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Timofey Bordachev

PhD in Political Science, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, HSE University, RIAC Member

The beginning of August was marked by two events that, in the absence of their fundamental significance for the global agenda, are essential for understanding what international politics may look like in the future. First, there was a de facto rupture of relations between China and the small Baltic state of Lithuania after the authorities of the latter made a decision to de facto recognise the sovereignty of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of the People’s Republic of China. Second, this is the first anniversary of the stormy internal political events in Belarus that followed presidential elections which were not recognised by the United States or the European Union and caused discontent among a significant part of Belarusian society.

In the first case, we see how the behaviour of a formally independent state is completely subordinate to the decisions of one of the great powers. Protection by the United States is the most important national interest of Lithuania, since Lithuania itself cannot ensure its own survival due to its lack of potential. In essence, China is now dealing with the implementation of one of the tactical tasks within the framework of the US survival strategy, although formally we are talking about the decision of a sovereign member of the international community. In the case of Belarus, the survival of the state in August - September 2020 was also provided by the full support from Russia, for which the collapse of the Belarusian statehood would mean the emergence of a security threat. At the same time, unlike Lithuania, we cannot say that even now that all decisions made by Minsk correlate with the development of the situation that is optimal for Moscow.
The beginning of August was marked by two events that, in the absence of their fundamental significance for the global agenda, are essential for understanding what international politics may look like in the future. First, there was a de facto rupture of relations between China and the small Baltic state of Lithuania after the authorities of the latter made a decision to de facto recognise the sovereignty of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of the People’s Republic of China. Second, this is the first anniversary of the stormy internal political events in Belarus that followed presidential elections which were not recognised by the United States or the European Union and caused discontent among a significant part of Belarusian society.

In the first case, we see how the behaviour of a formally independent state is completely subordinate to the decisions of one of the great powers. Protection by the United States is the most important national interest of Lithuania, since Lithuania itself cannot ensure its own survival due to its lack of potential. In essence, China is now dealing with the implementation of one of the tactical tasks within the framework of the US survival strategy, although formally we are talking about the decision of a sovereign member of the international community. In the case of Belarus, the survival of the state in August - September 2020 was also provided by the full support from Russia, for which the collapse of the Belarusian statehood would mean the emergence of a security threat. At the same time, unlike Lithuania, we cannot say that even now that all decisions made by Minsk correlate with the development of the situation that is optimal for Moscow.

At the same time, Lithuania and Belarus are themselves in a state of acute conflict. It began exactly a year ago, when Lithuania’s authorities decided to start an active struggle against their neighbour. During the course of this struggle, Lithuania acted as a proxy for the United States and the leading states of Europe, while Belarus, in turn, is only marginally controlled by Russia, at least from the point of view of most knowledgeable Russian observers. But the survival of this country is in Russia's national interest.

As we can see, in this case, the great powers - Russia, China and the United States - are not interacting directly, but with those who by themselves cannot bear full responsibility for their actions. This raises the question of how, in modern conditions, great powers should act and can, in principle, build relationships with partners who have UN-recognised sovereignty, but do not have the ability to pursue their own foreign policy? This question seems important because the choice of diplomatic or power instruments depends on the answer.

From the Russian point of view, this is especially relevant, since it is surrounded by such neighbours, just like the United States is surrounded by oceans.

Moreover, in recent years, it did not express the desire to regain full control over its neighbours in order to conduct a dialogue with its peers directly, as was the case in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the borders of the most important powers of Eurasia were actually aligned.

The emergence of the dialogue problem with countries that do not have the capacity to engage in fully responsible behaviour has become one of the results of international politics in the 20th century. Over the past 100 years, the international system has been filled with a huge number of states that are unable to ensure their survival independently. This process was launched after the First World War, when the victorious powers were interested in creating a significant number of small countries that were absolutely dependent on them. In place of the destroyed Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires, a large group of state entities arose in Eastern Europe.

None of them could play even an insignificant role during the next big war, in 1939-1945. Even Poland, the largest in terms of population, was vanquished in a manner of weeks and later reborn thanks to the victorious Soviet army. The others may have been more or less successful in developing their own economic base during the 1918-1939 "truce", but their ability to ensure sovereignty with respect to national defence was immediately disproved. All these countries, except Finland, either fell under the pressure of internal circumstances, or were defeated because they acted as potential or active satellites of the opposing sides.

However, after the end of World War II, the "parade of sovereignties" continued on a global scale. Moreover, after 1945, the great powers acquired exceptional resources to manage international affairs - a colossal power gap that arose as a result of the creation of large arsenals of nuclear weapons. During the 1950-1970 period, the main engine of sovereignty was the desire of the two great powers - the USSR and the United States - to create a network of their own client states on the basis of the European colonial empires, unable to ensure their survival without the help of Washington or Moscow. In fact, the process which took place mirrored what had happened 25 years beforehand in Eastern Europe, only the other empires were divided - the British and French colonies.

Sometime later, albeit on a smaller scale, China also joined this movement. Before that point, Beijing’s funds had been limited enough that it could reliably promote a strategy of "national self-determination" to protect its own interests. China, in fact, found itself lagging behind in this race, and now it can only think about how client states of Russia or the United States can be so insecure about their future that they will transfer external governance into the hands of Beijing. So far, we have not seen convincing examples of such behaviour.

Moreover, after the collapse of their own colonial empires, Britain and France were able to regain control over the foreign policy of some of the entities that arose from their ruins. Now this control is carried out directly in very rare cases and mainly occurs through institutional mechanisms of interaction, with the European Union or other organisations of the community of market democracies.

As a result of the end of the Cold War, a significant number of countries in need of external support for their survival arose not only in Eastern Europe, but also within the territory of the former USSR. Some of the newly independent states have shown compelling evidence of a movement towards more effective sovereignty. The collapse of the USSR, as well as the collapse of the colonial system in previous decades, led to Russia and China being surrounded by a number of neighbours with whom they can build relatively equal relations in the same way that the United States can deal practically on equal terms with Great Britain, Germany or France.

However,a a significant number of these neighbours simply lack the human and geopolitical resources. As a result, both great powers must now move towards the formation of a special foreign policy with a whole group of countries, which would take into account the peculiarities of their situation. But they are not the only ones. The United States and the leading EU countries also form specific policies towards those who entrust their survival to Russia or China, taking into account what role Moscow or Beijing play in their fate. It is the conflict between the United States and Russia that determines the actions Washington or Berlin takes in relation to, for example, Armenia or Belarus, and not the actual bilateral relations.

Russia also cannot proceed from the assumption that fully ordinary bilateral diplomacy exists in relations with Lithuania or Romania. An opposite example is Russia's policy towards Pakistan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan - countries that have the resources necessary for independent survival and responsible foreign policy. China has tried to build traditional relations with the countries of Eastern Europe, but now these efforts are facing noticeable difficulties.

It is very likely that as international politics return to a dynamic balance of power, the leading powers will strive to ensure that their bilateral relations are limited to the circle of those who really have the ability to be responsible in their behaviour. With regard to the rest, one can expect a gradual transformation of the usual diplomatic practice towards a special model that differs in its quality and content. What this new content will be is now no longer a speculative, but a practical task. This new type of relationship can become a kind of proxy diplomacy, which in any case is better than the proxy war that is familiar to all of us.


Source: Valdai. Discussion club

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