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Putin's New Old Foreign Policy

Message Nicolai Petro
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This comment first appeared in the Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel of March 12, 2012

Introduced by Vladimir Frolov:  Does Putin offer the right vision for Russia's foreign policy in the 21st century? Or is his foreign policy concept already outdated? Should Russia seek to be a global superpower defending the established international status quo and the 20th century system of international law that underpins it? Does Russia have the necessary resources and reliable allies to be a viable global power? Or should Russia retrench to a much more limited role as a Eurasian regional power, focusing its resources on where it matters most to its vital interests?


It is still hard to imagine a foreign policy doctrine, by Russia or any other country, that does not regard sovereignty as its core principle. We are still very far from world government.

There is, however, a key difference between the unipolar world order touted by the United States and its NATO allies and the multipolar world advocated by Russia and its BRICS allies. The former group takes for granted that the internal values of its alliance are benign and universal, and should therefore represent the true international consensus. When this proves not to be the case, they feel frustrated and misunderstood.

The BRICS, by contrast, feel that no international consensus on values exists, although individually their views vary on the desirability of such a goal. Interestingly enough, among the BRICS countries Russia is probably closest to the West in believing that an international consensus on values is possible. It has proposed a number of working groups to discuss such a goal, but these calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Therefore, these groups disagree not on the importance of sovereignty, but rather on whose values should dominate in the international arena. The United States and NATO see no need to challenge the sovereignty of nations within that alliance because the quintessential values of the West are being upheld by domestic governments. The sovereignty of other nations, however, is subject to challenges because domestic governments there do not (or cannot) uphold Western values. The BRICS see almost no need to challenge the sovereignty of nations, even if their domestic governments do not uphold Western values.

It is worth pointing out that the practical positions of both groups are not as extreme as their philosophical differences would suggest. This was clearly revealed by Russia's and China's de facto support of the military intervention in Libya to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis in Benghazi. Unfortunately, when this limited intervention became a NATO-led mission to change the regime in power, it transformed what could have been a true breakthrough in establishing a new standard for humanitarian intervention into its very opposite. Russia and China will now never agree to such blank checks on principle, as much in order to reinforce the Security Council mechanism as to highlight their own centrality to any true international consensus.

I would therefore say that Russia's current foreign policy vision is commensurate with its regional power and influence. At the same time, it is also part of a growing network of nations that seek to fundamentally alter the architecture of international relations. Their ultimate goal is to reinforce international institutions so that they may serve as much to constrain the powerful as to protect the weak. I tend to regard this as an enlightened position.
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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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