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Analysis & Opinion
21.07.08 New Strategy, Old Ideas
Comment by Vladimir Frolov

The Foreign Policy Strategy is remarkable for how little it says about President Dmitry Medvedev’s own vision of Russia’s role in international affairs. It bears all the signs of having been developed long before Medvedev became President. The Russian Foreign Ministry has been working on it for almost a year. As such, it is more of a Putin Foreign Policy Concept which Medvedev found little to disagree with.

The primary rationale for the new Strategy was to provide a policy document that would reflect the change in the international environment and account for Russia’s rise as an emerging great power with serious economic and financial muscle.

But the document released last week shows little innovative thinking by Russia in crafting workable solutions to the global challenges of the day. Instead, it offers stale ideas that have been proven of little effectiveness and that are unlikely to secure Russia a position of global leadership.

For one thing, the new Strategy views the world in almost Huntingtonian terms as being in transition from a unipolar world dominated by the United States to “polarless world” characterized by global competition between civilizations on values and models of development. It sees the United States and Europe as being on the declining end of their trajectory, while new dynamic centers of global economic and military power like China, India, Russia and Brazil are demanding more say in running the international system.

This is a conjecture based more on wishful thinking than on a sound analysis. The United States may well be in a deep funk over its debacle in Iraq and a growing mess on financial markets, and Europe may have stumbled in its enlargement process, but they continue to yield enormous economic and military power that Russia could do well to harness to advance its interests and neutralize threats.

The new Russian Foreign Policy Strategy calls for a robust collective leadership by major powers, which is necessary for a self-governing and self-organizing international system, but fails to specify how it intends to accomplish that goal other than to say that this “collective leadership” should be “civilizationally and geographically diverse” (an indication of allocating a greater say to India, China and Brazil in global decision making).

This would require Russia, China, India and Brazil to assume more responsibility and to bear more costs for solving global problems, some of them pretty bloody and intractable.

Are they prepared to do that? The answer is no. They are a clear beneficiary of the world order that Russia decries. China, India and Brazil seek to capitalize on the current international arrangement when the United States and the EU bear the bulk of the costs, and are in no rush to assume burdensome responsibilities for global governance.

This allows them to enjoy leadership on the cheap. Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council resolution that sought to impose sanctions on the repressive regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe who stole an election he had lost.

If anything, this was the case to demonstrate Russia’s commitment to collective action and to strengthening the UN as “the sole legitimate governor and arbiter of “a just and democratic world order, based on collective action” (to quote the new Strategy).

Mugabe has brutalized and ruined the country he has been governing for over thirty years. It is now the nation of multi-billionaires as a loaf of bread costs a few billion of Zimbabwean dollars and the average life expectancy has dropped from over 64 year under the British rule to something like 38 years. It is a nation desperately in need of being saved by the international community.

Yet, Russia and China chose to thwart the international effort to put pressure on Mugabe and his cronies by freezing their bank accounts and imposing travel bans. The justification – the situation in Zimbabwe does not present a threat to international security, while the UNSC’s competence is limited to dealing only with such threats. In reality, the rationale is to avoid setting a precedent of a UN effort to judge an election in a sovereign country and even impose sanctions if the outcome of the election were to be deemed fraudulent.

But what about the new Strategy’s multiple calls to eschew unilateral action, adopt collective approaches, strictly follow the international law and to strengthen the UN as the only legitimate collective decision maker in international affairs? The Russian Strategy fails to provide a guideline for action in case the UNSC consensus proves unreachable, as was the case over Ahtissaari’s plan for Kosovo, or more recently over the UNSC resolution on Zimbabwe. Why put in all those chants about the UN if you still intend to act in ways that reduce it to a little more than a talkshop?

The Strategy also decries “traditional political-military alliances” (like NATO) as obsolete and inadequate to meet the entire spectrum of transnational security challenges, and puts much faith on ensuring strict compliance with the international law, while failing to specify how Russia intends to do that in a situation of flagrant non-compliance and a failure of the UN to reach agreement on enforcement measures (Iran’s nuclear program could be a case in point, or Iraq, for that matter, in 2003).

It says cold war alliances no longer have a place in Europe and should be replaced by something that is still no more than a vague idea of a European Security Treaty, while, at the same time, it seeks to perpetuate the existing security structures in the post-Soviet space, like the Collective Security Treaty and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where Russia is a dominating member. This is very unconvincing, and the Strategy drafters must have come up with better arguments to make their point.

Much has been made of the new provision in the Strategy that says the prime minister will, for the first time, implement foreign policy measures, a right previously assumed to be monopolized by the president. This is more procedural than substantive, and it changes little in the way Russia’s foreign policy will be made.

The President and the Kremlin (or, to be more precise, the “small Security Council” that meets with the President every week) will set policy objectives. The Government, as it did in the past, will work to implement those guidelines. The Foreign Ministry continues to be designated as the lead agency to coordinate all foreign policy activities – something it has proved time and again of being incapable of accomplishing, and something that Deputy Government Chief of Staff Yury Ushakov will be glad to monopolize.

Medvedev would have done better had he decided to postpone going public with this foreign policy document. As a new President, it would have befitted him to launch at least a formal foreign policy review and commission a new team to take a critical look at what the Foreign Ministry had been laboring to produce for several years.

In that way, he could have set his own foreign policy priorities and outline a coherent vision for Russia to shape the international system to help promote its modernization. Some of that vision is there in his two major foreign policy addresses – the speech in Berlin and in St. Petersburg in early June.

It is conspicuously missing in the new Foreign Policy Strategy filled with old ideas.
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