Vladimir Putin was expected to make headlines at the extraordinary meeting of Russia’s Security Council on July 22. Some thought he would announce a change of foreign policy, while others believed he would signal a harder line. Both were disappointed.
The president’s remarks at the meeting, or at least the part that was open to the press, seemed perfunctory. He said the right things, but betrayed little emotion. Putin’s manner stood in sharp contrast with the tumult surrounding Russia, but Putin likely wanted to project calm and show that there was no reason to panic.
And truly his speech sounded as if it was written for a routine meeting, as if Putin only wanted to remind the world about an issue of importance to him, sovereignty, and the timing was merely coincidental.
Most of what Putin said could be anticipated, but there was one line that stood out. “Russia is fortunately not a member of any alliance. This is also a guarantee of our sovereignty. Any nation that is part of an alliance gives up part of its sovereignty,” he said.
Russia has always believed that a truly powerful country must have complete freedom to act. Still, Putin’s comment was probably the first time that the importance of avoiding alliances was expressed so unambiguously. The question is whether Russia is really better off on its own.
The United States debated the right balance between sovereignty and alliances in the early 2000s in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
During a press briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that “the mission determines the coalition, and the coalition must not be permitted to determine the mission.” In other words, the US does not need settled alliances with an unchanging mission. Alliances should be created to deal with rising threats or problems, and should consist of countries that are capable of contributing. New challenges should give rise to new coalitions.
At that time, Rumsfeld’s words did not sound like breaking news, because the coalition that Washington was creating at the time included the majority of UN member states. The US needed the broadest support possible for its military response.
Few people noticed that the day after 9/11, the US quietly discouraged NATO allies from invoking Article 5 of the charter, on collective defense. The United States was sending a signal that it planned to fight the war alone.
Washington made clear it would not rely on anyone, not even its oldest and closest allies, on matter of national security.
The full import of Rumsfeld’s words became clear eighteen months later, as the US was gearing up to topple Saddam Hussein. Since some of its key allies were wary of such a risky war, Washington decided against working through NATO. Instead, it created a 49-member “coalition of the willing,” which included such unconventional members as Tonga and Nicaragua, but not America’s main partners in Europe – Germany and France.
Rumsfeld’s ideas about coalitions would come to be roundly criticized.
Ultimately the Bush administration was forced to turn to the UN to give legitimacy to the US occupation of Iraq and to help stabilize the country. And after succeeding Bush, Barack Obama officially laid the neoconservative project to rest and emphasized the importance of institutions and alliances.
Starting with the 2011 Libyan campaign, US officials, including Robert Gates, who replaced Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief, have consistently called on European allies to share more of the responsibility and financial burden. The crisis in Ukraine has given these arguments added weight, but European countries have so far resisted making commitments to increase spending, in particular on defense, despite their growing alarm. Baltic and Central European countries expect the burden to be carried by the heavy-weights, who, in turn, hope to keep costs down.
In short, the world’s sole superpower, whose belief in its omnipotence has waned since the early 2000s, is looking for ways to share the burden. It was arrogant of the US to try to go it alone.
Russia, on the other hand, is content to stay out of alliances because it understands that it cannot find enough allies to achieve its new goals anyway. This may sound strange after the recent successful BRICS meeting or Russia’s considerable efforts to promote its Eurasian integration project, which will, in fact, constrain Russian sovereignty, as the supranational Eurasian Economic Commission will be able to overrule the governments of member countries on some issues. As for BRICS, the countries that make up that informal group have one thing in common besides their growing economic and political clout: they are not members of binding alliances and maintain full sovereignty. This is why it is so difficult for them to work out a common agenda, even though they have coordinated many general statements.
Any agenda put forward by BRICS should aim to create a better world order with a fairer division of authority and a greater role for the rapidly growing emerging economies.
Russia shares this view, even though it is not an emerging country historically, psychologically or economically. Russia’s own agenda has always been highly specific, as evidenced by the developments in Ukraine. While it wants to be seen as a crucial world power, Russia is also searching for an identity and trying to determine the extent of the “Russian world”, how it relates to the borders of the Russian Federation, how best to expand the country’s reach in former Soviet/Russian territory, and where the limit of its capabilities lies. Answering these questions will be fraught with considerable risk, and Russia must do it alone, as these are not the kinds of goals that can inspire solidarity.
The growth of any country’s power and status is bound to meet with resistance from other countries.
China kept a low profile for a long time in order to avoid provoking resistance, in keeping with the strategy of Deng Xiaoping. At that stage it did not need to ally with anyone. But it has grown so strong that it can no longer sit quietly in the back of the classroom. China can’t do anything now without arousing the world’s suspicion. Avoiding alliances would only make matters worse.
Alliances are not only a way for large and rising powers to leverage external connections to address internal challenges, they are also a way to reassure the world that they possess the necessary self-restraint. Such countries need to show a willingness to join alliances, and set goals that will be attractive to at least some countries. In this sense, the policy of resistance to US hegemony (or the spread of democracy, as the US sees it) has a future, whereas the “Russian world” does not.
Until Russia can come up with an idea that is attractive to some, if not all, countries, we will have to keep telling ourselves that we’re better off alone.