The same approach is used in relations with NATO. The Western argument that decision to join the alliance is a matter of national sovereignty and thus cannot be contested, is now used by Moscow to justify its military buildup vis-à-vis NATO. Within a narrow legal interpretation, for example, decision to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad oblast can be construed as a sovereign decision, to which NATO cannot legally object because it used the same argument for enlargement. Within narrow interpretation, substance may be treated as secondary.
Initially, differences between Russian and Western interpretation of international law and regimes were limited and often disregarded. Over time, however, Moscow grew increasingly irritated about being left outside decision-making and claimed it was not obligated to abide by rules to which it did not give formal consent as well as the right to free interpretation of existing rules. In a way, it has become more legalistic (in the sense of “legal tricks”) than the Soviet Union had ever been.
It has also found informal allies who adhere to conservative views, such as, for example, Hungary. Paradoxically, Russian and Polish outlooks are very similar as well, although they utilize the same principles in support of opposite policies.
“Democratic institutionalists” do not have an obvious leader who embodies their views. Until recently, this was President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton could have taken that role had she been elected president. To a greater or lesser extent, the same views are shared by U.S. allies and friends, including the European Union and NATO. This group is strongly committed to maintaining, strengthening, and expanding institutions and regimes inherited from the Cold War. The main difference from the Russian perspective is in the approach to creating new or expanding the role of existing institutions.
It began right after the end of the Cold War, when it became clear that the system of international regimes had major gaps and was unable to address new challenges, such as the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The first response was the concept of humanitarian intervention, which was outside the body of international law as it existed at that time (specifically, the UN Charter rules for use of force), but was regarded as necessary. When and where such intervention could be conducted was left to the international community, but, for all practical purposes, to the decision of the collective West.
Gradually, step by step, that approach became a rule—namely, that decisions about changing existing or establishing new international regimes can be made by majority. Effectively, procedures, which are regarded as the heart of democracy (including, of course, the rights of minority), came to be regarded as applicable to international relations. This approach was not only applied to international law, but also to less formalized areas, such as human or political rights. These procedures seem logical and intuitively justified except that sometimes they did not quite align with the older principle of sovereignty and an equally old principle, according to which states are not bound by rules and norms, to which they have not explicitly agreed.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with the principle of majority applied to international relations and international law. Indeed, in most cases it works well and allows earlier action in intolerable cases than traditional international law principles would allow. In a vast majority of cases that approach is fully justified on moral, if not always legal grounds. However, the pace of the development of a new system of international law and international decisionmaking procedures turned out to be too fast for some states, including, but not limited to Russia. Although the West earnestly sought to address concerns of other states (Russia and, increasingly, China and other states), limits for compromise were sometimes too steep for them. More recently—approximately in the last ten years or so—readiness to compromise receded even further. Western attitude came to be determined by impatience and moral high ground.
It remained almost unnoticed, for example, that in 2015 Russian intervention in Syria was construed by Moscow as an exercise in collective action with the West. That possibility did not materialize for two reasons. The first was difference on when Bashar Assad should go—as a precondition for political solution or as a result of it. The second was disagreement over who should be classified as terrorists and who as bona fide opposition (Russian criteria were more restrictive). In less than a year, the West and Russia found themselves on the opposite sides leading two separate national reconciliation processes.
The conflict between collective West and Russia, which has been going from bad to worse for approximately two decades, if not longer, in the end boils down to the refusal of the latter to accept the rule of majority and insistence on the age-old principle of sovereignty. As the number of Russian refusals to accept the rules, norms, values and specific decisions adopted by the majority multiplied, it began to act in contravention to the anticipated preferences of the West on purpose more and more often. As a result, the conflict grew deeper each year and has reached the intensity, which cannot be easily resolved, if at all.
In Helsinki, conflict between the three worldviews—Realist, “conservative institutionalist,” and “democratic institutionalist” will not be immediately apparent because the conflict between the latter two will be overshadowed by the conflict between “democratic institutionalism,” on the one hand, and Realists and “conservative institutionalists,” on the other. Deal-making between Trump and Putin will not progress to a stage when more fundamental differences between them will become apparent.
A more intriguing feature of the current situation is that to some extent all three approaches make valid points. Indeed, the United States does not have sufficient resources to maintain influence within the existing network of international regimes; the latter need to be adjusted and, first and foremost, the economic and financial burden on the United States should be reduced. It is just that the Trump administration tackles these issues in a counterproductive manner. International regimes and institutions inherited from the Cold War need to develop faster and adjust to the changing environment better than traditional procedures of decisionmaking allow. At the same time, even as collective West must maintain its leading role, it should probably be more inclusive and become more tolerable to compromise and adjust the pace of building new institutions to countries not part of the group. As new great powers—China, India, and, on a broader scale, the G-20—enter the scene, the ability of the West to enforce its preferences will continue to dwindle. The conflict with Russia is probably just a preview of more fundamental and more tangible conflicts awaiting the world in the coming decades.
The post–World War II international systems, including its post–Cold War extension, is ending. Historically, transitions from one global system to another have been associated with pan-European or, more recently, global wars. So far, we have been able to avoid one. We can only hope that we remain lucky.
Dr. Nikolai Sokov is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.