History shows that the public is often confused about war, so strategising and shaping foreign policy is best left to professionals with both experience and empathy, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
International relations isn’t a science, it’s an art. This is why hard, fast laws, which are possible in the natural sciences, are impossible in it. Once having established a paradigm such as the law of gravity, friction, or acceleration, we see that it works universally, regardless of the country in which the scientist reproduces the experiment. However, in international relations there are no such regularities.
In foreign policy, both its study and its implementation are all based on unique social experience. The current moment in international life can be compared to the early phase of the Cold War, when excitement prevailed over calculation, there were no clear rules of the game and no one knew how nuclear weapons worked or what the real consequences of their use would be. I refer to the Korean crisis at the dawn of the Cold War, when the issue of the use of nuclear weapons was substantively discussed by the American leadership. Then the American general Douglas MacArthur was removed from command in connection with his intention to use nuclear weapons in the theatre of operations without the consent of the White House. At that time, the measure of what was acceptable in escalation was tested with passion by all participants in world politics.
The Cuban Missile Crisis contributed to the awareness of the catastrophic imminence of the end of civilisation with the continued escalation of the conflict. This allowed the leaders of the US and the USSR to take a step back. The most personal moment of this crisis was the exchange of letters between Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy, where Khrushchev described his feelings about the Second World War, how catastrophic it was, and how he does not want the whole planet to turn into ruins: “We value peace, maybe even more than other nations, because we survived a terrible war with Hitler.”
For the Russian leadership, measuring the resources spent and the achieved results, there is much more on the scale than we can realise. Apparently, one of the goals of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine is to preserve the ability of Russian citizens to keep the same lifestyle that they had before February 24, 2022. In this sense, the military operation is reminiscent of the Caucasian War of the 19th century: it’s in the news every day, but in the lives of most citizens, it (the war) is relatively far away. Heated discussions on the Russian social media indicate that our public wants to see more rigidity in foreign policy, it demonstrates behaviour that is more characteristic of Americans. Everyone wants to stand at the helm and show grand gestures, such as a general mobilisation in Russia or attacking civilian targets in Ukraine. If the system of international relations begins to come into such a mobile state, where every man is for himself and everyone is ready for anything, what will stop other players, for example, Turkey or China, from going to such extremes? How long will such a world last?
In today’s environment, you cannot “press all the buttons at once”: as a result, resources can run out very quickly. It is paradoxical that the plan of the Russian military operation since its beginning in February 2022 has not undergone significant changes, even after the mobilisation of large resources, including human resources. I believe that our armed forces will continue to be in a relative minority compared to what the Ukrainians will have. As for the radical attitude of the public, it rarely speaks from a position of peacefulness. So, if you look at public opinion polls, today a significant number of women support the continuation of the military operation. The situation on the eve of the First World War was just as alarming — people were looking for wars, sharpening sabres. History shows that the public is often confused about war, so strategising and shaping foreign policy is best left to professionals with both experience and empathy.