Back before Edward Snowden kept us from invading Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin famously wrote an op-ed in the New York Times lecturing us on our foreign policy.
It was an amusing piece of propaganda, but it left the most important part of Russian practice out.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy has had one overarching theme, and that is respect for sovereignty.
If it’s not a country in Russia’s “near abroad” like Georgia, Russians are generally opposed to intervention.
They sometimes try to protect countries because of Russian military bases (Syria), or some imagined sense of community (Slavic solidarity with Serbia), but their support has extended to unrelated countries like Libya and Iraq.This rearguard action has been defeated by the United States at every turn. This may be a mistake.
Russia aren’t saints for taking this position, they are taking the smart tactical position for a fading power. As a country that wants to run things its own way, Russia is instinctively against telling countries how to handle their internal business. If the world can tell Saddam Hussein to be nicer to the Kurds, then it might try to force Putin to be nicer to the Chechens. Russia has often been joined in taking this position by China, but as China gets more powerful, we may start to see this support fade. The United States should pick up the slack.
As a peaking power, the United States should get more interested in sovereignty. Few dispute that the relative economic and military power of the US is peaking. It is not that we will stop getting richer, or that our military will stop being the biggest and most violent any time soon. The pie will continue to get bigger for everyone, the US included. The US’s slice of the pie, however, will never be as big a slice of the world economy as it is now. The US’s economic power has been falling relative to the size of the world economy since World War II. At the end of that war, and as recently as the end of the Cold War the US could do whatever it wanted. Any country that wanted to develop economically had no choice but to play ball. This is probably still the case.
We certainly act like it is. Despite claiming to respect sovereignty, we continue to act under the principle that “might makes right”. This is true from Syria policy to international drug policy and financial regulation. This is not the right choice for a power whose relative might is slipping away. The United States insists on its “exceptionalism”. Put another way, we like to do things differently from the rest of the world in a number of policy areas. It is easy to imagine many future scenarios where the rest of the world will combine in support doing things in a way that we don’t like. Free speech, environmentalism, labor law, and tax structure are the first areas that come to mind. Actions that undermine sovereignty are perverse moves for an “exceptional” country.
In September of 2013 the UK’s Guardian newspaper ran an article titled: “American gun use is out of control. Shouldn’t the world intervene?” The article was sort of a joke, but it won’t remain a joke for more than another couple decades. We should be using our declining power the way the Russians do, to shore up respect for national sovereignty in international law rather than attack it. I get the sense that many Americans I know would be happy to have a European or Chinese approach to gun control imposed from the outside, but how about a Chinese sense of the rule of law, or a European sense of free speech? This is something to keep in mind the next time someone tries to sell you on US intervention abroad. We may have a lot to learn from Russian foreign policy.