Last Friday, Vladimir Putin delivered the single most important speech on foreign policy since he became President in 2000. Mikhail Gorbachev said he thought it was the best, and most significant speech Putin has ever made.
In it he charted a clear course for Russia, defining its place in international affairs and setting out the principles and objectives of its foreign policy.
The response of the western political and media elite has been pitifully inadequate. The speech has attracted surprisingly little attention. The emphasis has been not on what Putin said about Russia or international relations in general but on what he specifically said about the US.
Western commentary wrongly but overwhelmingly treats the speech as simply a critique of US foreign policy (a “diatribe”) with Putin hypocritically condemning a US foreign policy he feels is targeted against him. Behind this is the assumption that the speech is Putin’s defiant response to the US sanctions policy imposed on Russia since the start of the Ukrainian crisis even though the actual speech barely touches on this question.
Putin did have a lot to say about US foreign policy and what he said was very critical. However to focus purely on that part of the speech is to fail to do it justice and to ignore its very coherent intellectual framework.
Putin came across a very different person from the aggressive expansionist and nationalist demagogue and gambler of western commentary. It is also different from the Putin some other people want him to be. Anyone looking to Putin to lead some great crusade against the US is on the evidence of this speech going to be disappointed. As some have noticed, what he actually wants from the US is not conflict but cooperation.
Putin’s vision of the international system is a profoundly conservative one – a fact he actually admitted himself after the speech in answer to a question. Running like a thread throughout the speech is a typical conservative’s yearning for stability and mistrust of change, a wish for a predictable rule based system in which the sovereign rights of nations are respected and in which change when it happens is contained and managed and never encouraged.
Since Putin’s concern is for stability, an aspect of his vision, which would be instantly familiar to an old style European conservative but which is totally alien to a modern western liberal, is that it is totally value neutral. Where westerners today habitually divide nations into democracies and dictatorships and decide their attitudes to them on that basis, Putin treats them all the same, considering their domestic arrangements to be something for them to worry about.
Underpinning everything is a belief in the need for an orderly system preserved by a balance of power. For Putin, the USSR’s greatest contribution was precisely in that by providing a counter weight to the US it secured international stability. Much of the speech is a lament for the loss of the counterweight provided by the USSR.
The part of the speech that criticises US foreign policy draws on these assumptions: the US became intoxicated by the unexpected position it achieved as a result of the USSR’s collapse and rather than acting to preserve the stability of the international system went instead on a rampage through a sequence of violent unilateral actions designed to reshape the world according to its image and interests and in order to perpetuate its dominance.
In the process order and stability have been thrown away and the result is violence and chaos. Putin recites the list: Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan (where he traces the story back to US support for jihadism against the Soviet army in the 1980s), Libya, Syria and now Ukraine, pointing out that none of these places is better off than it was before the US began to take an interest in them.
In a striking phrase that may cause offence in the US Putin compares the US to a nouveaux riche fecklessly squandering away the windfall.
The speech also shows where Putin wants to position Russia. In another striking phrase Putin says that he wants Russia to assume leadership of nothing save possibly the defence of international law.
Running like a thread through the speech is a deep commitment to international law interpreted in the most conservative way on the basis of legal documents, treaty texts and Court decisions. The creative efforts of (as Putin would put it) self-interested western reinterpretation of international law (such as R2P) are spurned as rationalisations for violating it.
By contrast Putin’s response to Western criticism of his Crimean policy is to defend it in the most traditional way by citing the UN Charter and the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion on Kosovo.
Putin’s training as a lawyer is an aspect of his background that few in the west are aware of. Judging from his words, it is at least as formative as was his service in the KGB.
This is a vision of Russia as the sheet anchor of the international system, acting together with its allies China and the other BRICS states to restrain the US where possible, rescuing the US from its follies whilst upholding international law, world order and stability.
It is a vision European statesmen of the nineteenth century would have instantly recognised but which political leaders in the US and Europe today barely understand, which is one reason why his speech is little understood.
It is a vision that is very popular in Russia, a country with a history of turmoil where order and stability are highly prized. It is also arguably a vision that corresponds with Russia’s interests. As an emerging economy Russia needs a stable and orderly international environment to allow space for its economy to develop.
Importantly throughout the speech Putin made it repeatedly clear that economic development remains for Russia an overriding priority and that the government would take no retaliatory action that might get in the way.
It is also a vision that is likely to be very popular around the world outside the Western camp, where governments and people have become increasingly wary of western interference in their affairs.
In the west, and in the US especially, it will inevitably be seen as a challenge.
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