Struggling to make sense of complexities of the emerging new world

Maanantaina, 13. lokakuuta 2008     0 kommentti(a)
Igor Torbakov

Two pieces of analysis that I’ve read over the weekend appear to be emblematic of two Western ways of looking at the current international situation in general and at Russia in particular. To be sure, these two approaches have a long tradition. The first tends to simplify things and sees the world as being basically black and white. The second approach focuses on ambiguities and contradictions and holds that reality is colored in zillion shades of grey. But while the first manner of seeing and reflecting produces a seemingly neat and clear-cut picture, it is the willingness and ability to see the complexities of the modern world that eventually leads to better understanding.

In his recent commentary published October 9 in the Financial Times, the Economist correspondent Edward Lucas warns us – surprise, surprise – to bundle up against the chills of the coming new Cold War. Well, Lucas just authored a book titled The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West. Now, after the Caucasus crisis, he appears to feel that authoritarian Russia’s aggressive behaviour in its neighbourhood culminating in ruthless crushing of “democratic Georgia” has proved him right. “What once seemed eccentric now looks mainstream,” Lucas says referring to his book’s controversial title. “Indeed,” he adds, “after the conflict in Georgia, the description ‘cold war’ risks looking like an understatement.”

The main thrust of Lucas’ article titled “Don’t Let Russia ‘Finlandise’ Western Europe” is this: the Kremlin has got unhinged and is out to recreate “a ‘lite’ version of the Soviet empire, based not on military might but on economic dominance and pipeline monopolies.” In other words, Russia “wants the ‘Finlandisation’ of Western Europe.”

Aha, now we know what’s going on. In fact, we are offered a comfortably familiar picture as nothing apparently ever changes in the eternal pattern of Russia-West relations: the endangered West and menacing Russia locked in the old-new global confrontation. The battle lines are neatly drawn and even a layman can easily distinguish between friend and foe. In this black-and white optic Russia is clearly the West’s major adversary and should be stopped, before it’s too late, in her nefarious ways. No wonder, this compelling (if atrociously oversimplified) vision dominates the broadsheets and airwaves. By the way, a new edition of The New Cold War is published this week.

But is the “New Cold War” a useful paradigm? No, argues Pierre Hassner in his thoughtful commentary published in the latest issue of Survival. It may in some ways look like the cold war again, says Hassner, a Research Director Emeritus at the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales in Paris, but the context today is blurred past recognition.

Indeed, what is the pivotal contradiction of our epoch? How to define what is the right priority today – is it Russia, Iran, terrorism, price of oil, financial meltdown?

And what is the “West” nowadays? Remarkably, one of Lucas’ leitmotifs is his plea to the European nations to overcome their differences with each other and with Washington – lest Russia succeeds in its wily divide-and-rule tactics. But is the current disunity not a sign that the “West” may no longer exist in the unified sense usually invoked.

Finally, what role does Russia play? The “New Cold War” concept doesn’t capture the dramatic global changes since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. In a new globalized world of today, Russia appears to be at once a competitor, a partner, and an opponent. “Those who want a definitive answer as to whether Russia is a partner or an adversary do not understand the essence of the situation,” writes Hassner. Precisely!

For Europe, Russia is a priority, argues Hassner. Yes, it is perceived differently in different parts of Europe – as an indispensable partner in west of the Old Continent and as an imminent threat in its east. So the key for a successful policy is “balancing, combining and moderating these concerns.” Hopefully, EU policymakers will pay heed to the nuanced analysis of the French scholar.

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