Learning the skills of being a regional power

The economic crisis is obviously having a strong impact on global politics, but nobody is venturing to predict what the new alignment of forces will be. Most likely, all countries will have to economize, rein in their ambitions and set more realistic priorities.

With Russia, the crisis has caused a striking contrast between the grand intentions Moscow declared several months ago and the far more limited possibilities available to it today.

The economic crisis served as a catalyst to a process that had already been set into motion. It was clear that the United States had passed the peak of its global influence after the military campaign in Iraq. In absolute terms, the United States will remain the leading player on the world stage for several decades to come, although its traditional leadership role has begun to diminish. It is no coincidence that President Barack Obama has spoken so much about renewing U.S. values. As compared to former President George W. Bush, whose administration used force to promote U.S. interests, Obama will rely more on multilateral cooperation and international institutions to pursue his goals.

Washington will definitely try to strengthen its ties with Europe that were frayed by the Bush presidency. But the European Union is not ready to participate in Washington's many geopolitical projects around the globe, and this decreases the continent's political worth for the United States. The crisis only exacerbates the problem of finding partners and allies to help shoulder the burden of military involvement in the world's conflict zones. The upcoming NATO summit will likely demonstrate the contrast between the desire the United States and the EU have to strengthen their political unity and their inability to find shared missions.

Europe is not inclined to make sacrifices for U.S. interests in distant regions, such as Southern and Eastern Asia or the Far East. And as for neighboring territories such as the Middle East, North Africa and some parts of the former Soviet Union where Europe has direct interests, the EU and the United States are occasionally even rivals.

It is possible that losing the status as the United States' main privileged partner will put Europe in an awkward position. On the one hand, some leading European states would like to play an independent role in global politics and not remain under the aegis of the United States. On the other hand, Europeans have grown unaccustomed to taking a prominent role. What's more, no single European state is capable of complete independence, and although the European Union possesses remarkable potential as a whole, it has been unable to formulate a unified political course because of the diversity of its constituent states.

The focus of U.S. economic and strategic interests is gradually turning toward Asia. The crisis has once again demonstrated the tight interdependence between the United States and China. But this is not the kind of mutual dependence that grows into a strong partnership. As one U.S. commentator aptly put it, this relationship is closer to the Cold War concept of mutually assured destruction —only this time in economic terms. Any rash or ill-conceived economic move by either country could prove fatal to both sides, and this prevents a serious conflict.

Many people believe that the crisis will cause a regionalization of the global community. In other words, it could lead to a strengthening of separate centers of power. For example, China would become one such center, spreading its influence across Eastern and South Eastern Asia as well as the EU. These centers could also be considered new poles in the 21st-century multipolar world.

But in that paradigm, the arrangement is asymmetrical. Of all the major powers, the United States is the only one that over the next decade would not be satisfied with becoming a regional center with its own sphere of influence. Europe, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Iran, South Africa and Japan all have that potential, but not all would necessarily succeed in that role. The U.S. position as the dominant global power among numerous regional powers of varying strength is an advantageous one, but it requires refinement.

Russia is the natural center of power among the former Soviet republics. Most of them are going through serious economic recessions, but they have no need to turn anywhere else but Moscow for assistance. The list of those that have already applied to Russia for aid in one form or another includes Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine and nations belonging to the Eurasian Economic Community. Other neighboring states will probably make similar requests in the months ahead. The amounts of money that Moscow has promised in aid have not put a serious dent in its reserve fund, but the temptation to offer more money as a way of strengthening Russia's geopolitical standing has been thwarted by the crisis. All the same, the resurgence of Russia's influence in neighboring countries with which Moscow has strong historical and cultural ties is consistent with the overall global tendency toward regionalization.

Over the past several years, Russia has shown that it can't always derive geopolitical dividends from money invested in its allies. As a rule, the result runs opposite to the intended outcome. Instead of Moscow strengthening its position and relations with its neighbors, the result is often mutual resentment that can even degenerate into conflict. Ukraine is a two good example of this.

The problem is more likely that in the 17 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has not defined exactly how it views its "sister republics." Are they just ordinary foreign states or close allies? Are they ungrateful turncoats that aspire to prosper at Russia's expense? Or are they national entities that have yet to prove themselves fully as independent states?

Moscow still has all of the prerequisites needed to play a role among the former Soviet republics analogous to that played by London in the British Commonwealth. But to achieve this, Russia will first need to feel that it can act as a patron that is able to give without expecting immediate rewards and to show magnanimity, tact and restraint. For a major power, there is nothing worse than getting entangled in a petty spat with its smaller neighbors. From the outside it very much resembles a high-pitched shouting match in a communal apartment over who left the dirty dishes in the sink.

A genuine superpower knows how to skillfully show nobility and respect toward smaller nations. When dealing with stronger nations, it also knows how to use reasonable power mechanisms when matters of vital national interest are at stake. Unfortunately, Russia has often gotten everything backwards: It applies pressure where magnanimity or self-composure is required (for example, in Ukraine), and it demonstrated passivity where active participation might have served better (for example, in the "frozen conflicts.").

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

This article was first published in The Moscow Times

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