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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

The curious human mind has discovered two radically different ways of making hard liquor of high quality: rectification and distillation. Vodka can rightfully be called the queen of rectification. Rectification involves producing refined, purified, neutral ethanol. The organoleptic properties of the original raw materials are totally eliminated—ethanol tastes and smells like ethanol and nothing else. As for distillation, cognac is the rightful claimant for kingship. Today, distillation is used to manufacture most hard liquors of quality—Scotch whisky, American bourbon, Italian grappa, French calvados, Mexican tequila and Jamaican rum are among the best. Manufacturers preserve the flavour and taste of barley malt, corn, grapes, apples or pears, blue agave and sugar cane, respectively.

Today’s mainstream approaches to matters of global politics may well be likened to the two traditions of alcohol manufacturing. The so-called “realist” approach fits with the vodka tradition of rectification. Realists construct their foreign policy vision by rectifying individual components of the original society. While so engaged, they are not particularly concerned about their material and its features, such as the history of a particular region, its culture, religion and traditions as well as the unique features of its political system. Democracies of the West and autocracies of the East, capitalist and communist regimes, patriarchal monarchies and theocratic republics—all this global hotch-potch is fed into the fractionating column producing the power of nations, highly purified from all kinds of admixtures. States are accounted for solely on the basis of power they generate, mostly in military terms. Foreign policy objectives of states seek to maximize power and change the regional or global balance of power to bolster their own security at the expense of others.

The liberal approach, on the contrary, follows in the footsteps of the cognac tradition of distillation. Close attention is paid to the factors that account for the unique features of individual states. From the liberal point of view, these are largely determined by the domestic facet as liberals treat foreign policies of states as a vast assemblage of flavours, highlights and shades of aftertaste processed through the copper alembic of the liberal paradigm rather than pure ethanol as it is. Liberals hold on to the premise that states are well short of being stand-alone actors in international relations, as they are—to different extents—represented by various group interests being in complex interaction with each other. In approaching some foreign policy, liberals will tend to taste the flavours of culture, the highlights of national history, the shades of domestic conflicts and social dynamics, the aromas of regional specifics, and the aftertaste of national biases and stereotypes.

Recent years have ushered in a historically protracted process of rectification, vodka and political realism in global politics. Under the battering winds of de-globalization, amid the uninviting situation of many regional conflicts and down the heavy thunderclouds of global problems gathering on the horizon, the hand is instinctively reaching for a shot of vodka rather than a snifter of cognac. As was repeatedly the case in the past, survival and security overshadow development and prosperity on the global agenda. For most international actors, the current objective is to warm up a little and restore vitality—not to enjoy a sophisticated drink. Political realism is a convenient and, in a way, adequate reflection of the existing realities.

The time of distillation, cognac and liberalism will come, though. The hot sun of globalization will peek through the clouds of crises as the current conflicts will recede into the past. Non-state actors, as well as small and middle nations, will again play a greater role in international relations. Without clearing the familiar shot glasses from the table, we should try to keep decadent cognac snifters somewhere in the back of our kitchen cabinets. It is only a matter of time before “big tulips” and “small tulips” come in handy.

Cognac makes you a rebellious prankster—
Somewhat not practical, but very romantic.
Prodigiously hacks it away at anchors
of everything that is immobile and static.

Joseph Brodsky

The curious human mind has discovered two radically different ways of making hard liquor of high quality: rectification and distillation. Without going into detailed descriptions of the technologies and equipment involved, we shall note that manufacturers pursue different objectives in each case. Rectification is, in essence, fractional distillation meant to produce ethanol of the highest purity possible from raw materials that will more or less do the trick, while removing the original organoleptic properties—such as colour, taste and aroma—as much as possible. Distillation, on the contrary, seeks to both obtain quality ethanol and preserve the original aroma and taste with utmost care.

Vodka can rightfully be called the queen of rectification. Rectification involves producing refined, purified, neutral ethanol. The organoleptic properties of the original raw materials are totally eliminated—ethanol tastes and smells like ethanol and nothing else. Therefore, it does not make much of a difference what you use to produce vodka, be it wheat, rye, potatoes or sugar beets; if high quality equipment is used and strict compliance with rigid technological standards is ensured, nothing of the original raw material remains in the end product.

Naturally, true connoisseurs of vodka claim that the quality of the drink heavily depends on water quality and the professional secrets of purification. When connoisseurs taste a good vodka, they note the highlights of wheat bread, rye crust, forest moss or even cream and dried fruit. Most likely, these gastronomical subtleties are the work of evil, as it were, since products of rectification should have no additional aromas and flavours. It is only at the later stages of manufacturing that desired organoleptic properties can be artificially added to the diluted ethanol by using various flavourings, which produces a wide range of bitter and sweet infused vodkas, ethanol-based balsams and other derivatives of the classical vodka. Rectification is also used to manufacture absinthe and gin, as well as most liqueurs.

As for distillation, cognac is the rightful claimant for kingship. A true French person, though, would rather like to see Armagnac crowned. A tad cruder than cognac—one distillation instead of two—Armagnac has a richer flavour, reflecting the unique taste properties of the original grapes in a truly comprehensive fashion. Today, distillation is used to manufacture most hard liquors of quality—Scotch whisky, American bourbon, Italian grappa, French calvados, Mexican tequila and Jamaican rum are among the best. Manufacturers preserve the flavour and taste of barley malt, corn, grapes, apples or pears, blue agave and sugar cane, respectively.

Compared to high-quality rectifications, high-quality distillations set higher requirements for the shape and size of the glassware. Vodka can be drunk from a liquor glass, a shot glass, a table glass, and even an aluminium mug. Cognac, however, must only be consumed from tulip-shaped snifters, aptly dubbed “big tulip” and “small tulip” in Russia. Cognac connoisseurs are meticulous when separately evaluating the drink’s aroma, taste and aftertaste, discerning the diverse highlights of milk and bitter chocolate, vanilla, walnuts and hazelnuts (their shells and partitions even!), various fruits and berries (including most exotic ones), field and garden flowers, various types of wood, tobacco leaves, leather—and many, many other things…

Today’s mainstream approaches to matters of global politics may well be likened to the two traditions of alcohol manufacturing. The so-called “realist” approach fits with the vodka tradition of rectification. Realists construct their foreign policy vision by rectifying individual components of the original society. While so engaged, they are not particularly concerned about their material and its features, such as the history of a particular region, its culture, religion and traditions as well as the unique features of its political system. Democracies of the West and autocracies of the East, capitalist and communist regimes, patriarchal monarchies and theocratic republics—all this global hotch-potch is fed into the fractionating column producing <>the power of nations, highly purified from all kinds of admixtures. States are accounted for solely on the basis of power they generate, mostly in military terms. Foreign policy objectives of states seek to maximize power and change the regional or global balance of power to bolster their own security at the expense of others.

The liberal approach, on the contrary, follows in the footsteps of the cognac tradition of distillation. Close attention is paid to the factors that account for the unique features of individual states. From the liberal point of view, these are largely determined by the domestic facet as liberals treat foreign policies of states as a vast assemblage of flavours, highlights and shades of aftertaste processed through the copper alembic of the liberal paradigm rather than pure ethanol as it is. Liberals hold on to the premise that states are well short of being stand-alone actors in international relations, as they are—to different extents—represented by various group interests being in complex interaction with each other. In approaching some foreign policy, liberals will tend to taste the flavours of culture, the highlights of national history, the shades of domestic conflicts and social dynamics, the aromas of regional specifics, and the aftertaste of national biases and stereotypes.

For the last few decades, there have been repeated attempts to combine these two approaches into one comprehensive theory. Such attempts, as one can guess, have not proved particularly successful. Perhaps, a cocktail of vodka and cognac has the right to exist, though Benedict Erofeev, an unquestionable authority on the subject, cites no successful recipe for such a drink. Voracious consumers are unanimous in their opinion that vodka and cognac are even more incompatible than, for instance, vodka and port.

What do rectification and distillation tell us to help us understand the laws of the international system? The realistic picture of the world looks more structured and logically complete. You might remember the adage of the Russian singer Andrey Makarevich who said, “Vodka is a drink as honest as you ever find, never pretending to be something it is not.” Realists produce as simplified and rationalized a picture of global politics as possible, reducing it to a few independent variables which are, in essence, rather comprehensible and non-contradictory.

The liberal approach invites a large number of nuances and shadings, tinges of individual tastes and subjective perceptions into the analysis of world politics. To agree on which vodka is better is not that difficult—after all, any chemical analysis for the presence of fusel oils and other residual admixtures puts everything in its place. To achieve consensus on the best cognac, though, is impossible as a matter of principle. Tastes differ, as they say.

At the same time, liberal approaches to global politics are—far and by—more democratic than these of realists. By resolving a state’s foreign policy into a spectrum of multidirectional group interests, liberals “deconstruct” great powers, thus giving small and middle nations a chance to play a proactive role in global politics. It is not that liberals generally deny the presence of any hierarchy in the international system, but they categorically refuse to accept the rigid hierarchical constructs that offer no alternatives. Realists do not give small and medium-sized states that chance—in their cold and rational world, only a handful of great powers can be proactive, while other nations are a crowd of extras. The only debate allowed within the realist paradigm revolves around the idea who qualifies to be a great power and who fails.

Continuing our hard-liquor analogies, we shall note that the world of realists is unquestionably dominated by the leading global brands, such as Smirnoff, Absolut, Finlandia, Stolichnaya, Russian Standard and others. A small provincial vodka manufacturer cannot break into the major league. Cognacs have a major league of their own, the so-called “big four”, that includes Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier. But even the smallest manufacturer in the most remote village somewhere in the department of Charente is capable of challenging the cognac’s major leaguers, which is the case for many a second-tier brand, whether Hardy, Edgard Leyrat, Denis Charpentier, Frapin, Godet Freres, A.E.Dor, Chabasse, Delamain, Bisquit, Renault, Meukow, Delon, Hine, Louis Royer, Marnier or Ragnaud-Sabourin. Even in the historical homeland of cognac, the richness of the cognac world is not limited to the brands listed, let alone the endless and wonderful “limited edition” brandies on the vast space from Spain and Portugal to Moldova and Armenia!

Realists tend to be pessimistic as they proceed from the premise of persistent nationalism and unfaltering state egotism. Hence, the logical uselessness of any attempts to significantly increase governability of the international system. There can be no cordial trust between states as a matter of principle, and talk about global public goods brings an ironic smile to the faces of realists. They view the norms of international law, activities of international organizations and other attributes of global governance with the same irony.

Rather, liberals are optimists as they believe in progress, moral foundations of humanity, international law and international organizations. Multilateralism is more important for liberals than multipolarity, and global public goods carry greater weight than the global balance of power. Liberals produce a constant stream of ideas about the new world order that would be based on harmonizing the interests of all the participants of the international system instead of the eternal confrontation between great powers.

It would be wrong to claim that all vodka drinkers are grim, unfriendly, introverted people, while cognac drinkers are merry, outgoing and charming bon vivants. But the fact remains: people drink vodka solely to bring themselves into a certain state, with all the idle talk of “tasty vodka” devoid of any empirical foundations. At most, we can talk about “soft” or “harsh” vodka, the latter essentially being an insufficiently rectified product. Conversely, people drink cognac to enjoy the process of its consumption since the drink has a virtually unlimited range of shades of aromas, flavours and aftertastes. The aesthetics of liberals is as superior to the aesthetics of realists as the aesthetics of communicating with cognac is superior to the aesthetics of a dialogue with vodka.

We shall take the liberty of assuming that it is precisely due to its logical integrity that the realist approach has fewer obvious prospects of further development than the liberal approach as it remains more of an outline for a new theory than a theory as such. In general, liberalism is more sensitive to changes in the international environment and to the fluctuations in the “currency basket” of global influence. This is precisely why it is so hard for liberalism to shape into a full-fledged theory.

The structural liberalism of today differs far more from the idealism of Woodrow Wilson than today’s neorealism does from the classical realism professed by Edward Carr, Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan. If the technology of vodka manufacturing has not changed greatly, then a 50-year-old vodka would be no different from a freshly bottled one. Fifty-year-old cognac, however, has very little in common with its young relative of two or three years. The unique organoleptic properties of a young and a mature cognac are virtually impossible to confuse.

Today’s textbooks, university lectures and academic journals on international relations treat political realism in greater detail and more extensively than liberalism. This is understandable. Neophytes explore its tenets easily and naturally, while liberalism requires a somewhat greater intellectual and emotional effort. Vodka is downed in a single gulp while holding one’s breath. Cognac is savoured, drunk in tiny sips so that it can fully reveal its bouquet.

Historically, many leading IR experts of the realist school attempted to supplement their concepts with some elements of liberal (neoliberal) approaches in the course of time. However, very few liberals have defected to the realist camp. As a lover of vodka accumulates life experiences, they sometimes switch to cognac, while a lover of cognac is hardly likely to switch to vodka, at least willingly.

Naturally, the international situation ultimately determines the current balance between the realist and liberal approaches. History shows us that political realism works particularly well in an international system where states do most of communication.

The higher international tensions run, the more Westphalian elements are present in global politics and the louder and more confident the voices of realists can be heard.

When times of international tensions are left behind, when matters of survival and security recede into the background, giving way to issues of development and prosperity, when not only states but societies, too, engage in active communication, the nearly withered liberal paradigm then sprouts leaves and flowers yet again.

You will be hard-pushed to find a confirmed lover of cognac who would refuse a warming shot of vodka upon coming back to their unheated house following a long trek through the cold winter forest. And why indeed would they? At the same time, it would be very odd and plain silly to sit in front of a fireplace, endlessly looking at its dying embers and nursing an unfinished shot of vodka while enjoying the magic sounds of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.

As the attentive reader must already have guessed, the author of these highly subjective and somewhat rambling notes that stake no claim to gravity is rather a lover of cognac than a vodka enthusiast. Yet, he has to acknowledge the obvious. Recent years have ushered in a historically protracted process of rectification, vodka and political realism in global politics. Under the battering winds of de-globalization, amid the uninviting situation of many regional conflicts and down the heavy thunderclouds of global problems gathering on the horizon, the hand is instinctively reaching for a shot of vodka rather than a snifter of cognac. As was repeatedly the case in the past, survival and security overshadow development and prosperity on the global agenda. For most international actors, the current objective is to warm up a little and restore vitality—not to enjoy a sophisticated drink. Political realism is a convenient and, in a way, adequate reflection of the existing realities.

The time of distillation, cognac and liberalism will come, though. The hot sun of globalization will peek through the clouds of crises as the current conflicts will recede into the past. Non-state actors, as well as small and middle nations, will again play a greater role in international relations. Without clearing the familiar shot glasses from the table, we should try to keep decadent cognac snifters somewhere in the back of our kitchen cabinets. It is only a matter of time before “big tulips” and “small tulips” come in handy.


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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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