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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson
#37 - JRL 2007-167 - JRL Home
Subject: Russia as a part of the "World Without the West"
Date: Wed, 8 Aug 2007
From: "Vlad Sobell" Vlad.Sobell@dir.co.uk

This paper draws attention to a new, potentially fruitful approach to the understanding of the former communist, so called "authoritarian", superpowers of Russia and China.

These countries, as well as the other leading emerging powers, are developing a separate and increasingly autonomous global economic and political system. While deeply interacting with the West, they will, nevertheless, refuse to fully assimilate with it, as assimilation would threaten their internal governance.

This refusal should be accepted as the need to preserve their delicate recipes for economic success, rather than a rejection of democracy as such.

Strict non-interference in the internal affairs of their partners - the return to Westphalian principles of inter-state relations - is one of their most significant points of difference from the West. Others include the different understanding of the role of the state in a modern economy.

The emerging powers do not need state of the art technology to guarantee their continued rapid economic expansion. However, cumulative improvement of middle-level technology over a prolonged period may eventually enable them to successfully compete with the West even in this respect.

Emerging post-communist superpowers have created a new paradigm

With the end of Putin's presidency drawing closer, we will see a proliferation of analyses showing how Russia has stabilised and prospered, while also regressing into its ancient authoritarian mould. These commentaries will feature the familiar narrative of the hopes for Western style democracy in Russia coming to nothing, as Putin's regime has reverted to Soviet-era centralism, restoration of an all-powerful state and repression of opposition.

The same narrative will concede that Russia has experienced dynamic economic growth since 1999, but this will be attributed mainly to the strong prices of hydrocarbons, rather than the government's economic policies. (Giving credit where credit is due - i.e. to the effectiveness of Putin's regime - is impermissible as it would be tantamount to condoning authoritarianism).

In the analyses of international relations we will be treated to complaints about the "increasingly assertive" or "resurgent" Russia bullying its neighbours and attempting once again, as the Soviets used to do, to detach Western Europe from the United States, with the view of eventual domination of the entire continent.

Even those who do not accept this standard interpretation cannot deny that its vision is persuasive, if its key assumptions and internal logic are embraced. Putin's Russia is, indeed, moving along a trajectory not envisioned for it by the global, US-led democratic club, preferring to do things its own way. And those wishing to see Russia's evolution as a deviation from the "correct path" can find plenty of evidence supporting their views.

However, the above picture and the reasoning underpinning is unsatisfactory, as it cannot not explain the paradox of Russia, as well as the authoritarian China, enjoying an unprecedented degree of political and economic freedoms, accorded not merely to the elites but to the population at large. How come that these former communist giants can be stuck in authoritarianism while at the same time experiencing a veritable explosion of liberty?

A theoretical paradigm that either ignores this paradox, or sees these societies' recent evolution as a regression to authoritarianism rather than expansion of freedom, clearly is seriously flawed. Consequently, it either needs a thorough adjustment or it should be abandoned.

We suggest that the latter is a wiser course of action, as there is no sense in re-arranging the deckchairs on a sinking Titanic.

The foundation stone of the new paradigm: embrace of the market - not of the West - as the route out of poverty

After the age of communism (preceded by upheavals and historical backwardness) Russia and China are at long last coming to their own, by empowering their populace to fully release their productive capacity. Like long compressed springs, these societies are surging ahead making up for lost time. In Russia's case, this, and not its strong hydrocarbons revenue, is the underlying driver of its spectacular economic rebound.

It is important to understand that these societies are doing so not because they have embraced the values of the West (as the West would like to think), but because they had spent a sufficiently long time in the blind alley of Marxism to be thoroughly cured of its utopian delusions. Rather than depicting Russia and China as embracing the West, it is more accurate to conclude that they have merely re-embraced the age-old institutions of the market after a prolonged period of extreme anti-market policies. This is no Westernisation; it is the return to normality.

This return has immediately yielded immense tangible benefits. For generations the populaces of the communist superpowers have toiled for the promised material abundance of communism only to see their labour being wasted by its "value destroying" system. But the retreat from Marxism has immediately delivered unprecedented measure of welfare, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The foundation stone of the new paradigm must be the acknowledgement that, regardless of what the West may think, the Russian and Chinese regimes must be doing something right. They have finally accomplished what generations of leaders before them found impossible.

It follows that, having found their recipe for success, the system of governance engendering it will be robustly guarded from any external interference. Well meaning Western commentators and officials may lament the lacking democracy as the missing piece of the Russian and Chinese formulas and issue recommendations with the view to correct the deviation. But from the insiders' point of view, such touching concern will look as a menacing interference, which, if acted upon, might destabilise and eventually destroy their delicate recipe of success. Reforms that armchair Western democrats would recommend to "expand democracy" are bound to be perceived by insiders as reckless experimentation with their vital interests.

In Russia's case, these sentiments have found expression in the "official ideology" of the Putin regime - the concept of "sovereign democracy", developed by the deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Vladislav Surkov. This elevates the rejection of any form of external interference as the alpha and omega of democracy, suggesting that imported recipes inevitably corrupt genuine democracy, that is, democracy based on Russia's own culture and political traditions. For its part, China, which in any case will never be regarded as "Western", simply ignores any external lecturing.

The multi-polar model is inadequate

While there has been abundant commentary on the secular shift in global economic weight away from the West towards the emerging powers, it is not yet clear how this will reorganise the global power politics. Customarily the emergence of new economic centres of gravity is being depicted as the transfer from the single-polar global system (dominated by the USA) to a multi-polar system, featuring (apart from the non-US Western powers) the emerging former communist powers as well as large (never-communist) countries such as India, Brazil, oil-rich Venezuela and South Africa. (Apart from the large BRIC countries, there is a second-tier of smaller sized economies, whose economic potential is yet to be fully realised).

However, the multi-polar model fails to sufficiently take into account the persistent barrier between the newly emerging powers and the West. This is especially relevant in the cases of Russia and China. Although communism has vanished down the plughole of history, the erstwhile ideological line continues to separate the "authoritarian" powers of Russia and China from the West. As noted, these countries will not - and cannot - assimilate with the West, while the West will not - cannot - embrace them as its own.

Thus, superimposed on the multi-polar picture, there will always be (in the foreseeable future, that is) two distinct but (more or less) peacefully co-existing camps - the West and the non-West. Although their ideological differences will not be as acute and irreconcilable as during the Cold War, they will nevertheless be deep enough to stand in the way of complete mutual assimilation. It is inconceivable, for example, that the US would extend its defence umbrella over the likes of Russia or China as it has been doing (to a greater or lesser degree) with most members of the West. Likewise, it is unimaginable that the latter would participate in US-led military adventures as part of the "coalition of the willing".

The parallel universe of the "World Without the West"

In line with these considerations, a recent article by Steven Weber in the influential US journal The National Interest has outlined the vision of an alternative global system - the "World Without the West" (here abbreviated as WWW) - led by the major emerging powers. While interacting with the West to the best of their advantage, thus becoming stakeholders in the global West-dominated system, these powers nevertheless refuse to fully assimilate with it politically and ideologically, because that would threaten their internal "autocratic" regimes, thus destabilising their formulas of success. They will continue to "route around", rather than become an integral part of the West.

Moreover, they actually do not need to opt for the "Western path", as the creation of an alternative WWW offers them the option of lucrative preferential cooperation with each other. While expanding their interaction with the West, their mutual ties have been growing at an even faster pace, with the intensity of intra-WWW connections exceeding the level predicted by standard econometric models. Apart from the growing cooperation between Russia under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), another significant example of this trend has been the flows of Chinese investment into the global energy and raw materials sector, especially in the African continent.

Yet at the same time, the WWW is in no way aggressive or expansionist (as the Soviet Union once was), focusing, as noted, on economic development, as dictated by the overwhelming need to overcome their backwardness. (When you are re-building your economy and fighting against poverty, the last thing you think about is the conquest of the world). The members of the WWW will, therefore, become "aggressive" only if the West provokes them into such a stance by threatening their security. Thus Russia has grown "increasingly assertive" or "resurgent" (as the Russophobic mythology has it) not because it wants to invade Europe, but because Moscow (rightly) perceives as threatening NATO's relentless encirclement of its territory.

The neo-Westphalian principles of international relations

The WWW has evolved its own rules of international conduct and forms of mutual economic and financial interaction. In doing so it has been uncompromisingly adhering to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of their partners. Mutual relations are conducted on a strictly pragmatic basis, recognising no rights and obligations beyond the fulfilment of agreed contracts. Similarly, international institutions are seen as having no legitimate business other than to facilitate the fulfilment of these ends.

As Weber points out, this echoes the landmark 1648 Treaty of Westphalia (following the Thirty Years' War), which established the principle of sovereignty and non-interference in Europe, granting sovereign states the fundamental right of self-determination. What at that time pertained primarily to religion is today applied to the mode of internal governance.

This implicitly challenges the Western (especially US-promoted) notion of liberal internationalism - the idea that Western democracies are not only entitled, but obliged, to intervene in other states' internal affairs and promote the so called "universal democratic values". This has been done, for example, by attaching various conditions to economic aid and cooperation or by attempting to deny the likes of Russia membership in the G8 (or other clubs) unless it modifies its internal policies.

However, this rejection of the universal values by the WWW need not necessarily imply contempt for democracy and liberalism. It is merely an expression of their belief (substantiated by evidence) that the "universal values" actually are not all that universal, having evolved in the specific environment of Western (in particular American) democracies. From the WWW's viewpoint, the eagerness of some Western countries to impose their supposedly universal values on the WWW is perceived as a form of neo-colonialism. (We return to this central point in the conclusions below.)

The role of the state

Another fundamental difference between the West and the WWW is the theory, as well as practice, on the role of the state in a modern economy. While the West views the state with utmost suspicion - with the dominant private sector and minimal state "interference" being seen as the foundation stones of Western prosperity and liberal society - the WWW sees the state as the guarantor of integrity, stability and economic development. The need to restrict the role of the state in the economy is recognised (and certainly plentifully acted upon, as documented by the retreat from communism!), but state control is not perceived as some kind of unmentionable taboo in the way it tends to be treated in the West.

Putin's regime in particular has been criticised for so called "statism" - the tendency to create large state-controlled corporations in the "strategic sectors" especially in hydrocarbons. Statism is also evident in the Kremlin's "bullying" of Russia's big business to ensure that its corporate strategies mesh with the regime's own ideas about Russia's long-term economic development.

However, in practice it is by no means evident that the state control of the hydrocarbons sector is necessarily the inferior mode. Since the sector requires massive up-front investment predicated on guaranteed markets, its development has always necessitated government involvement. Whatever the liberal theory may say, the fact is that today some two thirds of global hydrocarbons reserves are under the control of governments or government-related national companies. The key point is that state control need not be seen as a rigid, bureaucratic Soviet-style system, with governments being able to combine the advantages of both forms: they can improve the security of investment, while purchasing up-to-date technology and management expertise from the private sector.

The WWW's understanding of the role of the state does away with the glaring inconsistency of the prevailing Russophobic analysis of Russia - the indisputable manifestations of statism happily co-existing with market-driven individualism at all levels of the economy. Russia's statism is not the return to communism as some would like to portray it, but the use of appropriate strategies and tools to meet the needs of different sectors.

The sources of the WWW's sustainability

Any discussion of the parallel WWW universe necessitates the consideration of its main weakness - its inability to match the developed West in technology and innovation. While the BRIC countries are rapidly expanding their economies, they - but above all the most important China - have been doing so primarily by "quantitative" means, by galvanising their previously wasted manufacturing potential. The standard economic theory holds that ultimately they will remain dependent on the West (and hence will have to assimilate with it), as their inevitable progression towards higher value-added activities will demand deeper interaction in the realm of technology.

However, this received view fails to sufficiently appreciate that middle-level technological innovation and organisational changes, tailored to the mass and rapidly expanding consumer markets, can deliver strong and prolonged economic growth. In order to prosper, the WWW does not need to match the West in developing and applying all round high technology. The WWW need not even aim to catch up with the West. Given the gap between it and the West, the WWW can continue to grow quantitatively as well as "qualitatively" (i.e. in terms of the application of increasingly more advanced technology) for a historically prolonged period simply by the effective spreading of middle level, well proved technology. Moreover, it can be safely assumed that this prolonged process will eventually generate domestically grown technology, which may match or even surpass that of the West.

Russia is especially well placed in this respect, as the former Soviet superpower has enjoyed the tradition of educational excellence, especially in science and technology. Correctly perceiving Russia's comparative advantage as residing in hydrocarbons/raw materials alongside relatively high tech branches such as IT, aerospace, nuclear and defence industries (as, unlike China, Russia cannot compete in mass labour intensive manufacturing), the government is now expanding investment in R&D, for example in branches such as nano-technology.

Democracy and morality

The WWW's apparently absent concern with democracy and human rights, as well as neo-Westphalian refusal to censor its economic partners (such as for example China's reluctance to influence domestic politics of its African counterparts) may seem morally repugnant. Weber, for example, speaks of "gut wrenching choices" and compromises the West will have to make to fully accept the existence of the WWW.

Two points need to be made in this context. First, a respectable argument can be developed to the effect that the West hardly has a monopoly on the purity of democracy and high moral standards domestically as well as internationally. The prevalence of so called "double standards" springs to mind with, for example, the staunch US allies such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan (or, at a different level, Poland under the Kaczynski regime) receiving embarrassingly less criticism than rivals such as Russia or China.

Secondly, just as we can reasonably expect the WWW's eventual advancement towards (if not beyond) the Western levels in technology, so can we expect a progressive evolution of their governance towards greater democracy. When preoccupied with raw issues of economic development, the WWW inevitably downplays the issues of democracy and human rights. But as they continue to develop, these issues become more pressing.

Since countries such as Russia and China have abandoned totalitarianism by their own volition, there is no reason to suppose that they will not equally gradually outgrow their authoritarian (or quasi authoritarian in Russia's case) systems. It could even be argued that the West should take a leaf out of the WWW book and embrace the neo-Westphalian principles of non-interference. Ultimately, internally-grown acceptance of the need for change is more durable than change forced from outside.