Whose Global Governance? Explaining the Evolution of Russia’s Approach to Global Governance, 1945-2016

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The global governance literature has generally addressed the provision of global public goods, mechanisms to solve collective action problems, and national strategies towards specific regimes and institutions. However, systematic inquiries on the role of norms and worldviews in the conduct of global governance remain scarce, especially for rising powers. This study thus offers a historical comparative analysis of Russia’s approaches to global governance during three case periods (1945-1989, 1990-1999, and 2000-2016), which are systematically compared to those of the United States. Focusing on the contestation of these different worldviews, the paper demonstrates that Russia’s approach to global governance is deeply grounded in a state-centric worldview that emphasizes international competition, great power management, classical sovereignty, and centralized authority. This is often at odds with new governance innovations associated with the liberal approach espoused by the United States, which is characterized by global community-building, multilateralism, conditional sovereignty, and decentralized authority. In sum, what Russia envisions is not a radical revision of the global governance system, but rather the preservation of the traditional state-centric approach inherited from past centuries.


Introduction: A Worldviews Approach to Global Governance

The peaceful end of the Cold War once raised high hopes for international peace, but it did not take long for this collective dream to turn into shared despair. After more than two decades of trial-and-error, Russian-Western relations remain highly transactional, marked by ad-hoc arrangements and a minimal level of mutual respect. Since the 2014 onset of the Ukrainian crisis, this fragile equilibrium has further degenerated into profound enmity. Commentators tend to reduce explanations of this emerging rivalry to the return of geopolitics (e.g. Mearsheimer 2014). This paper does not dismiss this perspective; however, taking a constructivist approach, it demonstrates that the widening gulf between Russian and Western visions of global governance has played a crucial part in renewed confrontation. Indeed, Vladimir Putin contends that this clash is fundamentally about the “confrontation between different visions of how to build the global governance mechanisms in the twenty-first century”. (Putin 2016) This question of the politics of global governance – who makes what rules, for which purpose, to serve which vision of the future – is a valuable addition to our understanding of the role of rising powers in contemporary international relations.

Since the research program on global governance began in the late 1980s, relevant literature has generally addressed: (1) the provision of global public goods (e.g. international regime analysis); (2) innovative mechanisms to solve collective action problems (e.g. transnational policy networks and global public-private partnerships); and (3) national strategies directed towards specific governance regimes, institutions, and networks.1 In the context of the role of rising powers, academic debates have mainly focused on the challenges and opportunities of accommodating these actors in the existing (primarily Western-led) architectures of global governance (Ikenberry and Wright 2008), as well as on each rising power’s approach to specific international and/or regional institutions (Haibin 2012).

While these studies have produced important insights over time, they remain compartmentalized, scattered across different policy domains with little cross-fertilization. As a result, contemporary analysis remains narrow and lacks the holistic approach required to comprehend the underlying political visions, broad worldviews, and local contexts that inevitably shape each power’s overall approach to global governance. This is especially true for rising powers. This knowledge gap reflects a prevailing view in among scholars that inquiries of global governance should focus on the complex linkages between state and non-state actors. Some go as far as to proclaim that “As an analytical approach, global governance rejects the conventional state-centric conception of world politics and world order. The principal unit of analysis is taken to be global, regional or transnational systems of authoritative rule-making and implementation.” (McGrew and Held 2002: 9)

My starting point is that this mainstream discourse of decentralized, “liberal” global governance itself is already a reflection of the predominant American and European worldview on how global governance ought to be conceptualized. As Andrew Hurrell (2007: 20) insightfully argues, “the language of ‘international order’ or ‘global governance’ is never politically neutral. Indeed a capacity to produce and project proposals, conceptions, and theories of order is a central part of the practice of power.” In line with this view, this paper problematizes the very notion of global governance by seeing it neither as a unitary arena of technocratic policy implementation, nor as the domain of value-neutral cooperation among state and non-state actors. Rather, I argue that it is a field of struggle for legitimacy where major actors propose and promote their respective visions of how best to govern the world, often in cooperation with normatively-aligned partners.

In this light, major powers in world politics – hereafter most generically referred to as “great powers”– still play a disproportionately influential role in the process of global rule-making (Zhao 2016). This is the case not only because of their sheer economic weight, but also because they retain the ability to shape certain discourses and practices of global governance – either by supporting and facilitating those they favor, or by obstructing and delegitimizing those they reject. Great power status, in this sense, requires something much more than the simple preponderance of material capabilities. In short, to be a great power is to be a global governor with responsibility, leadership, and a degree of commitment to the maintenance of international order and the provision of global public goods. Shedding light on the visions of powerful states is certainly not about denying the salience of non-state actors, but about investigating how and to what extent these influential state actors do (or do not) frame and shape the overall political environment within which diverse global governance interaction occurs.

Coming back to Russia, a number of constructivist scholars and commentators have acknowledged that Russian great power aspirations dating back centuries endures (e.g. Ward 2014). Yet only a few have paid a closer attention to the implications of this for Russia’s engagement in global governance. Even more troubling, many constructivist studies on Russia tend to uncritically embrace cultural essentialism by arguing that the Russian history of highly state-centric, non-liberal domestic governance makes it destined to endlessly replicate this approach in the international arena, effectively ignoring the dynamics of stunning transformations experienced by Russian state, elites, and citizens in recent decades. To address these critical deficits, this paper aims to offer a systematic account of the link between Russia’s worldview and its approach to contemporary global governance while also accounting for political transformations and interactions with other major actors, by asking: how have Russia’s approaches to global governance evolved over the last seven decades, and how has the Russian approach interacted with other worldviews and approaches?

As a working definition, worldview in this study refers to an official vision of an international actor about how the world ought to be governed, which underpins and orients its overall approach towards the discourses and practices of global governance. It must be noted here that worldviews are always contested; no worldview is “natural’ or pre-determined, just as no society is homogenous. I focus on the mainstream worldview of those in power for the sake of analytical parsimony, but this is certainly not intended to dismiss the diversity of political values contained in each polity.

Methodologically, this study consciously departs from a simplistic approach that relies on dichotomous constructions, such as democracy vs “autocracy” or liberal vs “illiberal”, which are unable to capture the complex dynamics of adaptation, transformation, and interaction. Instead, the matrix approach proposed here defines worldview as an organic constellation of several ideational elements. To narrow down the scale of analysis, I pay particular attention to how each actor defines legitimate discourse and practice on four key dimensions of global governance: (i) governing principle (competition and the balance of power and/or cooperation and global community-building); (ii) governance mechanism (great power management and/or multilateral legalization); (iii) state sovereignty and intervention (classical sovereignty of non-interference and/or conditional sovereignty of state responsibility); and (iv) international authority (centralized to mainly state actors and/or decentralized to a complex network of state and no-state actors).2

As shown in Table1. below, half of these elements are grounded in the worldview of statism (which tends to see global governance as the conduct of state actors, led by great powers and maintained by the balance of power),3 while the rest derive from the worldview of liberalism (which tends to see global governance as a shared practice of state and non-state actors, institutionalized by multilateral legal instruments, and maintained by shared aspirations of global community-building). Avoiding the limitations of dichotomy, the matrix table allows for the simultaneous presence of two elements in each dimension. For instance, the global non-proliferation regime is driven a hybrid mechanism of great power management (by nuclear states) and multilateral legalization. Here, asking if the regime is a manifestation of great power management or multilateralism makes little sense, since it is the fusion of these elements which makes up the architecture of the regime. What I am interested in is not whether Russia’s worldview is statist or liberal, but to what extent Moscow embraced certain elements of statist and liberal visions, and more importantly, how the overall constellation of these elements have (or have not) changed over time.

Table 1: Worldviews Matrix

To add a comparative angle, my analysis focuses on interaction and contestation between Russian and American worldviews on global governance, since the United States remains the lead global governor after 1945. This study thus offers a historical comparative analysis of Russian visions on global governance during three case periods -1945-1989, 1992-1999, and 2000-2016 – which are systematically compared to those of the United States. These case periods were selected to reflect major transformation of international and domestic environments, delineated by the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the rise of Vladimir Putin after Boris Yeltsin’s resignation (2000).

Before moving on to the comparative analysis of worldviews, key limitations of my framework need to be sketched out. To begin with, there is an important difference between established and rising powers in global governance in terms of their overall influence on global governance structures and outcomes (Kahler 2013). Needless to say, there also remains significant military, political, economic, social, cultural, and other forms of disparities between Russia and the United States throughout the selected case study periods, especially after the end of the Cold War. Finally, there are also contextual differences between, for instance, the Soviet-American relationship in the 1960s and the Russian-American relationship in the 2010s.4

As such, this study does not by any means posit that the weight of Russian (or Soviet) influence on global/international governance discourses and practices has been constant or always comparable to that of the United States. Indeed, Russia in the early 1990s exhibited much less ambition to play the role of global governor than the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, or Russia under Vladimir Putin. Despite these terminological and contextual differences, however, I argue that my framework of comparative analysis is legitimate for the stated research purpose because its unit of analysis is the mainstream global governance worldview expressed by the political elites of each country (for a similar approach, see Tocci 2008; Lennon and Kozlowski 2008; Nau and Ollapally 2012). In other words, the central aim of this paper is not to investigate the causal extent to which Russia/the Soviet Union or the United States have determined empirical global governance outcomes (which would require a drastically different research design), but to compare and contrast the evolution of Russian and American political elite worldviews on global governance over an extended period of time; and, more importantly, demonstrate how they have interacted with and counteracted  each other in different contextual settings.

In this sense, I employ the comparative axis of American worldview not as a benchmark against which the Russian worldview is explained, but because – as the United States has been the “significant Other” for Russian policymakers (Tsygankov 2004) – Russian discourses on global/international governance have been often shaped and reshaped in reflection of, and under the influence of, American worldviews (and possibly vice versa). With the awareness of the methodological limitations articulated above, the following sections present detailed historical comparative analysis of Russian and American worldviews on global governance during the three case periods. The final section concludes with an analytical synthesis of these three accounts, and outlines potential avenues for future research.

Case Period I (1945-1989): Great Governors in Checks and Balances

As the Second World War completely shattered the architectures of imperial governance, the worldviews of the Soviet Union and the United States played a uniquely influential role in constructing global governance in the post-war world. Regarding basic governing principles, Moscow and Washington both shared the general conviction that the world should be governed by a concert of superpowers – a system in which competing ideologies of socialism and capitalism checked and balanced each other. American leaders envisioned that “Russia and America were to be cast in the role of two super-policemen, supervising East and West, under the aegis of the United Nations… President Roosevelt was immutably convinced that he, and he alone, could bring about this unlikely miracle.” (Wheeler-Bennett and Nicholls 1972: 296).

As Soviet and American elites (at least tacitly) shared this notion of the concert of superpowers, great power management emerged as a prime mechanism of international governance after the war. Despite the initial period of heated confrontation and occasional clashes in the Third World, the two superpowers gradually developed a modus operandi of interacting with each other based on the principles of reciprocity and mutual respect (Matheson 1982). In this context, Raymond’s research on superpower actions in major events (e.g. 1954 Guatemalan, 1956 Hungarian, 1965 Dominican, and 1968 Czechoslovakian crises) revealed that informal agreements on the mutual acceptance of each other’s sphere of influence largely shaped the ways these events were managed (Raymond 1997: 225). While Washington consciously avoided strong condemnation of Soviet actions in the Eastern European uprisings, Moscow also prudently avoided open support for socialist revolutionary movements in NATO member states, such as Greece (George 1986: 252). These informal deals were sometimes made more explicit. For example, the 1972 Basic Principles Agreement declared that: “Differences in ideology and in the social systems of the USA and the USSR are not obstacles to the bilateral development of normal relations based on the principles of sovereignty, equality, non-interference in internal affairs and mutual advantage.”

The format of great power management practiced during the Cold War period was unique in the sense that it departed from naked realpolitik, and instead involved a considerably high degree of multilateralism and legalization both at the global and regional levels. As Hans Morgenthau (1954) famously put, “[t]he international government of the United Nations….is really the international government of the United States and the Soviet Union acting in unison.” Indeed, this was precisely what President Roosevelt meant by a policy of “containment by integration,” emphasizing that a stable postwar order required “offering Moscow a prominent place in it; by making it, so to speak, a member of the club.” (Gaddis 2005:9) By design, international governance in a bipolar world involved complex dynamics of competition, consultation, and negotiation.  It was the confluence of great power management and multilateral legalization that defined the landscape of international governance during the Cold War.

In the worldview of the Soviet Union, the commitment to international organizations was never merely posturing; quite the contrary, it offered substantial legitimizing foundation on which to justify its assumed role of great governor. While Moscow maintained a complex structure of command and control in its sphere of influence, it also regarded multilateral institutions as an indispensable avenue of international governance (Abbott and Snidal 1998: 8). Interestingly, there was a general perception in Moscow that the Soviet commitment to multilateralism was “exploited” by others. For instance, the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) obliged Moscow to export raw materials to its allies at prices well below world-market price, while at the same time importing an immense amount of manufactured products from Eastern Europe at considerably high prices in light of its low quality (Korbonski 1970: 965, 971). While this arrangement placed a disproportionate economic burden on the Union, Moscow continued honoring these commitments under the strong insistence of Eastern European elites. This example demonstrates that the Soviets were not purely driven by the pursuit of material interest, but were equally concerned with leadership in multilateral institutions which was regarded as an essential part of its responsibility to govern.

The international debate on state sovereignty largely evolved within these complex governance arrangements. Embodied by the UN Charter and later reaffirmed by the Helsinki Final Accord, sovereignty and non-interference continued to be central principles of the post-war international order. In practice, however, it was a complex constellation of these ideas that defined the Soviet and American worldviews on intervention. While the two superpowers generally accepted the imperative of state sovereignty, both held a view that the prerogative of great power management, and more specifically, the rights and duties conferred in terms of sphere of influence, stood above other norms. Hence, it is not that sovereignty had no place in the bipolar world, but that, instead, it was largely subordinated to the cardinal principle of great power management.

In the late 1960s, however, Leonid Brezhnev developed an alternative conception limited sovereignty – better known as the Brezhnev doctrine– that departed from the classical Westphalian notion. First invoked in the Czechoslovakian uprising of 1968, it advanced a communitarian understanding that sovereignty and self-determination of each socialist state cannot stand in opposition to the universal values of global socialism. Therefore, when a socialist government attempts to make “imprudent” decisions, it becomes the right – and indeed the duty– of the international socialist community to intervene and restore the “rightful” order. In other words, sovereignty was not a naturally given trait, but was conditional upon continued commitment to the universal values of socialist internationalism.5

In the global arena, however, this new understanding of sovereignty did not resonant widely. As Hasmath (2012: 9) insightfully observed, the idea of conditional sovereignty was at best a regional norm only applicable within the socialist international community. It only posited that any action to reverse the tide of socialist revolution must be stopped with international intervention; hence, it could not be invoked to interference into capitalist countries, for instance, or in those countries that had never experienced any sort of socialist awakening. In this sense, conditional sovereignty was not much about sovereignty per se, but more about the sanctity of spheres of influence. It was this duality of the Soviet worldview on state sovereignty that characterized its approach to international governance: that all states were equally sovereign in a legal sense, but those within a sphere of influence were in practice only semi-sovereign (i.e. bound by a duty to adhere to community norms). Great powers, on the other hand, were in practice more sovereign than the rest, due to a perceived responsibility to govern their respective spheres as entailed by their privileged position in international relations.

The conjunction of these ideas, particularly the salience of superpower leadership, largely determined the structure of international governance. As both Soviet and American elites held highly state-centric worldviews which favored a more centralized style of international rule-making, many of the important governance outcomes during this time resulted from superpower negations entangled with concert diplomacy – with little or very limited participation of non-state actors. These outcomes included, among others, the UN Charter, the Austrian State Treaty, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. As human rights historian Samuel Moyn convincingly demonstrates, even a seemingly-cosmopolitan agreement, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was a direct product of great power negotiation and state-centrism; it “retains, rather than supersedes, the sanctity of nationhood, as its text makes clear.” (Moyn 2012: 81)

While the global governance literature addresses the meteoric rise of non-state actors in recent decades (Slaughter 2004), what goes generally unnoticed is the dense networks of socialist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) before and during the Cold War era. While the Soviet worldview remained largely state-centric for the reasons explained above, it is erroneous to ignore the complex ties and transnational networks that socialist civil society actors harnessed over the course of the last century – which, in the eyes of Moscow, offered a unique opportunity to bolster the global moral leadership of the Union. Indeed, the “Stalin constitution” of the Soviet Union adopted in 1936 described voluntary citizen organizations as a crucial building-block of global socialism.

Founded in 1864, the International Workingmen’s Association – better known as the First International– was perhaps the world’s first secular transnational civil society organization, with more than five million members across and beyond Europe (Payne 1968: 372). Its footprint remains on a great number of international movements calling for labor rights, non-discrimination, gender equality, social cohesion, public ownership, poverty reduction, self-determination, anti-colonialism, and much more. In this context, the discourse of the “withering away of the state” – a Marxist idea that the rise of global socialism coupled with a dense network of self-governing non-governmental forces would eventually make nation-states obsolete in world politics – was proclaimed by Friedreich Engels more than a century ago (Muggah 2016). As the early twentieth century was marked by the notable presence of socialist NGOs, one of the earliest studies on international NGOs featured prominently with the Socialist International, along with labor/trade unions and religious organizations seeking for global change (White 1951). This socialist momentum eventually inspired the emergence of NGOs during and after the Second World War, such as the World Federation of Democratic Youth, the International Union of Socialist Youth, World Peace Council, the World Federation of Trade Unions, the International Union of Students and the Christian Peace Conference – many of which received covert or overt financial and moral support from the Soviet Union (Saari 2014), just as a plurality of today’s liberal NGOs are connected to  Western governments by a complex network of funding and a career system of revolving door.

Despite the presence of these civil society actors aspiring to operate beyond the borders of the Eastern hemisphere, their collective impact on international governance outcomes was largely negligible; presumably because the state-centric worldview of Soviet leadership meant it did not actively push for greater involvement of these NGOs in international governance. Perhaps more importantly, the U.S. government primarily saw the rise of anti-capitalist civil society actors as a threat to the liberal international order. Deeply fearing socialist uprisings, the 1954 Communist Control Act of 1954 (still in place today) outlawed the Community Party of the United States, and moreover, criminalized memberships and civic participation in any civil society organization which supported socialist aims.6 For the same reason, many anti-war activists, such as renowned linguist Noam Chomsky and writer Norman Mailer, were occasionally arrested and imprisoned.

This political “cleansing” of anti-capitalist voices resulted in the ideological homogenization of American civil society. Only after the relative decline of socialist internationalism in the early 1980s did the new conservatism of Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher revisit the idea of civil society as a means to “outsource” the provision of public goods. In this sense, ironically, the rapid rise of non-state actors in the late 1980s owes much to the state strategies of superpowers. In the midst of the Cold War, however, the statist consensus between Moscow and Washington generally hampered the systematic inclusion of civil society actors in international governance.

In sum, the analysis of this case period suggests that the Soviet and American approaches to international governance were less divergent than commonly thought (see Table 2. below). The ideological divide between the two global governors were wide, but both sides were nevertheless committed to the maintenance of a state-centric, bipolar system of international governance based on the principles of reciprocity, mutual respect, and great power responsibility.

Table 2: Soviet (Russian) and American Worldviews on International Governance, 1945-1989

USSR (Russia)

United States

In essence, Moscow was acutely aware that it did not have adequate resources to extend its sphere of influence westward, while Washington was reluctant to play the role of a sole global policeman. The two governors occasionally (and sometimes violently) clashed, but global stability prevailed in this era precisely because each needed the other to uphold international stability, based on the competitive principle of checks and balances. In this sense, international governance during the Cold War era was not only about the provision of global public goods, but more profoundly about negotiating the way of organizing international affairs. The worldviews of the two superpowers played a disproportionately influential role.

Case Period II (1990-1999): A Community of Great Governors?

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the prospect for a truly global scale of governance emerged in the early 1990s. Hopes were raised by President George H. W. Bush’s declaration of a “new world order” and by the concrete outcomes of cooperative governance, such as the joint operations in the Gulf War, the reunification of Germany, the dismantlement of the Eastern bloc, and the development of collective mechanisms for nuclear non-proliferation in the post-Soviet space. In retrospect, however, this period also a constituted a turning point when the American and Western worldviews began to gradually drift away from that of post-Soviet Russia, whose influence on global governance structures and outcomes was remarkably diminished, especially in the early 1990s.

In the early 1990s, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, new Russia’s apparent enthusiasm for the free market economy, and the demise of global communism together convinced American policymakers that Western liberalism had triumphed as the universally-accepted way of organizing international affairs. Hence, the realm of global governance was no longer conceived as a field of competing visions, but was increasingly seen as a domain of collective policy implementation based on shared liberal values. The governing principle of international competition, with the system of checks and balances it entailed, was rapidly replaced with a new logic of global community-building resting on the assumption that all states are partners in the technocratic pursuit of liberal global governance. In this light, competition came to be seen as the prime obstacle to global governance, an anachronistic power-game amplifying feelings of enmity, compromising the unity of the international community, and diverting scarce resources from the much-needed alignments of policy priorities among increasingly diverse international actors.

The new landscape of global governance was, however, perceived completely differently by the Kremlin – starting with the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev never intended to overthrow global communism. Quite contrary, he wanted to reform it to meet emerging challenges at home and abroad. In an age of accelerating globalization and rising inequality, the last Soviet leader strongly believed that state socialism and liberal capitalism could engage in mutual learning to borrow the best from each other’s systems in order to advance the progress of both, transforming a confrontational bilateral relationship plagued by Cold War discourses of enemy-competitor into one of benign peer-competitor. In this sense, Russia’s liberal reformers pushed for state-orchestrated liberalization in order to become more competitive, attractive, and influential in global affairs – certainly not in order to submit Russia to liberal universalism. While the Kremlin increasingly embraced the logic of global community-building, this policy shift in no way diminished its commitment to the traditional system of checks and balances in which Russia was, in the eyes of Moscow, destined to play a uniquely influential role.

In the Russian worldview, the end of the Cold War was much about the enlightened great power leadership of the Soviet Union. Tragically trapped in the mindset of zero-sum games, so the argument went, capitalist democracies refused to take a courageous leap to positively transform Russian-Western relations. Against this backdrop, Gorbachev announced a unilateral reduction of five hundred thousand Soviet troops before the UN General Assembly in 1988 (and indeed, Washington and its allies at first saw this move as a calculated “trick” to make the Soviet Union appear better in the eyes of international observers). The Kremlin unilaterally initiated a new doctrine of the non-use of force within its sphere of influence, and stood by with its new-found commitment to global peace as the Union collapsed. Russia even agreed to dismantle the Warsaw Pact without demanding reciprocity from NATO. As a former American diplomat in Moscow insightfully describes, “For many Russian elites, Russia/USSR was not ‘beaten’ in the Cold War, did not ‘lose,’ but was rather the key force ending the Cold War and transforming the international system. In this view, Russia should not be seen as having its great power status diminished; rather, the country should be lauded.” (Clunan 2009: 244). While Russia’s commitment to multilateral mechanisms of global governance increased during the time, this policy change was more about showcasing Russia’s “greatness” as a responsible global governor. Indeed, even the most pro-Western liberal reformers of the time, such as former Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, still called for the centrality of great power management and of shared responsibility distributed in the form of spheres of influence (Porter and Saivetz 1994).

Struck by Russia’s willingness to initiate processes of radical transformation, the Bush and Clinton administrations acknowledged Moscow’s role as a joint stabilizer in world affairs, and prudently supported a global governance system marked by a complex mixture of great power management and multilateral legalization. In fact, there was “an informal mutual understanding whereby Russia and the US between them would ascribe to each other unique responsibilities for managing particular regions of the world.” (Smith 2012: 135). This worldview was most clearly demonstrated by America’s unconditional support for the institutionalization of Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which played a decisive role in upholding the fragile post-Soviet regional order and the international nonproliferation regime. Another watershed was Clinton’s magnanimous support for Russia’s joining in the Group of Seven in 1998, which was largely perceived in Moscow as the integration of Russia into a community of global governors.

As such, while global and regional governance in this turbulent era produced a great deal of multilateral agreements and fostered transnational networks, most pressing matters were still largely managed through great power consultations, exemplified by the management of the Balkan wars. Perhaps the most illustrative case, however, was German re-unification, which unfolded within a format of great power negotiation among both Germanys, the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France – with little or limited participation of other European states and or even representatives of the European Community, despite the half-century-old process of European integration.

As both post-Soviet Russia and the United States affirmed their commitment to shared values, this period is characterized by the notable lack of Western efforts to forcibly promote liberal ideas in the region and across the world. In essence, the core of Fukuyama’s end of history thesis was that the liberal political values would sooner or later naturally prevail over others in each polity without active promotion.7 Western policymakers at the time thus demonstrated a continued commitment to classical sovereignty, accepting that all reforms were internal matters of sovereign states – external actors, both state and non-state, were not supposed to interfere into these processes. This meant that they generally eschewed the idea of conditional sovereignty – i.e. that a political regime’s claim to sovereignty should be conditioned on its sustained commitment to liberal democratic ideals and respect for human rights.

American and Western leaders at the time were extremely cautious of openly supporting political transformations in the changing world, and at times even attempted to tame excessive popular ambitions. Perhaps most striking demonstration of this restraint was the speech given by President Bush in Kiev on 1 August 1991, which attempted to persuade Ukraine not to seek independence from the Soviet Union. As Bush proclaimed, “Yet freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” (Bush 1991)8 Perhaps more than anything, America’s explicit promise of non-interference, coupled with its cautious support for emerging popular movements, assured Moscow that the West was not maliciously using the language of democratic transformation as a strategic instrument to weaken Russia. For this purpose, Washington and its allies carefully avoided forging ties with the newly independent states, and an informal code of conduct emerged that any attempt to develop relationships with the former Soviet states should first go through the “cleaning house” of Moscow. This practice prompted two observers to advocate that Washington should develop official bilateral relations with the former Soviet republic rather than treating them as quasi-autonomous peripheries of new Russia (Porter and Saivetz 1994). Ironically, the popular revolutions of the 1990s succeeded precisely because the West at large avoided open support for these movements, thereby minimizing resistance from Russia.

It is in this political context that the landscape of global governance in the 1990s should be placed. Lifting the Iron Curtain considerably accelerated international mobility, which prompted the emergence of various non-state actors and civil society organizations in world politics. With Western assurances that Moscow’s core interests would be protected, Russian statesmen at the time had little reason to fear the rise of these new actors, although they still strongly preferred a state-centric approach to global governance. While the demise of global socialism made it easier for Washington to fully embrace these non-state actors in global governance networks, a shared commitment to state-centrism generally persisted. Especially at critical junctures, the role of non-state actors was still largely subordinated to that of state authorities.

In essence, what was troubling about social movements during this time was the unlikely fusion of liberal ambitions with naked nationalism – which Yael Tamir (1995) termed “liberal nationalism”. An indicative case was Yugoslavia, where the democratic, “anti-bureaucratic” revolution led by hundreds of thousands of demonstrations installed Slobodan Milošević. Likewise, most of the former Soviet republics hurried to seek independence – not to deepen the commitment to liberal values, but rather to escape from the sweeping liberal reforms envisaged by Gorbachev’s leadership. Even in the Baltics states – the most “liberal” among all the Soviet republics – ethnic nationalism was one of the prime drivers of independence movements, as demonstrated by the introduction of highly discriminatory laws that denied the linguistic rights to the sizable minority of Russians suddenly marooned within the Baltic states.9 In this sense, the “liberal” reformers in the Baltics had much more common with the ethnocentric ultra-nationalists of various African decolonization movements, who actively sought to abolish the official status of European languages associated with imperial rule. Acutely aware of these unwelcome developments, Washington and its allies in this era made deliberate and concerted efforts to manage the rise of non-state actors within the state-centric framework, and focused on signaling reassurances to Moscow.

The analysis above indicates that global governance in the 1990s was marked by greater mutual trust and cooperation, not just because Moscow embraced a key element of liberalism (the logic of global community-building) but also, and more importantly, because American and Western policymakers also made conscious efforts to respect Russia’s statist worldview (see Table 3.). As American support for Ukraine’s non-independence from the Soviet Union suggests, the West in this period did not generally capitalize on the rise of democratic reformers. Instead, they took a more cautious line in favor of collectively managing these processes, reinforcing traditional commitments to non-interference and, at least tacitly, to great power management. In short, there is little evidence suggesting that the Western great powers attempted to weaken Russia in this turbulent era. However, with NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 – and NATO’s eastward expansion in violation of post-Cold War promises to forgo this (Shifrinson 2016) – Russian and American worldviews began to show signs of great divergence, which subsequently shaped the dynamics of global governance in the 21st century.

Table 3: Soviet (Russian) and American Worldviews on International Governance, 1990-1999

USSR and Russia

United States

Case Period III (2000-2016): The Clash of Global Governors

Following NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia, the double enlargement of NATO and the European Union (EU), and the spread of “color revolutions” in and beyond the post-Soviet space, the gulf between the diverging Russian and American (and Western) worldviews began to widen. Perhaps for the first time since the end of the Second World War, Russia and America explicitly disagreed on what are, and what ought to be, the governing principles for managing world affairs.

In the eyes of Washington and its allies, international interactions should be governed by the principle of global community-building, with the conduct of global governance reduced to the collective realization of “universal” values. The argument that rising powers are “challenging” or “threatening” the international status-quo evidently demonstrates that the American and Western worldviews consider the current system of global governance to be a just, stable equilibrium to be defended faithfully. From the window of the Kremlin, however, the state of affairs looks radically different. Russia’s ultimate verdict is that the logic of global community-building – which Russian elites in the 1990s half-heartedly endorsed – has been revealed to be a calculated ploy designed to conceal the universalist aspirations of Western powers. From this perspective, upholding the governing principle of competition and balancing becomes not only of strategic importance, but a moral imperative. It therefore follows that, only through promoting the international competition of different worldviews, only through countering the monopoly of liberal global governance, and only through imposing checks and balances on the excessive ideological ambitions of the West, can the governance system attain a healthy state of equilibrium.10

Here, what is most striking is that the Russian and Western worldviews hold diametrically opposed visions of both domestic and global governance. For established liberal powers like the United States, the domestic arena is principally governed by the systems of competition with checks and balances – liberal democracy, the free market, and the rule of law– while the international arena is envisioned to be managed by a concert of governing actors with little tolerance for opposition to “universal” liberal standards.11 For rising powers like Russia, the logic is completely reversed: the international arena should be governed by a competitive system of checks and balances to ensure the survival of global pluralism, and, in order to be competitive and influential at the world stage, the domestic arena should limit internal opposition and consolidate national unity.12

Unlike the two previous case periods when the centrality of great power management was explicitly or implicitly acknowledged, American and Western policymakers since 2000 increasingly embraced a universalist worldview where the “ranking” of nations is primarily determined by the degree of each political regime’s commitment to the pre-defined package of liberal values. This has resulted in the explicit rejection of great power management, now dismissed as an anachronism hindering sovereign equality and the development of genuinely multilateral forms of global governance.13

For Russia, and for a plurality of other rising powers, great power management is about much more than merely a sense of international grandeur: it is the central mechanism by which to coordinate the collective endeavors of global governance while safeguarding global pluralism. From this viewpoint, great power management is not an antithesis to a rule-based international order, as often argued by contemporary Western policymakers. On the contrary, the existence of multiple power-centers is understood as the foundation for a just, stable, and balanced international legal order free from normative domination.14

This view is reflected in Moscow’s doctrine of polycentrism (polytsentrichnost’) and democratization of international relations (demokratizatsiya mezhdunarodnykh otnosheniy), which has become a central component of Russian foreign policy since the early 2000s.15 These ideas envision that the rise of multiple powerhouses in the world would enhance international justice by taming the excessive moral hegemony of the West, which, in turn, would “democratize” the management of international affairs; that is, taking back global decision-making processes from the narrow circles of “cozy Western boardroom” (Patrick and Bennett 2014), which do not reflect the global political diversity. Threatening though it may sound to Western audiences, however, these ideas are deeply rooted in the doctrine of “peaceful coexistence” adopted during the Cold War. Moscow is not categorically opposed to American and Western leadership in global governance per se, nor aims at overthrowing the liberal international order altogether. The ultimate objective in the Russian worldview is modest: to advance a thesis that liberalism is one among many possible ways of organizing global politics and, more importantly, that liberal global powers need “awareness-raising” to understand how to become more attentive and tolerant of alternative, non-liberal approaches.

Seen in this light, it is not hard to understand that Russia’s increased commitment to multilateral organizations in recent years is primarily driven by the logic of competition,16 and that the sponsoring and leading multilateral institutions is a means by which to bolster its regional and global influence.  For instance, while Russian liberals pushed for World Trade Organization (WTO) membership as a fast-track ticket to further global economic integration, Moscow’s final decision to join the trade pact was largely influenced by the argument that its absence would allow other powers to shape the landscape of international trade. Leading the creation of the supranational Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, a similar argument was put forth by Vladimir Putin: “the accession to the Eurasian Union will also help countries integrate into Europe sooner and from a stronger position.” (Putin 2011, emphasis added) In this sense, regional multilateralism is seen as a strategy to reinforce regional influence and to counter the global preeminence of the West.

Along with diverging worldviews on governing principles and mechanisms, sovereignty and the politics of international intervention have emerged as a new fault-line between Russia and the Western powers. With the logic of global community-building, Washington’s bipartisan foreign policy elites have generally come to embrace the idea of conditional sovereignty – that the sovereign right to rule is not naturally given, but fundamentally grounded in a political regime’s commitment to liberal democratic ideals. In other words, to be a fully respected sovereign state, a nation must embrace a set of universal values. American and European insistence on human rights, good governance, the responsibility to protect, and humanitarian intervention is the concrete operationalization of these ideas, which is increasingly mimicking the logic of international law enforcement.

While space limitations do not allow me to fully unpack the full complexity of the Russian view of state sovereignty today, there are several notable trends. While Western discourse on sovereignty increasingly mirrors the language of the Brezhnev doctrine, Moscow has gradually abandoned the Soviet-era concept of conditional sovereignty and is generally hesitant to embrace notions of moral universalism. While Russian leaders generally insist on the principle of non-interference in the global arena, they have actively sought to bolster Russia’s influence in the regional sphere of its “privileged interest”.

This duality, however, should not be simply dismissed as evidence of hypocrisy. As noted above, the Russian worldview on global governance departs from the assumption that world affairs need to be managed by international competition, which averts global domination and enhances international justice. For this purpose, there must be several independent poles of state power, including Russia, that are able and willing to check and, when necessary, “speak up” to disagree with the predominant Western powers. It follows, then, that the systemic principle of great power management is placed above that of individual sovereignty, and that while small and middle powers should not be subjugated, they have an international obligation not to actively undermine the interests of great powers. In this sense, Russian elites essentially see the survival and autonomy of the Russian pole as a global public good – i.e. as an integral part of a competitive international system that strives to enhance international justice by the mechanisms of checks and balances.

Russia’s reluctance to fully embrace a more decentralized form of global governance largely stems from this state-centric worldview, intricately interwoven with the centrality of great power politics. From a Russian perspective, the majority of so-called “global civil society actors” are either the self-selected circles of special interest groups, or a new mechanism of global social control supported by liberals conspiring to eliminate the voices of statism and social conservatism.17 Indeed, an overwhelming majority of NGOs are headquartered in the Western hemisphere (36% in North America and 33% in Europe), although their activities are predominantly (60%) located in the non-Western world. (Zonova 2013) This extremely skewed geography of non-state actors makes Moscow cast serious doubts on their neutrality and representativeness. As a result, Russia has so far preferred a more exclusive landscape of governance where state actors retain central authority. As former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov argues, “no matter how many nongovernmental actors take part in international relations today, sovereign states must continue to play the main roles.” (Ivanov 2002: 56)

While American policymakers and their Western allies often complain about Russia’s skepticism towards global civil society, they tend to conveniently forget that the same paranoia once prompted these liberal states to adopt their own policies of suppression. Precisely for this reason, the aforementioned American anti-communist act criminalized not only the American Communist Party but also all civil society actors which supported the cause of global socialism. Essentially, Western promotion of global civil society is based on a romanticized assumption that all non-state actors embrace a harmonized vision to advance shared goals derived from “universal” liberal values. However, if we depart instead from a neutral view that all citizens across the world have the equal right to form associations to express their independent opinions, then it becomes clear that an Islamic organization calling for a stricter adherence to the Sharia law, the grassroots movements that aided the rise of Donald Trump, and an international NGO advocating for women’s rights are all equally part of the same global civil society – despite the obvious fact that their respective goals collide.18

In short, contemporary discourses of global civil society and decentralized global governance are never politically neutral, and certainly reflect a specific vision of liberal global governance. Although some may contend that legitimate membership in global civil society is conditioned upon one’s commitment to “universal” liberal values, this line of reasoning easily begins to resemble the socialist awareness-raising campaign which assumed that only those civil society actors committed to the “universal” values of global socialism are “genuine” forces for “legitimate” global change. At the moment, the Western strategy for decentralized global governance is at best described as selective empowerment of the liberal actors whose agendas are implicitly or explicitly aligned with, or at least not directly opposed to, the worldviews of the Western states. As such, any actor speaking up against the liberal international order is not seen as a part of global “civil” society in the first place. An indicative case here is the Occupy Wall Street movements, which was closely surveilled by the National Security Agency (whose primary task is to watch the “threats” to U.S. national security) and resulted in nearly 8,000 arrests in over 120 cities.19 The state of affairs is no different in Europe: for instance, in a response to the rising anti-austerity civil society group 15-M Movement (which mobilized six to eight million Spaniards against the EU austerity policy), Madrid introduced a repressive “gag law” that imposes fines up to 60,000 euro on unauthorized demonstrations (EUobserver 2015). While these cases by no means disprove the importance of non-state actors in world politics, they certainly highlight the prominence of state actors, and more importantly, of powerful states, in structuring a global arena in which non-state actors pursue their agendas. Table 4. below summarizes the Russian and American worldviews during this contemporary period.

Table 4: Russian and American Worldviews on International Governance, 2000-2016


United States


By its own design, this paper offers neither a controlled analysis of causal variables nor in-depth inquiry into historical texts. As emphasized in the introductory section, Moscow’s influence on global governance structures and outcomes has fluctuated over time, and the interactions between Russian and American worldviews have occurred within drastically different contextual settings. That said, it reveals several clear overall trends that help us better understand the evolution of Russia’s approach to global governance, and the changing international contexts around it.

First, the remarkable continuity in Russia’s worldview over time is striking. During the last two decades alone, Russia has undergone radical transformations from a globally-feared communist hegemon to a failed market economy, and finally to an assertive (re-)rising power. Despite these sea-changes, its commitment to the global balance of power and the centrality of great power management have remained consistent, even in the era of liberal reforms. This casts a serious doubt over the (retrospectively constructed) view that “Putin’s Russia” is increasingly deviating from the liberal promise of the previous era. Indeed, Polity IV scores show that “Putin’s Russia” is more “liberal” than Gorbachev’s Soviet Union,20 and in this sense, “Putin’s” approach to global governance is not so much about his own ambitions as it is about staying on the track of trends set by the reformers of the previous era. This point is most clearly underscored by Gorbachev’s enthusiastic support for Putin’s Crimea policy, as well as his unambiguous statement in 2015 that he is “absolutely convinced that Putin protects Russia’s interests better than anyone else.” (The Telegraph 2014) This state-centric, great-power-centered worldview is even echoed by a number of liberal anti-regime forces, who essentially see liberalization as a means to make Russia a great leader of the liberal world (Kobayashi 2015).

In this sense, the clash of worldviews we observe today is perhaps not really about an increasingly non-liberal Russia taking on America’s liberal international order, but rather a reaction to the rapid departure of American and European worldviews from the state-centric mindset of past centuries. As demonstrated above, American policymakers during the Cold War, and even in the 1990s, largely shared a common language of statism with the Kremlin. In this light, many of the key elements of liberal global governance are relatively new concepts and symbolize revision of the classical way of managing international affairs.21 This resonates with the observation of Hurrell (2006) that what rising powers like Russia prefer is the preservation of the centuries-old, state-centric approach to world affairs, while the contemporary Western worldview represents the unwelcome departure from this classical framework.

This point becomes clearer when we carefully look at the contemporary discourses of the Western leaders, who often claim that the balance of power is no longer a guiding principle in world politics, great power aspirations are no longer legitimate, sovereignty can be no longer used to conceal domestic oppressions, and the system of state-centric governance is no longer applicable to the rapidly globalizing world. In this sense, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is right in pointing out that Moscow speaks like a twentieth-century great power (NBC News 2014). Indeed Russia does, and it does so proudly within its worldview which defends modern international order; an order which sustained an unprecedented duration of peace in nineteenth century Europe, which defeated fascism in the second world war and founded the United Nations, and which prevented nuclear annihilation during the Cold War.

Methodologically, the matrix approach proves to be an effective way of capturing the complex thinking that drives the engagement of rising powers in global governance.  Most importantly, this study demonstrates that it is the fusion of great power management and multilateral legalization that underlines Russia’s approach to global governance. In this sense, the overly simplistic caricature that Russia prefers the realpolitik of great power management to the liberal, legalized, and multilateral format of governance spectacularly fails to capture this complexity. It appears that the Russian line of reasoning finds a wider resonance in the worldviews of other rising powers. Brazil has markedly increased its commitment to regional integration projects primarily to enhance the region’s autonomy vis-à-vis the United States and the EU, and moreover, to demonstrate that Latin America is capable of governing its own region independently without Western interference (Riggirozzi and Tussie 2012). For similar reasons, China has also become increasingly active in sponsoring regional multilateral initiatives, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, the Conference of Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia (CICA), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

The competitive dynamics of regional institutionalization poses perhaps the greatest challenge to conventional institutionalist perspectives in the academic scholarship on global governance and international relations, which have predominantly conceived of international institutions as a source of greater cooperation – thus rendering scholars incapable of viewing them as a strategy for global influence. The emerging reality is that a plurality of rising and regional powers sees multilateral initiatives as a way to bolster their global influence and enhance regional independence. In this sense, greater institutionalization of international relations may actually widen the global and regional political division and hamper greater cooperation and coordination. This is why closer attention needs to be paid to the underlying ideas and worldviews of major international actors when we attempt to explain the phenomenon of global governance. After all, governance is and always will be a political exercise, of which the contract struggle for legitimacy is – for better or worse – an integral part.


1 For an overview, see Hewson and Sinclair (1999). For a Russian perspective, see the comprehensive report on global governance recently published by the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (Baranovsky and Ivanova 2015).
2 For an excellent summary of the logic of great power management, see Little (2006). These four dimensions were selected by a method of abduction, based on pre-conceptions and a review of relevant literature. Other important dimensions may include institutionalization and human rights, among others.
3 Ironically, the core philosophy of statism can be summarized by the words of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
4 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out these important differences which may influence one’s research design.
5 It is in this communitarian understanding of state sovereignty, closely tied to the norms and values of an international polity, that the fundamental ideas underlying Brezhnev doctrine resonates with the contested doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
6 It must be remembered that the pioneering civil society activist Eugene Debs – labor leader and co-founder of the American Socialist Party – was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison in 1918 for publicly pretesting America’s participation in the First World War.
7 This explains, then, why Fukuyama (2006) later vehemently criticized America’s democracy promotion efforts as counter-productive. For a Russian perspective on U.S. democracy promotion, see Davydov (2015).
8 The same speech also assured that: “We will work for the good of both of us, which means that we will not meddle in your internal affairs.”
9 These moves went directly against the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which obliges European states to respect regional and minority languages. Perhaps the “best practice” from a liberal point of view was Kyrgyzstan, which recognized the fundamental human right to speak and to seek education in one’s native language, and therefore designated Russian the status of an official state language – even though the proportion of Russian-speaking minority was much smaller than that of the Baltic states.
10 China’s “peaceful rise” doctrine agrees with this point, in the sense that Beijing also sees international peace primarily in terms of balance.
11 E.H.Carr emphasizes this point: “Just as pleas for ‘national solidarity’ in domestic politics always come from a dominant group which can use this solidarity to strengthen its own control over the nation as a whole, so pleas for international solidarity and world union come from those dominant nations which may hope to exercise control over a unified world.” (Carr 1946: 86).
12 This point is eloquently elaborated by one Chinese scholar: “In domestic politics, the US government has applied checks and balances to protect democracy and the rule of law, whereas in international politics it seeks to preserve its dominant status so that it can act without constraints.” (Xiaoyu 2012: 363)
13 Interestingly, though, Washington’s bipartisan foreign policy elites are deeply convinced of the necessity for America’s global leadership – which may be best conceived as the manifestation of a particular form of great power mindset.
14 This line of reasoning finds its roots in the deliberation of the renowned international lawyer Lassa Oppenheim (1920), who once contended that the healthy function of international law requires a global balance of power; just as the domestic rule of law is most firmly upheld by the competitive mechanisms of multi-party systems and institutional checks and balances that prevents the concentration of power.
15 For a concise summary of contemporary Russian foreign policy, see Ivanov (2012).
16 For the multilateral dimension of Russian foreign policy, see Rowe and Torjesen (2008).
17 For a Russian perspective, see Lebedeva and Kharkevich (2013).
18 The seminal work of Mary Kaldor (2003) contends that in a broader sense global civil society encompasses liberals, reformers, and humanitarians, but also nationalists and fundamentalists. For a more open-minded approach to the authority of non-state actors, see Hall and Biersteker (2002).
19 Data accessible at https://www.stpete4peace.org/occupyarrests.
20 Polity scores range from -10 to +10, and divide political regimes into three categories: autocracies (-10 to -6); anocracies (-5 to +5); and democracies (+6 to +10). The Soviet Union under Gorbachev improved its score from -7 to 0, Yeltin’s Russia scored around +3, and Putin’s Russia has varied between +4 and +6.  Data for Russia is accessible at http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/rus2.htm.
21 To be fair, for a majority of Western policymakers these elements are not “new” because the Western sphere of liberal influence during the Cold War was largely governed by these principles.


The author is grateful to Thomas J. Biersteker, Oliver Jütersonke, Alexey Davydov, and especially to Farrah Hawana for their thoughtful comments on the earlier versions of this paper. The author is also thankful for two anonymous reviewers of the journal for constructive comments.


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Kazushige Kobayashi

Kazushige Kobayashi is a Honjo International Scholarship Foundation Scholar at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He has previously attended the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He has lived and worked in major global cities, including New York, Washington, DC, Moscow, Geneva and Tokyo, and has been invited to give a series of lectures at the Higher School of Economics (Russia), Tohoku University (Japan) and the Graduate Institute (Switzerland). Kazushige also keeps a personal blog hosted by the Russian International Affairs Council. He has published widely on Russian foreign policy and Eurasian regional integration.