How Russia Sees the World

There's a middle course between nationalist isolation and globalist impulses.

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Russian public and political discussions have recently been revolving around two important issues. On the one hand, Russians have been desperately trying to find some transcendental national peculiarity in their past, present and future, seeing their uniqueness in virtually everything, from the first days of Russian statehood to the tectonic shifts and controversial changes of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In other words, Russians are different and essentially much better than the rest of the world. Or maybe they are not better—but that’s for the better as well.

This self-perception (or its cynical imitation) is the backbone of the “national idea” everyone has been diligently seeking but not finding. It is common knowledge that practically all national entities tend to emphasize their uniqueness. At times, this perception becomes more acute, such as when such metaphysical self-admiration is employed as a distraction from more serious and mundane problems. After all, euphoria brought on by feeling unique is a sure sign of inner trouble.

But pompously advertising one’s uniqueness has nothing to do with feelings of exceptionalism. In fact, the absence of such advertisement would be unusual. Practically every country considers itself different from others in some essential way. I once asked a colleague in Luxembourg how he thought his country differed from its neighbors, including Germany. He pondered for a moment, and then said: “It’s dirtier there.” I still cannot understand whether this assessment was based more on perception or reality; to Russians, both are quite clean. So this judgment seems not only ridiculous in this context but in fact quite dangerous.

On the other hand, against this “national idea,” we all have experienced terrible spells of one-dimensional globalist concepts. Such concepts mercilessly erase distinctions that do not fit into the absolute mainstream while purporting to be an ultimate and irreversible triumph. When such ideas possess the masses, they become a material force that destroys everything in its way, including the masses possessed by these ideas.

All world empires nourished such wishes during their heyday: see, for example, belligerent French and German globalists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively. In Russia, they took shape in the twentieth century as “world social revolution,” which sparked fierce tactical debates on whether such revolution should be carried out by way of global mutiny or by the Red Army’s cavalry and tank offensive “from the taiga to the British seas.”

Another global trend is gaining momentum today—the creation (or re-creation) of a global Islamic state. One can endlessly and futilely argue about how it fits into classical Islam. When the idea of an inevitable worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto was triumphantly winning minds around the world and becoming a material force, one could hardly imagine what it would lead to in Russia’s labor camps or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. What is important is that the current idea, just like all those before it, is fresh and reaches people of different cultural backgrounds in different countries, strongly motivating their lives—including their readiness for self-sacrifice. This has been the case with many global obsessive undertakings that have taken hold of people’s minds throughout history.

But of course, this new ideological pandemic will vanish, just as all the others before it, and new Islamist commissars will disappear from the political stage to become history. But at what cost, especially if its proponents acquire weapons of mass destruction?

In my opinion, both tendencies—the euphoria of uniqueness and the euphoria of boundless globalism—are the main threats to the positive and stable development of international affairs. This means that the appropriate agenda for leaders should include the search, unhurried but consistent, for mutually acceptable rules of behavior. With these rules, countries may constantly adjust the balance between national sovereignty, national identity and the principle of global responsibility.


The United States: A Double Extreme

The notion of global responsibility may move from theory to practice only if the most influential states show the willingness to limit their interests for the sake of balance with other countries. A paragon of this model is the ‘live and let live’ principle established by Richard Nixon, one of the authors of the policy of détente in the 1960s–1970s. Unfortunately, this principle, advocated by a U.S. president who is credited for having pursued a successful and efficient foreign policy, has been nearly forgotten in his own country in the past two decades. The United States has become the foremost representative of what might be called a ‘double-extreme’ approach towards both globalization and exceptionalism.

I have spent a good deal of my life studying that great and wonderful country. I have visited many places from Washington to provincial towns in the Midwest. I can say that I generally like it. However, America’s collective unconscious (and therefore its political behavior at home and abroad) has certain features that raise strategic concerns. I mean specifically the deep-rooted, almost religious, sense of uniqueness and exclusiveness, some kind of belief in a global mission their country must carry out no matter what.

What mission is that? It could be described in one word: democracy. That’s what any American would answer if asked.