Russia and the West After Iraq

The US-led invasion of Iraq called into question the efficacy of today's international system. While the US will probably not achieve all of its goals in Iraq, the war has clearly confirmed and strengthened its global supremacy. How should Russia respond? Where do its interests lie, and what kinds of policy should its leaders pursue? In particular, how should Russia position itself vis-à-vis the incipient rivalry between Europe and the United States?

The Iraqi crisis revealed deep differences between the US and Western Europe in matters of political culture, ethics, approaches to international politics, and the role of military force. These differences will hardly break the basic trans-Atlantic alliance built on the foundation of common values and interests. But they will necessarily heighten elements of competition, including competition for Russia.

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The war in Iraq has also revealed the critical state of the European Union's foreign and defense policies. Attempts to have Europe speak with one voice obviously failed. In light of even greater differences resulting from the enlargement, they are not likely to succeed in the near future. Moreover, as confrontation with the US intensifies, Washington will probably act to forestall any trend toward the unification of EU foreign and defense policy. In the absence of such common policy, the EU and its leading members will remain in the second league of world-class players for the foreseeable future.

In this context, it was a mistake for Russia to side so strongly with France and Germany against the US. It was not as bad as during Soviet times, when we used to side with the Third World against both America and Europe, but it was still not in Russia's long-term interest.

France was pursuing its own Gaullist goal of strengthening French national prestige by inflicting damage or even humiliation upon the US. Germany's chancellor was not motivated by European goals, either, but took an anti-war stand on Iraq to deal with his own domestic problems: the weakness of his government and pacifist sentiments among the majority of Germans.

A struggle for preserving the vestiges of greatness may be a worthy goal; perhaps France, a country richer than Russia, can afford these objectives. But do Russians really want to tickle their vanity at the expense of the long-term interests of our economically devastated country? Nor does Russia need to cater to pacifism for domestic political considerations, as a pacifist movement is non-existent in my country.

One goal of European foreign policy has always been to prevent excessive rapprochement between Russia and the US. Good US-Russian relations, however, could strengthen both countries, and especially Russia. Some people in Russia--traditional leftists and corrupt bureaucrats afraid of a more open system--indulge in anti-American rhetoric. But anti-Americanism is simply irrational for Russia, which only stands to gain from an alliance with the world's economic and political leader.

Of course, good relations with Europe are a priority for Russia, especially economic links, human contacts, and social interactions. Russia will also benefit from an active foreign-policy engagement with the EU's leading members. But a strategic alliance with the EU in foreign and security policies remains unrealistic and inefficient. Europe will most likely continue to grow weaker, rather than stronger, in this field. That is why Europe will inevitably be a minor priority if Russia manages to restore and maintain special relations with the US.

Russia could also play the role of a "transatlantic integrator," mediating the various conflicts and differences in the traditional Atlantic community. Obviously, we are more suited for this role than, say Poland, which is also trying to play it. A similar bridging role could perhaps be played by Russia with respect to China and India, with which we should establish maximally close relations.

But close relations with the US do not mean that Russia must neglect its own interests, both political and economic. In the context of Iraq, for example, Russia should constructively support the rebuilding effort, even if, as of now, its participation has not been sought. But while supporting the new Iraqi government, Russia should not break off contacts, if they still exist, with moderate members of the Baath party, many of whom may come back to power. After all, Iraq has few other elites to rely upon, much as Russia had no non-Communist elite after 1991.

Should such a possibility arise, Russia should take part in peacemaking and reconstruction operations in Iraq, rather than trying to put a spoke in Washington's wheel. Indeed, unlike Kosovo, where we have no serious interests and should withdraw from the peacekeeping efforts, Russia stands both to gain and lose a lot in Iraq. We have our interests to protect, the most important of which are economic: recovery of Iraqi debts owed to Russia, the contractually agreed-upon development of oil fields, restoration of public infrastructure.

More generally, Russia must play the oil card, which still gives the country a powerful trump in international relations, especially in light of long-term destabilization of the Middle East. Russia will both derive large revenues from oil for many decades and can also play the role of an "energy stabilizer" that will be important for maintaining world peace. Wise use of oil resources will not only provide a long-term foundation for Russia's modernization, but will also enhance Russia's geopolitical influence.