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In this next essay in a series of 'Perspectives on Geopolitics' - a number of provocative reflections from participants of MCC Brussels' landmark conference 'The Return of Geopoltics? Europe a year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine' - Professor Bill Durodié examines what the 'Russia Question' means for Europe, and urges that geopolitics begins at home. You can read the rest of the essays in this series here.
How to resolve the 'Russia Question'
“Coming to terms with being a country with shrunken power and status can be a long and painful process lasting several generations.” (1)
This quote pre-dates the end of the Cold War and reflects the German Sociologist Norbert Elias’ views concerning the challenges of managing great power decline.
If previous generations had dealt with the ‘German Question’ dating back to before the First World War, our task is to address the ‘Russian Question’ – how to work with a country that can no longer meet its own aspirations.
So, how ought we respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Of course, it must be repelled by all means. Of course, we support the Ukrainian people and demand others do likewise. But, unlike in the past, those who oppose the invasion are much less clear on what they aspire for. A case in point is the disconnect between the EU’s praise of Ukrainian sovereignty and its hostility to national sovereignty in the case of Brexit.
Another complication, although perhaps less surprising, is the US acting completely opportunistically. Its senior analysts did not expect Ukraine to hold for longer than 72 hours. When it did, the US revised its options.
So, unlike in previous great power transitions, none of the parties involved can offer a coherent vision of its own regarding what to do going forward – let alone engage others.
Nothing in politics, and even less in international relations, is ever clear-cut. You may have to support those you dislike, and who dislike you. Despite all players wanting photo opportunities with President Zelensky, doubts and suspicions have grown.
Being anti-Putin is not the same as being pro-Ukraine. Some turn a blind eye to their businesses breaking sanctions. Kyrgyzstan’s trade with Russia has grown by a factor of six, driven by the re-export of goods from Europe. Knowing how and when to act, while keeping conflicted constituencies on-side, is not easy. This is further complicated by the fact that all must operate with an eye on the other players of the game.
Perhaps the most difficult problem is that all the key agents – Russia and Ukraine, as well as the US, UK, EU, and NATO – and those watching from the side-lines too – China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India and others – face significant internal problems at home, not least evidenced by a growing gulf between the elites and their people.
As far as the state of the ‘great powers’ goes, the war has undoubtedly allowed the US to reassert itself – albeit briefly – as a significant world leader. Supplying weapons from afar and energy to its allies – while chastising them over their security arrangements – has been a shot in the arm for US self-confidence.
It has put pressure on its partners to decouple – not just from Russia – but China too. Some 59% of Germany’s 5G network is powered by Chinese technology and that, as with the UK before it, looks set to be challenged.
At the same time, the US Deputy Secretary of the Treasury told the Chinese they “have a choice between doing business with the countries of our coalition, which represent 50% of the global economy, and doing business with Russia.”
For its part, China too appears to be playing a game. A flutter of recent papers from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs – a 12-point plan to settle the Ukraine conflict, a document called US hegemony and its perils, and various speeches by MFA Minister, Wang Yi, not to mention Xi’s visit to Moscow, are designed to ruffle feathers.
Nevertheless, they still also come across, in part, as obscure, if not self-deluded. The documents reference ‘Chinese wisdom’ and ‘Chinese characteristics’ – concepts unlikely ever to be fleshed-out or able to inspire others.
The ‘rising powers’ remain so at the level of economics alone and, for now, China can offer little more than a poor version of the same managerial international relations as others do. But that is not what is needed.
As I noted in a comment piece for The Straits Times over 13 years ago now: “world leadership may still be more America’s to lose than China’s to win at this stage.”
Accordingly, and assuming we do not hold the US to be in absolute decline (just yet), we nevertheless face, not just a ‘Russian Question’, but an entire set of ‘Western Questions’ too, as many European states really are declining, as reflected by their internal challenges and confusions.
“A country of reduced power and status”, as Elias would have it, applies to all of these. Even the US has, since 9/11, sought to promote itself more as ‘the land of the safe’, rather than ‘the land of the free’. And, as noted previously, the emerging powers lack universal appeal or the ability to inspire.
Undoubtedly, Vladimir Putin saw this state of affairs as an opportunity: a dithering (now octogenarian) US President, what many considered to be a buffoon as British Prime Minister, the least popular French President of all time, and a new German Chancellor lacking in vision.
The French political scientist, Zaki Laïdi (now advisor to European Commission Vice-President, Josep Borrell, who is responsible for Foreign Affairs and Security), wrote in his landmark text ‘A world without meaning’ (1994) that: “our societies claim that the urgency of problems forbids them from reflecting on a project, while in fact it is the total absence of perspective that makes them slaves of emergencies.”
It is high time this were understood. As Andrew Michta, Dean of the Marshall Centre for Security Studies in Germany has also noted, the coming period will see a shift of power in Europe to its East. And that is because only those who understand what is at stake and are willing to fight for it can claim authority in the long run.
Geopolitics is often perceived of as being high-level and set on the world stage. But, like many other matters, geopolitics begins at home. Norbert Elias did not distinguish in his work between internal political dynamics and international ones. He saw these as interlinked and reflective of each other.
For him, there needs to be a healthy body politic at home for there to be the same on a global scale. That is why the starting point to resolving the ‘Russian Question’, or any other related one, must be to revitalise our national political debate and our nations first.
Only nations with a clear sense of their own self-interest, and the ability to connect with others on similar terms, can hope to solve problems like these.
(1) Norbert Elias, ‘The fishermen in the maelstrom’, 1987
Professor Bill Durodié is a visiting professor to MCC Brussels
MCC Brussels aims to promote genuine dialogue and debate about the key issues facing Europe. We are committed to publishing a diverse range of voices. These articles represent only the views of their authors, and do not neccessarily represent the official position of MCC Brussels, MCC, its employees or partners.
You can read the rest of the essays in this series here.