those values are becoming noticeably different. Most important, the United States and the EU have almost no common political goals. Washington's predilection for using force to resolve global problems has created serious tensions with its European partners. Most of those countries have lost the desire for large-scale geopolitical power plays. If they still have ambition, it is focused closer to home.

There are several main factors that are creating a strong sense of uncertainty in global affairs: Asia's rapid economic growth, the political awakening of the Third World, the revival of national and religious consciousness in various parts of the planet and the instability in financial, food and energy markets. In this light, it is an oversimplification to interpret Medvedev's decision to make his first visit abroad to Kazakhstan and China -- instead of Europe -- as a rebuff to the West. More likely, it illustrates his recognition of global changes and the fundamentally new role that China plays in today's world.

The situation in the EU is also changing. The failure to ratify the Treaty of Lisbon essentially means that the hope for creating a federalized Europe -- that is, the creation of a supranational political identity -- has suffered a serious blow. Although this might create certain tactical problems in Moscow's relations with the EU, it could prove strategically advantageous for Russia. The return to European integration as an interstate union that does not encroach upon the sovereignty of member states leaves open the possibility of a new political configuration in Europe's future. And it could include Russia -- not as a member of the EU, but as a full-fledged participant in some type of European framework.

Changing global conditions create new opportunities for the concepts that Medvedev expressed in Berlin. The global situation is dictated by rigid rules, and it increasingly narrows the range of opportunities open to Europe and Russia. The United States' influence is decreasing, and it still seems unlikely that former dogmas -- especially those inherited from the Cold War -- will be revived. But what before seemed to be pointless dreams might soon turn out to be vital necessity.

Remembering all of the disappointments and failures that we experienced in international relations over the past several years, we should treat Medvedev's romantic ideal of a "Euro-Atlantic space from Vancouver to Vladivostok" as a serious new model for the new era in global affairs.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.