How Russia Sees the World

How Russia Sees the World

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

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.

But it’s not as simple as that. In the early 1990s, I stopped by at a shop in the American hinterland to buy some souvenirs for my friends in Moscow. A pleasant elderly saleswoman asked me where I was from. I told her I was from Russia. She beamed and said it was great that Russia had become a democratic country. “We have a president, and you have a president now. We have our first lady, and you have your first lady. We have the Congress and you have a Congress. We are not enemies any more. We are friends.”

That’s how I discovered what is at the heart of the American worldview: having a democratic way of life means living in the American way. Americans can occasionally change their understanding of a democratic way of life—for example, for a long time they supported freedom of immigration, but now they have built fences on the border with Mexico. But these details remain outside of America’s self-image.

Norms for the whole of mankind must not be absolutely invariable but absolutely American. Other countries must understand that living the American way means living the right way, and ideally ‘good guys’ across the world must copy this way of life.

This American worldview has manifested itself most vividly in problems associated with the LGBT community. Mainstream America for a long time remained opposed to same-sex marriage, but in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized it by a five-to-four vote. Immediately after that the American president said that his country would press for the legalization of such marriages around the world. In other words, the absolute truth has been found simply because America has started to live it out on its own territory.

The notion of global irresponsibility works in the United States in two ways.

Option 1: “We will do whatever we think is right, for this is God’s will and we have been chosen to interpret it. All others must join us. If they do so, it is going to be good for them; if they don’t, so much the worse. We will do it alone.”

Option 2: “The world must become democratic. We are the perfect democracy. Therefore a democratic coalition must be led by the United States and act according to our plans and methods. ‘Allies’ may receive individual assignments, if need be. Any attempt to suggest a different way of building a coalition will be regarded as an act of hostility towards the United States and therefore towards democracy.”

Both postulates are serious obstacles to global responsibility. It will take time, patience and restraint for America to realize that in the emerging world order, a coalition of “good guys” would be impossible, resembling an aircraft carrier with rowboats following obediently in its wake. But it is also obvious that a lasting world order would be impossible without America and its active and constructive participation. Overcoming its sense of superiority, and understanding that America must patiently coordinate its national interests with those of other key actors in the modern multipolar world, means showing global responsibility. Otherwise, the world will never be a safe place and American interests will not be effectively ensured.

But this cannot be achieved without reasonable self-limitation, based on Americans’ own understanding that the world has changed in the past fifty years. Washington has so far not found a balance between defending its own national interests and acting with global responsibility, and this may become a critical obstacle to building a new world order in the foreseeable future.


China and India: Facets of Self-Limitation

The world’s second most powerful and influential country, China, has made much more progress in this respect over the last several decades. In the 1960s–1970s, the country’s unpredictability and ideological obsession raised serious concerns. When it was a step away from a conflict with the Soviet Union, or taught intransigent Vietnam a military ‘lesson,’ it appeared to be a seriously ill country with a ruined economy but global far-left and reckless ambitions.