From Dominance to Self-Destruction of the West?

President Emmanuel Macron’s statement on the end of the era of Western dominance and the need to reconsider relations with Russia is hard to overstate. In fact, it came from one of the leaders of the Western world and was made in an extremely challenging international environment, at a time of crumbling global political, economic and military institutions, the breakdown of international nuclear security architecture, and amid escalating antagonisms between the major powers. Cooperation with Russia is essential in order to prevent further degradation of the system of international relations.

Unfortunately, this statement came far too late, and it is unlikely that it will have any real impact. Western countries, and especially the United States, have been proactive in their dual containment policy toward Russia and China, and have in fact given up on any serious efforts to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation. American politicians have not learned the lesson of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and of the failed attempts to reshape the world to their liking, while fears of Russian “aggression” are rampant all across Europe, even beyond its eastern part.

Russia no longer expects the United States or the West in general to become its partner in shaping the world order. Just like Hedley Bull and other representatives of the so-called English school of international relations theory, Russian strategists hoped for a lengthy period of adaptation to Western norms with those involved respecting their mutual interests and international norms. These expectations have now become a thing of the past. Just like you cannot step in the same river twice, Russia cannot return to the G7, despite the recent calls by Macron and Trump.

Despite the voices of reason that can be heard now and then, the West persists in its policy of imposing its interests on others. This policy caters to the interests of Western elites, undermining social stability in the West and around the world. In the United States, the globally-minded liberal elites who were at the helm have been replaced by adepts of great power nationalism who are not even trying to build any kind of international cooperation framework. They rely on force, extortion and imposing their rules on the rest of the world. The policy of sanctions, trade and technology wars, and the arms race are only beginning and will inevitably entail a push-back from other great powers, further undermining the global standing of the United States.

The self-destruction of the West is also driven by the so-called liberal elites in the United States and Europe. They believe in the universal nature of the values they preach, and do not shy away from outright extortion. In the United States, these elites have already shown that they are ready to use libel and pressure to discredit a president they may not like, but who nonetheless was elected lawfully and legitimately. Before he came to power, these same elites supported the policy of asserting American interests and values globally. The liberal democracy has long declared a crusade against neo-Soviet and Chinese autocracies, and the war of values has become a reality in global politics. Liberalism that seeks to spread its influence by force and by disregarding the interests of others faces a bleak future.

It goes without saying that today’s Russia and its political system, let alone China, are far from ideal. However, despite all its shortcomings, the Russian system is far from a tyranny or mass violence. Attempts by the West to portray Russia as a dictatorship, or even a Stalinist regime, do not hold up to scrutiny. In addition, Russia’s overall foreign policy is quite moderate and prioritizes compromise and mutual interests. For example, Russia enjoys a high standing in today’s Middle East as a country willing to search for mutually acceptable solutions with any partners. Finally, can the West with its history of long-standing and successful cooperation with “democracies” like Saudi Arabia aspire to the role of a “vice squad”?

The policies of dominance and dual containment are destructive, including for the West itself. However, so far it is unlikely to change. There were times when western powers were competing for Russia’s support, and were capable of making what they viewed as a rational choice by choosing the lesser of two evils. For example, in late 19th century and early 20th century, England and France succeeded in drawing Russia into the Triple Entente against the emerging imperial Germany they all feared. At that time, Russia was more authoritarian than it is today, with no elections or freedom of the press or opposition protests, at least until the October 1905 Manifesto.

So why is this choice impossible today? The answer to this question is rooted in the 20th century, or the “age of the extremes,” as British historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to it. This century signaled the demise of the traditions of European diplomacy involving compromises and reinforced the Western hubris and its desire to impose its terms on the rest of the world. Compromise with Soviet leaders was made impossible by the hatred toward the Soviet system, which brought about World War II. Without exonerating the USSR for sowing terror within its borders and signing secret protocols with Hitler, the Western policy of appeasing the aggressor paved the way to the Munich Agreement. Despite efforts by Maxim Litvinov to promote collective security, the West was not ready to opt for containment in its relations with Germany. Just as today, it pinned its hopes on dual containment of the USSR and Germany and the escalation of antagonisms between them. The end of the Cold War, largely on Western terms, only strengthened the Western elites in their belief that their aspiration to global dominance was justified, thus laying the foundation for dual containment policies.

Today, many in the West are still guided by this policy, and hope that conflict will escalate between the countries they view as undesirable. We have heard multiple statements already maintaining that Russia and China will never be able to build a true partnership due to their differences. Nevertheless, these differences are unlikely to escalate, which is attributable among other things to dual containment. Politicians like Macron understand this, and Henry Kissinger, being an adept of the traditions of European diplomacy, has said so time and again. His democratic opposite and Russia’s old-time “friend,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, understood this in his later years. Sometimes, statements of this kind can be heard from nationalist-minded Trump. All in all, though, the world is still far from realizing how serious this issue is. Russia is still regarded as a problem rather than a potential partner. The gathering in Poland to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II is among recent examples of attempts to isolate Russia. Polish leaders went to great lengths to invite Germany, but not Russia, without whom victory would have been impossible. It is difficult to imagine anything more absurd.

Unfortunately, any faith in Western collective reason has evaporated. At the same time, Kissinger’s nightmare, the rapprochement between Russia and China, is apparently materializing. Much of the responsibility for this rapprochement, which includes closer military and political ties, lies with Western leaders. It has yet to be seen whether Russia or the leading non-Western countries can reverse global processes and put them back on a constructive track. It is possible that this “nightmare” would not be that scary for the world as a whole. Incidentally, Valdai Club annual meeting, to be held this month, will be devoted to the role of non-Western forces in shaping the world order. If the West is not ready to compromise, perhaps it will be up to non-Western powers to shape and reinforce global rules in cooperation with Russia?

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.