Russia’s Moral Framework and Why It Matters

A look into Russia's moral framework and the relationship it has with religion and state values could help us better understand what makes Moscow tick.

Russia’s moral framework, particularly as it applies to contemporary Russian foreign policy, differs markedly from that of the West.

While post-Soviet Russia has no guiding ideology, it does argue that certain values, if adopted as shared principles of behavior, are more congenial to international order than others. Russia would like to see such principles of behavior be more widely adopted, but, recognizing that each nation’s cultural development is unique, it very much opposes efforts to promote any one set of ethical values beyond its borders. Hence, the only time that the international community may legitimately appeal to transnational ethical norms, is when such are sanctioned by the United Nations. This is a high bar, but, Russia argues, it has been set high on purpose, to avoid abuse.

The specific values that Russia sees as more congenial to international order are those shared by Russia’s four traditional religious communities—Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Their comfortable interaction with each other and with the state, Russia argues, demonstrates that religion need not be a source of conflict in the modern world. Indeed, Russian spokesmen have often argued that Western nations could learn a lot from the Russian model.                     

This moral framework has led to four areas of friction with the West.        

The first involves the nature of the international order. Since the rise of human rights and democracy as explicit U.S. foreign-policy objectives in the 1970s, Western political leaders have argued that, in the best of all possible worlds, foreign policy is a reflection of domestic politics. The theory built around this assumption—“democratic peace theory”— in its most popular form is taken to suggest that democracies do not go to war with each other. States that promote democracy are therefore promoting a morally desirable international order, whereas states that object to such efforts are deemed immoral.

As Western concern for democracy and human rights has outpaced that of international institutions, the United States and its allies have sought ways around these institutions, by asserting that Western values are the de facto, if not de jure, international standard. When several Western nations act in concert, therefore, they do not require any explicit mandate from the United Nations. This has been a source of considerable friction between Russia and the West.

A third source of tension stems from the erosion of traditional religions as the arbiters of morality in the West. For some in the West, it follows that international society must now find some alternative normative framework. Since the values of individualism, secularism and modernization led to the rise of the West, according to this line of thinking, they serve as appropriate benchmarks for the rest of humanity.

Finally, in today’s Russia the Orthodox Church is closely partnered with the state. It provides both intellectual and moral support to many state policies, not because it has to, but because it wants to. The current moral framework of Russian foreign policy is, indeed, its view, which the Church promotes because it is convinced that creating a “congenial international order” will assist it in its threefold salvific mission—to save individual souls, to save all national cultures that have been baptized into Christ, and to save all mankind. Needless to say, this is as far from the doctrine of separation of Church and State as East is from West.  

The moral contours of the present East-West conflict should now be readily apparent. Russia opposes the adoption of any single set of cultural values as the standard for international behavior. Many in the West counter that Western values are not just a lone cultural standard, but the de facto universal standard. Russia labels this unilateralism and advocates a multipolar world order based on pluriculturalism as a better alternative.

Pluriculturalism argues that there is an inherent (“God-given,” according to Vladimir Putin) value to diversity among nations. This is distinct from multiculturalism which values diversity within nations. Russia assigns diversity within nations a lower priority than it does diversity among nations. By contrast, Western states more typically prize diversity within nations (the rights of the individual), whereas among nations they seek to subordinate national cultural differences to standards, such as human rights, that express modern Western values.

The potential for international conflict is obvious, but it is hardly inevitable. For one thing, if we look at this debate in historical and religious context, we see that it has deep roots in the West.

Thus, Russia’s pluriculturalism, which argues that national cultural distinctions impose certain moral limits on the conduct of foreign policy, used to be called “American exceptionalism” in this country and was typically cited as the reason America does NOT go abroad, as John Quincy Adams put it, “in search of monsters to destroy.” Contrast this to president Obama’s assertion last year at West Point that “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will,” which takes it for granted that subjecting all nations to American leadership is a moral good.

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