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Russia Profile
August 23, 2007
Learning to Network
Sergei Lavrov's Vision of International Relation

Comment by Vladimir Frolov
Vladimir Frolov is the director of the National Laboratory for Foreign Policy, a Moscow-based think tank.

It is always an event of some political significance when a senior Russian government official, let alone a member of President Vladimir Putin's Saturday night security cabinet, publishes an opinion piece in a major news outlet. Russian policy makers rarely bother explaining to the public the rationale behind their policy choices, which is why Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's lengthy piece "Containing Russia - Back to the Future?," recently published in Russia in Global Affairs magazine, was a very welcome development.

It is an irony of sorts that Lavrov, who has a way with a pen as well as a particular gift for going for the jugular, would shun the public limelight and only sporadically return to one of his core functions as Foreign Minister - explaining the president's policies to international audiences. Lavrov lags behind his predecessor, Igor Ivanov, in the frequency of his public appearances although, perhaps exceeding him in their depth.

Lavrov's piece is a worthy read on its merits, but interest in the publication has been further heightened by the whiff of scandal.

The piece was due to appear in the fall issue of Foreign Affairs - a prestigious U.S. quarterly. It was pulled a few hours before the deadline by the Russian Embassy in Washington, which claimed censorship of the article by the Foreign Affairs editors.

Foreign Affairs Editor-in-Chief James Hogue stated in bewilderment that he could not comprehend the reasons for the article's withdrawal and said that the editors went out of their way to accommodate Lavrov's wishes for the editorial changes that were needed to make the piece conform to the magazine's standards.

I have no idea what spooked Lavrov, but I think a very good chance to explain the "sources of Russian conduct" to international audiences was regrettably lost.

It is hard to see what the U.S. editors would have wanted to "censor" from Lavrov's piece. It is relatively bland and does not contain anything that would in any way offend anyone's sensibilities - the Bush administration clearly being not given to such sensibilities.

Nor does it contain any major revelations about Russia's new international assertiveness and the reasons behind Russia's more robust international rhetoric. Much of what Lavrov says in his piece has already been published in the recent review of Russian foreign policy. Regrettably the review was not translated in a timely manner into English and perhaps Lavrov wanted to make up for this drawback. In this regard, the decision to withdraw the Foreign Affairs article, which would have had the best imaginable target audience of Western policy and opinion makers, is puzzling.

But better late than never. Running the same piece in Foreign Affair's partner publication partially makes up for the lost opportunity.

Lavrov takes issue with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's concept of "transformational diplomacy," arguing in favor of a policy that ensures the status quo rather than strives to reshape the international environment according to an ideological vision favored by a powerful group of developed democratic states.

Here Lavrov sees "substantial gaps in the foreign policy aspirations of Washington and Moscow." Where Russia has "abandoned ideology, imperial and any other great designs in favor of pragmatism and common sense," U.S. foreign policy is driven by the "ideological inertia of the Cold War" and the messianic idea to improve the world in accordance with American notions of justice, democracy and liberty.

Moscow does not buy this. It sees messianic visions in foreign policy as dangerous signs of radicalism to be opposed. "Russia has had more than enough experience with revolution," writes Lavrov, "will never subscribe to any ideology-driven project, let alone borrow one from abroad."

He claims that ideology should have no place in international affairs, where state interests and national sovereignty reign supreme. "Russia has started pursuing a national foreign policy. This, indeed, is a dramatic departure from the ideology-motivated internationalism that used to underlie the foreign policy of the Soviet Union." He defends the Westphalian system, which "has placed differences in values beyond the scope of intergovernmental relations."

This is a classic Realpolitik vision of foreign policy and Lavrov makes a strong case that this is the approach that best suits Russia's interests at a time when Russia is focusing on internal development. Russia's primary objective in international affairs is to maintain international stability - the status quo, that is - on balance favorable to Russia, allowing it to focus its growing resources on self-modernization. This is not unlike the approach advocated by China.

Why deter such a deeply inward-looking nation that has no interest whatsoever in international adventurism?

It is important to keep in mind that Lavrov's piece was originally written in response to a highly offensive piece in Foreign Affairs by Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko. In her article, Tymoshenko made a case for a new Western policy of containment with regard to Russia, which, in her view, has returned to its imperialist aggressive ways.

Lavrov dismisses such accusations as mistakenly interpreting Russia's newfound freedom of action and freedom of speech in international affairs for aggressive designs that simply are not there.

"I think it would be fair to say that we see our role in the global energy sector as a means to safeguard our independence in foreign affairs. Are we to be blamed for that, when, as it seems, the freedom of action and the freedom of speech that we have secured in international affairs - by the way, we use both of them in accordance with international law - are the main accusations brought against us by those who frown upon a stronger Russia?"

Lavrov defends multilateralism and multi-polarity as the only viable approaches to managing international affairs in the modern world. He argues that "cumbersome binding alliances" like NATO impede reaching a broad multilateral consensus required for an effective and legitimate international response.

Lavrov's solution to international challenges is "network diplomacy as the best means of inter-state interaction within bilateral and multilateral frameworks." By this, he means a painstaking process of forging international consensus through engaging all the relevant players who can be brought to bear on a problem, regardless of the political or ideological differences between them.

It is network diplomacy that seeks to engage states rather than isolate them. It works to create sufficient incentives to induce states to act in a way that suits the international community's objectives rather than dictating to them decisions already made outside their sovereign borders. Lavrov approvingly quotes German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier who said: "Today's world should be based on the willingness to cooperate rather than military deterrence."

One of the strongest points made by Lavrov is his call for Europe to overcome the Cold War legacy. He argues that "bloc mentality" continues to thrive in the European security institutions, working to perpetuate, rather than erase, the geopolitical division of Europe. He makes a compelling case against the CFE Treaty, a true relic of the Cold War. "Arms levels assigned to the Warsaw Pact countries under the CFE Treaty were included in the NATO quota. This can hardly be called 'equal security.' Rather, this is a desire to seize what previously was owned by others."

His solution is to start working on new a European security architecture that would no longer reflect Cold War divisions. "If we cannot tailor this old instrument [the CFE Treaty] to fit the new realities, perhaps time has come to review the current situation and to start developing a new system of arms control and confidence-building measures."

One interesting aspect of Lavrov's article is how frequently he appeals to Christian values when describing modern Russia's approach to international affairs. He argues that "unipolarity is an attempt at God's power," and that international affairs in the globalized world should be guided by a moral law and humility implied by the Sermon on the Mount. "Only equality and universal application of international law, 'where there is neither Greek nor Jew,' can help gain control over global development. If we don't do onto others like good Christians, would they do onto us the same way?"

I do not know whether this reflects his personal religious feelings or those of his speechwriters, but I find those references appropriate. They tell you that Russian foreign policy is not guided solely by cold-blooded calculations, but rather reflect a moral dimension in the rationale for specific policy decisions.

The problem is that they cast some doubt on Lavrov's central point - the need to banish ideology from international relations. Once you allow Christian morality into your foreign policy calculus, you will have to make at least some decisions based on moral choices.

In other words, you will employ foreign policy instruments to make the world a better place in accordance with Christian values. This is where "network diplomacy" meets "transformational diplomacy."

I wonder whether Lavrov really intended this in his article.[]