Russia Against the Rest: Stasis and the Emergence of the Anti-Hegemonic World Order

Structural factors undoubtedly shape international politics, but there is no consensus about what are the relevant structures. Offensive realists stress the importance of anarchy as the primary condition, with international relations determined by the struggle for power and predominance by an international system populated by ‘billiard ball’ states, in which domestic regimes and systems of governance are irrelevant.1 At the other extreme are constructivists, who argue that identities are shaped by mutual interaction between the ‘self’ and ‘other’. Equally, realists are countered by the partisans of the ‘liberal world order’ who assert that the rules-based system that has become predominant since 1945, and reinforced by Western ‘victory’ over the Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War in 1989, means that the traditional lexicon of great power politics, along with spheres of influence, balancing and bloc politics, have become anachronistic.

In my new book, Russia against the Rest,2 I apply the view of English School thinkers, who retain a statist perspective, but tempered by the conventions of international society in their mutual interactions and moderated by what they called the ‘secondary institutions’ of international society at the supra-state level. Building on this, I suggest that the international system today has a binary structure. At the top there is the United Nations and the ramified secondary institutions of international legal, economic, environmental and financial regulation. Although the autonomous power of these institutions should not be exaggerated, neither should they be minimised. The UN remains the main source of legitimacy for international cooperative endeavours. At the lower level we have an increasing number of independent states, but their interactions have also evolved. Even the mighty US after the Second World War embedded its hegemony in the Atlantic alliance system, and on the global level advanced the multilateral practices of the ‘liberal world order’.  After the Cold War this multidimensional alliance system became the core of an enlarging ‘world order’.

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

For various reasons Russia was not incorporated into this world order, and neither ultimately was China, although both took advantage of what it had to offer. Neither could join as subaltern powers. Their fundamental argument is that the liberal world order is not synonymous with order itself.  Washington and its allies represented one power system, and although this system had done much to advance the public goods associated with the liberal world order, ultimately these values and processes were the responsibility of the top level of international society. The ‘secondary institutions’ of international society have now come to represent an autonomous level of universal order, based on principles and ideas that are far from the proprietary invention of the US-led liberal international order.3 The ideas and principles underlying this universal order have long been debated in most civilisations, and although their normative formulation was greatly advanced after the Second World War, notably in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of December 1948, even this Declaration was formulated with the participation of all the major powers of the time.

In this context, the fundamental cleavage in international politics today is between the partisans of the enlargement of the liberal international order (even if the baton of leadership may be passing from the US to European states), and those who defend an anti-hegemonic view. Russia, China and other powers are beginning to shape the lineaments of an alternative world order, based not on ‘anti-Westernism’ let alone opposition to ‘globalisation’, but for the defence of pluralism in the international system. Thus an anti-hegemonic alignment is gradually taking shape, with such institutions as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisations, the BRICS grouping and other informal ties at its core. This is post-western rather than anti-western.4 It also betokens the onset of what Trine Flockhart calls a ‘multi-order’ world.5 The nascent anti-hegemonic alignment defends not so much globalisation as the deepening integration of global markets and development strategies through intensified internationalism, in which states retain the power to shape their industrial strategies and to resist the supra-nationalism of investor-state adjudication mechanisms. In Russia, the classic definition of globalisation was also understood to represent an ideological project for the enlargement of a specific model of economic relations, with US power at its core.6

How does Russia fit into all of this? At the end of the Cold War Russia advanced a programme to transform the European security system, and by implication, the pattern of global politics entrenched in Cold War institutions and ideologies. Mikhail Gorbachev talked of a ‘common European home’, which fitted into the classic Gaullist discourse of a ‘Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals’ and François Mitterand’s idea of a confederation of Europe. Moscow insisted that it was the instigator of the end of the Cold War, and had thus won the right to be the co-author of a transformed post-Cold War world. With Russia’s inclusion, the Historical West would become a Greater West, and the structures of the Cold War could be dismantled as a common developmental programme was devised. Fearing normative dilution, institutional incoherence and, perhaps above all, the weakening of American leadership, this programme of radical transformation was rejected in favour of an enlargement agenda of the existing structures, those that had apparently achieved ‘victory’ over the Soviet Union.

Given that the Soviet system had dissolved and the country itself disintegrated, the victory discourse seemed plausible. However, the politics of transformation is something that Russia would not give up so easily, along with those aligned with it outside of the liberal world order. As the radicalism of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn suggest, the programme of transformation also has deep domestic roots in the heartlands of the liberal international order, accompanied by a resurgent peace movement worried by the renewed drift towards militarism and confrontation. In other words, the transformation agenda in international politics is accompanied by the desire for change domestically.

Everything in Russia’s history militated against it becoming simply a subaltern element of an expanding Historical West. At first Russia sought to devise a fundamental partnership with the enlarging European Union, but even that faltered by the mid-2000s, as a wave of traditionally anti-Russian post-communist countries joined. Even more disruptive was NATO enlargement, something that realists, such as George Kennan, warned would ultimately provoke a Russian counter-reaction. Equally portentous was the way that the enlargement agenda incorporated the structures of the Cold War into the expanding system. Although there was no deliberate attempt to exclude Russia, institutions such as the NATO-Russia Council were clearly devised within the framework of mitigation rather than transformational strategies.

As far as Russia is concerned, the 25 years of the cold peace between 1989 and 2014 failed to resolve any of the fundamental problems of European and global security. For Russia, NATO enlargement represented not only a betrayal of the verbal assurances given at the time of German unification that the alliance would not move ‘one inch to the East’ of the former East German territory, but above all represented a pointless provocation that only intensified the security dilemma that the alliance was intended to avert. At the end of the Cold War Russia was offered associate membership of an existing enterprise, the Historic West, but Russia’s enduring aspiration was to become a founder member of a transformed Greater West. Membership of the transformed community would have provided a benign framework for Russia’s domestic transformation, while removing the institutional and ideational structures of the Cold War. By contrast, joining an untransformed Historic West would have entailed status demotion, since it would have been a subaltern element in a US-dominated system. Even under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s this was hard to swallow, and under Putin in the 2000s there were attempts to find a new balance between Russian adaptation and foreign policy and developmental autonomy. By the time Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 for his third term, Russia had shifted to a policy of neo-revisionism: maintaining a commitment to the norms of international society, but resisting the practices of US primacy.

The realist paradigm considers Russia as no more and no less than a normal power, pursuing a rational (although that does not mean uncontested) foreign policy to maintain its position in the world and its neighbourhood. In that context, Moscow welcomed the conciliatory comments from Donald Trump that it made sense to ‘get along’ with Russia, and to that degree Moscow saw Trump’s election as an opportunity genuinely to ‘reset’ the relationship based on mutual respect for the interests of the other. Although Trump was committed to the maintenance of US primacy (as evidenced in the sharp rise in defence spending), this would be achieved less through the multilateralism of the Obama-style ‘leadership’ agenda, and instead a more muscular nationalism would be expressed through the assertion of ‘greatness’. In other words, the plan was to normalise US foreign policy, and this suited Russia just fine. It would mean the end of the ‘enlargement’ agenda, with the curtailment of democracy promotion and the declared end of the regime change agenda. However, it offered little in the way of system transformation of the sort desired by Russia, and to that degree Trump for Moscow represented little more than the opportunity for a more transactional relationship.

In the event, ‘Russiagate’ served to constrain Trump’s freedom of manoeuvre, and a more traditional US foreign policy was reasserted. Even modest moves towards a more pragmatic relationship were stymied, although there was some cooperation on the ground in Syria and some other global issues. But the big picture was one of a continued impasse in Russia’s relations with the West. Angela Merkel’s re-election in Germany in September 2017 means that the fragile status quo will be maintained in Europe, with the constant danger of a sharp deterioration. The post-Cold War attempt to maintain the Atlantic system and to blunt the emergence of a more pluralistic international system would continue, and thus the dynamic of hostility towards Russia would remain. The US sanctions are unlikely to be rescinded any time soon, and with Merkel’s election the EU-sponsored ones will also probably endure. However, the big picture is that stasis in the international system generates disorder. The new inter-order balance between the US-led liberal international order (although threatened from within by a potential US defection) and the nascent anti-hegemonic alignment has become constitutive of the international system. Thus the scene is set for prolonged confrontation and conflict, mitigated only by the UN and the other secondary institutions of international society.


1 Outlined, for example, most eloquently by John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, updated edition (New York, W. W. Norton, 2014, originally published 2001).
2 Richard Sakwa, Russia against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
3 For a historical discussion of the evolution of this system, see Tim Dunne and Christian Reut-Smith (eds), The Globalization of International Society (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017).
4 Oliver Stuenkel, Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers are Remaking Global Order (Cambridge, Polity, 2016).
5 Trine Flockhart, ‘The Coming Multi-Order World’, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2016, pp. 3-30.
6 Alexander Panarin, Izkushenie globalizmom (Moscow, 2003).

Richard Sakwa

Prof. Sakwa joined the University of Kent in 1987, was promoted to a professorship in 1996 and was Head of School between 2001 and 2007, and in 2010 he once again took over as Head of School until 2014. While completing his doctorate on Moscow politics during the Civil War (1918-21) he spent a year on a British Council scholarship at Moscow State University (1979-80), and then worked for two years in Moscow in the ‘Mir’ Science and Technology Publishing House. Before moving to Kent he lectured at the University of Essex and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Prof. Sakwa is an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies (CREES) at the University of Birmingham and since September 2002 a member of Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences.

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