Is Russia no longer on the wrong side of history?
U.S. President Barack Obama once famously claimed Russia was “on the wrong side of history” in its reaction to events in Ukraine. He earlier criticized Mr. Putin “for Cold War approaches,” claiming that he had “one foot in the old ways of doing business.”
However, as the world chaotically yet steadily moves towards a new international order, it is also increasingly leading to a new narrative very different from the one of the Cold War. In it, it is Mr. Obama, repeatedly referring to the United States as “the world’s only superpower” (and he did it again last week in his remarks to students of the University of Queensland in Australia), who may find his country “on the wrong side.”
As the world is being torn apart by sanctions, tensions and geopolitical ambitions those who hoped to see it united and free 25 years ago feel increasingly anxious, fearing the return of the Cold War. Similarly, some Cold War hawks are spreading their wings in their hopes of flying again. Yet, what we witness in the contemporary confrontation is something quite different from the post-WWII standoff between the West and the East, which ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and collapse of the Soviet Union.
There are two principal distinctions.
First, the current tension is not ideological. There is no existential competition between the two systems – communism and capitalism – that were on a collision course following the Allied triumph over Nazism.
That is, all or most of the countries in today’s world share the overarching principles of democracy and market economy. It is, of course, impossible to say that the U.S., Europe, Russia, China and countries of the Middle East and Africa are on the same page as to how they read and implement those principles. Indeed, there are growing gaps in perceptions of those countries within their respective national debates, including within the United States and countries of the European Union. So it is only natural that, on a global scale, the dispersion of views is amplified.
What is important is that, as on the national level, differences on the global level should serve the purpose of improving the application of basic ideas to local and contemporary needs. Debate should aspire to the inclusivity of divergent groups of the population, not as a cause for interference or the advancement of select geopolitical interests.
The second distinction of the current period of tension that differentiates it from the Cold War is that it does not bear a bipolar character. It is not Russia’s struggle against the West. Nor is it a struggle between the West and the East.
The reality, created by shifts in the global community, is much larger and much more complex than that. Current tensions of the West with Moscow are just an episode of it. From Russia to China, from the Middle East to Latin America, there is a growing disappointment in the policies of the West and a desire to rebalance the global system, to make it fairer and more inclusive.
Moreover, in the new "flat world" it is not only states (including very small ones that couldn't dream of such powers in the old days) that demand inclusivity of the world order. It is also non-state actors and the societies themselves, the empowered citizens, who want to have a say. They have a right and now a capacity to do so.
These forces add increasing multilateral, multidimensional, multilayered features to the contemporary non-bipolar global confrontation.
The situation in Syria could serve as an excellent example of that. Frequent attempts to portray the conflict as a “proxy war” between Russia and the U.S. overlook the interests and actions of all the other players – from Iran and Turkey to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, al-Nusra Front and Hezbollah.
Failure to grasp this complex nature limits the capacity of conflict resolution and expands the potential for its replication in other countries of the region and beyond. Moreover, inadequate strategy and imprudent actions have led to dramatic consequences and the establishment of the Islamic State, which adds another dimension to the confrontation on a global scale.
Similarly, it is important to understand that the crisis in Ukraine is of a much more complex nature than simply being a product of confrontation between Russia and the West. The confrontation between Russia and the West is a product of domestic issues in Ukraine, mismanagement of the country by its elite for 25 years, corruption and a failure of the nation building process.
It is exactly the failure to understand these complexities that have led to some very dramatic decisions by the European Union and the United States to which Russia reacted. But again, even at this stage, it is not a bipolar confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine. It is, first of all, a multi-layered and multi-actor conflict within Ukraine that leads to a failure of the state, an impasse for coherent policies, and lost potential for compromises.
Now, despite obvious evidence of a new type of confrontation in the world, there is still an attempt to replicate Cold War narratives and tactics, to get it over with Russia, failing to concede that Russia is not a threat to the global community.
The answer is simple. The end of history was there. It felt that the unipolar moment would last. Yet, technology and the economy, powers which are beyond political control, shifted the balance and empowered even the smallest, creating an opportunity for a true multipolarity.
For Russia, as well as other challengers of the unipolar world order, this created opportunities. For the United States, it created threats.
It is hard for the United States to experience this turn of events. In a unipolar view of the world, “either you are with us or against us.”
The United States has not managed the transition from the unipolar moment to a true multipolarity. Moreover, struggling with this burden during a period of relative decline, the Washington elites faced challenges not only from the global community, but also their domestic constituency. Thus, we see these attempts to leverage the old narratives and phobias.
Russia’s perceived threat is the most obvious leverage that Washington is trying to exploit in order to cling to the title of “the world’s only superpower.” The U.S. hopes that by defeating Russia, it will curb resistance from anyone else for its eventual face-off with China. Yet, today’s policies will not be enough.
Information and economic warfare may have dramatic consequences for the dynamic of Russia's economic and social development, but it will not be able to change the global dynamic in which the United States will have to share and live, a world of inclusive global governance.