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Russia-as-Victim Narrative: Values vs. Interests in Foreign Policy

Lately Russia has been more and more vocal in its rejections of human rights and democracy criticism from other nations, many of which have their own problems in these areas. But is the hypocrisy of some of your critics sufficient to give you a blank moral check? lavrovrice.jpg Sergei Lavrov may see “values” differently than Condoleezza Rice Granted, Russia’s objections often make a strong point. I’ve always been one of the first to admit that in previous years, before Russia started its tragic backslide, Moscow had gotten a pretty raw deal in some respects from the West. Just six years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, Putin offered unprecedented access to Russian airfields for the campaign in Afghanistan, a potential opportunity for deeper security cooperation that was quickly squandered by a clumsy U.S. Administration that soon moved forward on NATO expansion. There are a plethora of other examples of hypocrisy and injustice in the West’s relations with Russia, but at no point do any of these facts provide any cover for the steady deconstruction of law, markets, and democracy. Whatever else we might say, I am one person who understands that Vladimir Putin’s anger in Munich was in no small part based his having been let down in a very personal and political sense by his U.S. initiative. Yet the Kremlin is extremely talented at weaving these convincing narratives, arguing, sometimes even whining, that Russia is a victim of the double standards of a ruthlessly unfair West. And because of this tragic victimhood, goes the story, Russia is entitled to bend a few rules here and there.

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The Kremlin could use a moment of reflection

The Russia-as-victim Narrative is often just a subtle subtext, a natural response you are inclined toward following the official framing of an issue. For example, when Moscow says in regards to the missile defense system “we were never consulted in advance,” “we were deceived,” and announces that Russia has once again regained its “foreign policy independence,” the message that is meant to be understood is that Americans don’t respect us equals, we are lied to as though they think we are weak, and that we should guide our policy toward reasserting our power. Similarly, in defending their conduct in the Khodorkovsky case and the energy imperialism activism by Gazprom, the narrative rather efficiently connects all things open and free with suspicions of sinister economic and market threats from outsiders. Sure, we broke the law to throw Khodorkovsky in the gulag and steal his company, the narrative goes, but he was going to do more business with the West, and take more away from you, the people! Sure, our crackdown on opposition parties and civil society is unconstitutional, but hey, we’re protecting you from evil outside forces that want to rob you blind! This encouraged paranoia toward free markets and democracy may be in part a Soviet hangover, but make no mistake, those who say that liberty means nothing more than the economic plunder of the Russian people are only making an excuse to destroy rule of law in order to crudely cling to power. However, given some of the recent, especially truculent reactions from Lavrov and company to U.S. policy, both on democracy and security issues, it looks like the narrative has hit a new climax. One thing seems especially clear to me from the foreign ministry comments this week: Moscow’s increased willingness to ratchet up the tensions with Washington indicates a very real fear of a homegrown “color revolution,” and the rhetorical grounds are already being prepared for an aggressive crackdown on these elements of dissidence (whether the movements have anything to do with Washington will of course be entirely irrelevant). The truculence is not the flexing bicep of oil and gas hubris, but rather an open streak of weakness and panic before the transfer of power.

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Russia’s greatest fear is a color revolution

The Russia-as-victim Narrative really boils down to a conceptual difference between so-called “values” and “interests” in the articulation of foreign policy. Yesterday Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, had a column running in the Moscow Times examining this issue titled “Increasing Supply on the World Values Market.” According to the article, a recent policy report from the Russian Foreign Ministry contained the word “interests” nearly 100 times, yet only contained the word “values” four times, which goes a long way toward explaining how Moscow views values as cultural and historical traits, rather than guiding principals to organize a society and government (hence talking about democratic values can be seen by the Kremlin as a violation of sovereignty – like telling them to make the U.S. Civil War or French literature standard curriculum in schools). As such, the Russia-as-victim Narrative constantly seeks to stake out the position of indignant insult, which is especially aggressively applied to the perceived desire on behalf of the West to impose a suspicious model (parliamentary democracy, freedom of press, what have you) uncomfortably upon Russia. Despite these real and imagined incongruities, Lukyanov writes that “Sooner or later, Russia’s foreign policy community will come to the conclusion that these notorious ‘values’ represent an opportunity to pursue our ‘interests,’ though not because hypocritical rhetoric provides the country with cover for cynical motives.” I think that too many discussions on values vs. interests in foreign policy are an exercise in rigid reductionism. There is indeed room to talk about a model of foreign policy realism that includes elements of values, which in theory could be applied to the benefit of all. For example last month I held a series of meetings with civil society organizations in Poland, and one colleague brought up the example of a groundbreaking speech that was made just last fall by the Foreign Minister of Japan, Taro Aso, called “The Arc of Freedom and Prosperity.”

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Here is what Aso says:

“We are aiming to add a new pillar upon which our policy will revolve. First of all there is “value oriented diplomacy,” which involves placing emphasis on the “universal values” such as democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and the market economy as we advance our diplomatic endeavors. And second, there are the successfully budding democracies that line the outer rim of the Eurasian continent, forming an arc. Here Japan wants to design an “arc of freedom and prosperity”. Indeed, I believe that we must create just such an arc. I know that there will be people who hear this and insist that this smacks of a Western approach somehow–that it is unbefitting for Japan, saying, tell the man who looks at home in traditional wooden geta clogs not to go fancying himself dressed up in a Western suitcoat. So too will there be people saying, when exactly did this country that suffered such a heavy defeat in a war and caused such great adversity both at home and abroad suddenly arrive at such a “virtuous conscience” that it now can lecture to others? And yet to that I can only reply that it is not normal to insist that the “self” that one sees in the mirror is merely an imitation or a clever invention; what one sees when one looks in the mirror is the real thing. You can forget everything else you hear today. But Japan is already of age, and what we need is to let go of that way of thinking that makes us squirm when we see our reflection in the mirror. We need to be able to look at it without feeling ill at ease. That is my view on things.”

Aso’s speech, made all the more impressive by the fact that it comes after the Iraq debacle and before the Munich outburst, illustrates the dramatic geopolitical shift occurring in the world today. Contrary to popular belief, this shift is not only about energy. Lavrov himself is fond of saying that the West has lost its monopoly on globalization, yet he and his colleagues don’t yet seem to recognize that they are running out of time to play both sides of the field – the desire to become a global player, and integrate into the world economy at the same time. Taro Aso has provided a glowing example to all, because unlike the Ostpolitik of Germany’s SPD, or the pandering of Romano Prodi to Russia at the insistence of Italy’s energy kings, the Arc of Peace and Prosperity recognizes that values ARE interests in foreign policy, and despite being 100% dependent on oil and gas imports, Japan will not ignore its beliefs in markets and democracy for a quick deal. The Russia-as-victim Narrative largely functions because Moscow has been able to successfully divorce international democratic values from national interest, because its has firmly bonded ideas of Western-like models of government and economy to economic exploitation, and because the West has morally failed the reformers within the Kremlin, both with clumsy faux pax and the shameless abandon of values to get a better oil or gas deal than their neighbor. No wonder so many hardliners in Moscow don’t believe in the relevance of values. Russia, like Japan, also has a complicated historical reckoning to get through, and one day it too will have to look in the mirror and be comfortable with what it sees. The moment in which Russia is prepared change directions, and recognize that values are the most effective way to pursue interests, is a moment that I hope to one day see.

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