Russia's Straight-Talk Express

Russia's Straight-Talk Express

Mini Teaser: Yevgeny Primakov hates to say "I told you so", but....

by Author(s): Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Yevgeny M. Primakov (Foreword by Henry A. Kissinger), A World Challenged: Fighting Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (Washington, DC: The Nixon Center/Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 150 pp., $22.95.

"If the United States works toward creating a viable, multipolar world; if it ceases to think itself capable of and responsible for unilaterally resolving critical issues of international stability and security; and if it stops trying to set unilateral rules of conduct for the international community, then Russia can be a true and loyal partner to the United States."

Substitute "France" or "Germany" (or even "Europe") in place of Russia, and this sentiment could have just as easily been expressed by any major foreign policy thinker, inside or outside of government, from any country on the Continent. In writing A World Challenged, Yevgeny Primakov, by expanding on and developing arguments made in an earlier Russian-language version, assumes a leading role in the ongoing tranatlantic debate over the future of the international system and America's leadership.

Primakov is a figure regarded with some suspicion in Washington circles. His advocacy of policies, particularly as foreign minister and prime minister of the Russian Federation (1996-99), with the express aim of resuscitating Russian power and Russia's ability to act more decisively in the international arena, was not welcomed by those who wanted to construct a new world order predicated on permanent Russian weakness. Meanwhile, his vast expertise on the Middle East--including in-depth personal contacts of the region's "rogues" that far exceeds that of any U.S. official or business executive--was used as the reason to discount any advice he proffered about the region. In this issue of The National Interest, he himself notes that his prescient observations about the pitfalls of postwar Iraq were laughingly dismissed by the Bush Administration's national security team.

This mistake should not be repeated. Whether one agrees with Primakov's assessments or conclusions, he is one of Russia's "elder statesmen" and an unofficial adviser to Vladimir Putin. His opinions not only reflect what much of Russia's political and economic elite think (after all, he is president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry), but also resonates very strongly with what many Chinese and Europeans think as well. Primakov, as the chair of Russia's corps of "grey eminences", has the freedom to speak bluntly and say out loud what many diplomats on current active duty can only think.

Primakov brings together in this book a number of themes he has touched upon in his speeches and articles over the last several years: the current threats to international peace and order, especially transnational terrorism, are too great for any one nation, even one as gifted in power and resources as the United States, to solve. Unilateral action (usually ill-conceived) by one state or a coalition under its aegis inevitably creates more problems than it solves. A viable and stable international order can be constructed only on a concert model, in which all the major powers have a voice. As he notes,

the United States is presently the world's most powerful and influential nation economically, militarily and politically. . . . But that does not mean the United States has become the sole nation that determines the course of world events.

Primakov realizes that the concert model, with its emphasis on consultations and compromise, is a hard sell in Washington. His chapter on the Middle East peace process, particularly developments over the last five years, is meant, in part, to make the case that the United States, even with its overwhelming advantages, is unable to produce any lasting settlement so long as it feels it can operate as the sole mediator for, and guarantor of, any arrangement.

Primakov is also concerned about an American tendency to view cooperation as a sign of weakness. In his opinion, Vladimir Putin helped to facilitate the deployment of U.S. military forces into Central Asia and the Caucasus because he believed this to be a necessary step in dealing with the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan. But, Primakov warns, "this should not be taken as a sign that Russia will not defend its national interests."

Even though Primakov says that "Russian-American relations have entered a new phase of greater mutual trust", it is clear that a significant "trust deficit" still exists. Russia, for its part, continues to have very real doubts about the continued U.S. military presence in Eurasia when it is not clear to Moscow whether the United States recognizes whether Russia has any legitimate security or economic interests in its neighbors. Primakov is also annoyed with the American tendency to point fingers at Russia as being a prime contributor to international insecurity ("the United States must cease unjustifiably accusing us of poorly managing our nuclear material and working with other countries to build nuclear power plants . . . ") while ignoring its own complicity in spawning Al-Qaeda. ("Oddly enough, American intelligence participated in establishing Bin Laden and his organization", he observes.) He would prefer that "demarches like these" should become "a thing of the past."

At the same time, there is little enthusiasm in Washington (on both sides of the aisle) to move to any sort of multilateral arrangement that would appear to take the initiative for maintaining the security of the United States out of American hands. To some American ears, what Primakov advocates sounds very much like proposals that have emanated from Paris and Berlin. In the Spring 2004 issue of The National Interest, Walter Russell Mead summed up the American reaction (and here one can just as easily substitute "Russia" for "Europe"):

"The Bush Administration is not alone in the perception that Europe . . . asks too much and offers too little. "Europe" wants real political control over vital matters of American foreign policy in exchange for kind words at the un, mostly symbolic military support and limited financial aid. For Bush, the price is simply too high. He chooses not to pay. . . . If the price of a good relationship with Europe is the acceptance of a non-reciprocal European veto over American actions, no American president will ever accept it."

And there is a final question. Primakov makes a case that there is an increasing "trend toward a multipolar world." This assertion is open to debate. Even with "greater global interconnectedness", which Primakov believes may "push us toward greater multipolarity", it may still be possible for the United States to retain leadership within the international system without having to face any sort of counterbalancing coalition.

It is also not automatic that the Russian Federation would remain one of the world's key actors. Since the 1998 crash, the Russian economy has recovered; its GDP now totals more than $346 billion. But, in comparison, the United States and the European Union both have a GDP of more than $10 trillion, and China's GDP is $1.4 trillion. By 2050 India is expected to become the world's third-largest national economy (behind the United States and China). Primakov himself cites a statistic that the United States is responsible for two-fifths of the global market share in science and technology, followed by Japan with 30 percent and Germany with 16 percent. No one expects that Russia will be a prime mover in the international system of the 21st century. Indeed, the fact that Russia might be "left out" of the top-tier is a major concern. In quoting the comments of Steven Everts, a senior fellow at the London-based Centre for European Reform, where he advocates a joint American-EU solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Primakov rhetorically asks "the author to examine his own conscience as to why he thinks it possible to exclude Russia as a guarantor in this process." My guess is that Everts does so because he concludes that Russia would have very little to offer in concrete terms.

But Primakov believes that there is more to influence in the international system than being able to deliver suitcases of cash or have a high-tech military machine. In essence, his argument is that Russia will continue to play a major role in the international system because it is willing to take upon itself the responsibilities of a major actor, that "Russian foreign policy can do much to help stabilize conflict situations in regions around the world." He also engages in a bit of geographic determinism, that Russia's "unique position as a bridge between Europe and Asia gives it a more prominent geopolitical role to play" in the world.

The jury is still out, however. Putin's ambitious reform agenda for Russia's economy, military and political institutions might not succeed. Instead of functioning as a bridge, Russia could just as easily be subdivided into "Asian" and "European" spheres of economic and political influence. By 2025, in economic terms, Russia's peers in the international system might be South Africa and Brazil--important regional powers in their own right, but not major global actors--rather than the United States, China or the European Union.

However that may be, the quality of Primakov's counsel to the United States should not be assessed on Russia's future ranking among the world's powers. And to the extent he points out mistakes that the United States is making, as well as ways to correct those errors, policymakers in Washington should welcome rather than discount his perspective.

Essay Types: Book Review