I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around,
and don't let anybody tell you different

-Kurt Vonnegut

Welcome to what once was Judge Jonathan. This blog is dead. Please click here to continue. (Or here, if you really insist.)


Thursday, March 03, 2005

Defensive Foreign Minister Lavrov

I've just about recovered from my extended birthday weekend, and I'm ready to blog again.

As for topics (other than Prince presenting the Best Song award at the Oscars; and my general disappoinment with this year's Academy Awards - my future wife should have won), the LSE kindly provided me with an excellent one by inviting none other than the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. He arrived straight from the conference on strengthening the Palestinian Authority and spoke for no more than 45 minutes before he rushed off to his next appointment. Still, he managed to say more than a few interesting things in the process.

What surprised me most was how, from the very beginning, Lavrov struck an extremely defensive tone about Russian policies. There seems to be a strong feeling within the Russian foreign policy community that Russia is being portrayed unfairly throughout the West (and in Western media in particular). Now I wouldn't deny that many of us in the West aren't exactly fond of Putin's rule - justifiably, I think - but there are a number of countries whose image in Europe, I would argue, is much more one-sided and less well-balanced than Russia's (the US, anyone?).

Obviously, the Yukos affair, Putin's recent reform of the way local governors are elected (or now, appointed) and the issue of freedom of press in Russia, all of which Lavrov defended at great length and with great skill - he nearly had me convinced for a second - have been widely criticized in the West. But I would have expected more of a 'none of your damn business' attitude from the Foreign Minister of the world's largest country. Offering so many excuses when accused of something - especially when nobody actually asked, or expected, Lavrov to do so - usually only suggests that something is fishy.

Another interesting point Lavrov mentioned, and one I expected him to talk about much more, was the Russian emphasis on the international nature of Chechnyan terrorism. The aftermath of September 11th, of course, irreversibly changed the way Western governments refer to the Chechnya issue, and Lavrov built on that. He made several references to Osama bin Laden and pointed out that it was as impossible to negotiate with Chechnyan terrorists as it was to negotiate with al-Qaeda. The convergence of American and Russian interests on the anti-terror front is clearly important to both sides, and both Putin and Bush seem happy to let each other fight terror in their 'neighbourhoods' - within limitations of course.

Needless to say, this doesn't apply to Iraq, and Lavrov made a striking comment on Bush's vision of a democratic Middle East - without, of course, mentioning any names:
"We don't believe in the export of democracy, just as we don't believe anymore in the export of revolution."

Strong words there. Almost 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union (which, according to Lavrov, was not the product of the USSR 'losing' the Cold War, but rather a "historic choice of the Russian people"...), Russia appears to be on the one hand strangely self-conscious about how she is perceived around the globe, but at the same time quite ready to engage in a constructive if heated debate and cooperation with the rest of the world.


Chris said...

Interesting post, that. Especially since I do not agree with you for a change. Here's what I think about Russian foreign policy. Thus, I guess I am representing that attitude which makes the current Russian administration go all defensive.

My hypothesis is that we're seeing a neo-tsarist backlash, returning to pre-1905 patterns of behaviour, which often are characterised by a strong persecution complex, mixed with a self-image of Moscow as the third Rome (not that that's something unheard of in DC). The self-consciousness is a passing phenomenon, I am afraid, since for a while at least, Russia seemed on the way to democracy, but no more. I don't quite see how you come to your conclusion that she is ready to engange in debate & cooperation. That's only true if Russian interests are at stake (which is not a reproach, mind you) and if their internal policy is not put into question (which is a reproach!).

It goes without saying (I'll do it anyway) that I do believe in the export of democracy, although not the way the Bush administration does it, which is rather amateurish.

Chris said...

Actually, regarding the readiness to engage in debate: Did he admit questions?

Judge Jonathan said...

Obviously Russia, like any other state, will not be keen to cooperate with other states unless some interest of hers is involved. And I do believe that with the Cold War behind them, the US and Russia can now focus on common interests without being distracted by contradictory values. And cooperation among states, I would argue, has achieved much better results throughout history when it was based on shared interests rather than shared values.

I do agree with you that Putin's Russia is becoming increasingly Tsarist. All I questioned was whether the West's recent criticisms of Russia's internal policy were really more than just exercises in rhetoric. Russia, like any other state, has the right to pursue the internal policies it wishes to. Bush's verbal condemnations really shouldn't make a Foreign Minister go all defensive, as you said.

As for the export of democracy, I'm not sure - you can export the idea of democracy and all kinds of instruments that support it, but can you export the system itself?

Finally, yes, he did answer questions from the audience, though I admit - like any other diplomat - he did not really answer questions, but rather repeated what he said in his speech.

Turkey's Foreign Minister coming next week... :)

Chris said...

Did you have pity on Lavrov?? ;-)

There seems to be a slight contradiction in your argument: First, you talk about focus on common interests without distraction from contradictory values, then you make the point of shared (=common?) interests vs. shared values.

I'd argue that there is a pyramid of cooperation modes with the lowest level based on shared interests only (no problem with that during the cold war). The next layer would be common interests, combined with shared values - with Russia, we had that for a while (they're still in the Council of Europe). That way, more issues are available to cooperate on. What we're seeing now is that Russia's relations with the (democratic) world are falling back to the first level of cooperation because they're loosing the common ground value wise.

You cannot export the democracy system itself, of course (that's what I'd call an amateurish idea). But the concepts of freedom of speech, the rule of law etc are very precious export articles. In any case, stability is not a value above those. So, IMHO, no state has the right to pursue the internal policies it wishes to if they are in conflict with basic values of freedom. It may be prudent to tolerate them for a while, but they must never be accepted.

Judge Jonathan said...

Point taken - my argument about values/interests wasn't quite clear. Let me put it this way:

Contradictory values can't help a relationship between two states. But shared/common values aren't very helpful either. What really matters are shared interests. I'm not even sure common interests combined with common values would be the next layer in the pyramid - rather, the inclusion of values always makes cooperation more fragile. Why? Because, although 'interest' is indeed an elusive concept, it is much more tangible than 'values'. In other words, states may find that their values are not quite as similar as they thought. Not so much danger of that happening with shared interests.

In any case - much more interesting is your claim that "no state has the right to pursue the internal policies it wishes to if they are in conflict with basic values of freedom". Quite a statement! Not that I'm not sympathetic to it; but it is based on a rather radical conception of sovereignty, namely sovereignty as something that must be 'earned' by granting one's citizens certain basic rights and freedoms.

There are many who would disagree with you on that. More importantly, there are more than a few states who grant their citizens virtually no rights at all - and compared to them, Russia is a garden of freedom.

I'd be interested, though, in your opinion on humanitarian intervention and the like. Take a country like Turkmenistan, for instance, where the dictator has shut down all hospitals outside the capital so he can have some more gold statues of himself built.

You say such states "must never be accepted" - but what exactly would you do here?

Chris said...

Glad you recognise the radicality of the concept - after all, my party is know as Les Radicaux in the French speaking parts of the country. Unfortunately, they are no more ...

Of course, it's not a simple concept to put into place - at all! But diplomats are smart people, right? Here's what I would definitely never do: Check my embassy reception invitation list for people who the host government might be uncomfortable with. Or if you're looking for positive examples, I think the West's behaviour during the Orange Revolution (and before, except maybe for the EU's) was quite exemplary.

Those who disagree with that conception of earned sovereignty as you call it (I like that!) are often those who have something to loose over its implementation (vested interests). I am not making the case for Bush's naïve "who's not with us is against us", but I have yet to see a good material argument against it.

Judge Jonathan said...

Thanks for the Havel article, I would have missed that otherwise - and he has got to be one of my favourite living (ex-)politicians. Make that my single favourite living (ex-)politician, actually.

Anyway, the concept of earned sovereignty is not entirely my creation - there are a number of people who've been writing about it, especially in the debate surrounding humanitarian intervention.

The concept of sovereignty as it is commonly accepted today (and which makes your ideas look radical, for better or worse) is absolute. The new notion would see states needing to earn their sovereignty both from their inhabitants (i.e. by treating them according to certain international norms) and from the international community.

Thus both aspects of sovereignty would cease to be absolute: state authority within its territory and immunity and equality vis-a-vis all the other states in the international system.

It's not quite as simple as you say, though. Those states that argue most vehemently against any withering away of sovereignty are predominantly developing countries. For them, sovereignty (and independence) is something they have fought for for decades. Thus, any talk of attaching conditions (such as adherence to Euro-centric human rights) to sovereignty is seen by them as a Western attempt to regain control over their former colonies, or at least as an attempt to weaken the 'Third World'. They hold their sovereignty dear; yes, they usually do have things to hide and to lose (i.e. bad human rights records), but that's not the primary reason why they are unwilling to give up sovereignty.

I see that you're trying to get people to join the fun of this debate (which, I might want to remind myself, started out as a discussion on Russian foreign policy)... let's see if anything happens!

Chris said...

Let's keep going for just a bit, shall we?

Firstly, I am very well aware of the developing nations opposition to the relativisation of sovereignty (I did study IR after all). You're accepting that their skeletons in the cupboard are not the primary reason for their opposition. Says who? I am afraid I would argue in exactly that direction, especially since the representatives of most of those countries have not arrived at their jobs in an open concours (you know what I mean), and the purpose of their job is often to defend vested interests of the ruling group in their country, to which they usually belong.

Secondly, I'd like to go back to our point of departure, i.e. Russian foreign policy and point you to this juicy story. It would appear that Russia is a bad loser in Ukraine ...

Judge Jonathan said...


They do have skeletons in their closet, at least most of them. But you're certainly right, I accept that their opposition to limiting sovereignty stems from something else. Western countries can talk all they want about human rights; both quantitively and qualitatively, the atrocities committed by and in the West have been much worse than those committed anywhere else, historically speaking. Same thing with environmental protection, for instance: the West had no problems polluting half the world while they were in the process of industrialization - now they're telling the developing world to sacrifice economic development for the sake of the global environment?

I know it's not that simple at all, but it's a fair point. As for the open concours, well - some would make the same argument I mentioned above (regarding environmental concerns) about democracy. I've had some Chinese students here at the LSE tell me that the Chinese people just aren't "ready" for democracy, just as Europeans weren't ready for it during the first 200 or so years after the emergence of nation-states. Again, I'm no apologist for any authoritarian regime, but the 'West' - quite possibly the world's most barbarious culture, if you look at how many people it managed to slaughter both around the world and in Europe - cannot expect to be taken very seriously by non-Westerners when it comes to attaching human rights and other conditions to full sovereignty. That's a sad fact.

Indeed, it's quite an ironic role reversal. The 'new' states in the international arena, most of which were founded by revolutionaries and liberation fighters, are now the ones most obsessed with preserving highly traditional notions such as sovereignty. Things aren't looking good for any notion of 'earned sovereignty' to be established in our lifetime.

As for that juicy story - it appears I was wrong about Russian self-consciousness. What we're seeing is just the kind the behaviour one would expect from a great power. Interesting.

Chris said...

Ah, nothing like a good debate! ;-)

Let me summarise what you're saying in as blunt and oversimplyfing a way as I can come up with: We should accept their cr*p today because of the cr*p that our predecessors committed in the past.

Now, that is apologetic and, worse even, structurally conservative (as you've hinted at)! You'll forgive me for not buying it, I trust.

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