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Russia’s Moral Foreign Policy Framework Offers Peaceable Alternative to Crusading West

Where US seeks to spread its values and institutions by force and unilateraly if necessary Russia acts from the position that it's alright for non-western nations to be true to themselves and that consumerist west lacks the cultural and spiritual capacity to deal with many emerging global crises

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This article originally appeared at The National Interest


Russia’s moral framework, particularly as it applies to contemporary Russian foreign policy, differs markedly from that of the West.

While post-Soviet Russia has no guiding ideology, it does argue that certain values, if adopted as shared principles of behavior, are more congenial to international order than others.

Russia would like to see such principles of behavior be more widely adopted, but, recognizing that each nation’s cultural development is unique, it very much opposes efforts to promote any one set of ethical values beyond its borders.

Hence, the only time that the international community may legitimately appeal to transnational ethical norms, is when such are sanctioned by the United Nations. This is a high bar, but, Russia argues, it has been set high on purpose, to avoid abuse.

The specific values that Russia sees as more congenial to international order are those shared by Russia’s four traditional religious communities—Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Their comfortable interaction with each other and with the state, Russia argues, demonstrates that religion need not be a source of conflict in the modern world. Indeed, Russian spokesmen have often argued that Western nations could learn a lot from the Russian model.                     

This moral framework has led to four areas of friction with the West.        

The first involves the nature of the international order. Since the rise of human rights and democracy as explicit U.S. foreign-policy objectives in the 1970s, Western political leaders have argued that, in the best of all possible worlds, foreign policy is a reflection of domestic politics.

The theory built around this assumption—“democratic peace theory”— in its most popular form is taken to suggest that democracies do not go to war with each other. States that promote democracy are therefore promoting a morally desirable international order, whereas states that object to such efforts are deemed immoral.

As Western concern for democracy and human rights has outpaced that of international institutions, the United States and its allies have sought ways around these institutions, by asserting that Western values are the de facto, if not de jure, international standard. When several Western nations act in concert, therefore, they do not require any explicit mandate from the United Nations. This has been a source of considerable friction between Russia and the West.

Just how much our moral framework has shifted over time can be gleaned from the fact that today the best known articulator of Adams’ concern that, should America become “the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer be the ruler of her own spirit,” is not even American. It is Vladimir Putin.

Nor is the Orthodox Church’s moral framework as “anti-modern” or “anti-liberal” as it appears to be at first blush. The writings of senior Russian clergy on these subjects quite nuanced, arguing that both the Enlightenment and liberalism were both valuable and progressive social ideals in their day, but that having abandoned the moral framework provided by the Church, they have deformed and become monstrous.

What the Orthodox Church does reject, and this wholeheartedly, is secularism. And the fact that contemporary Western societies tend to regard secularism, along with modernity and liberalism, as forming the quintessential Western trinity of values, is something that the Russian Orthodox Church is keen to reverse.

This is, of course, a conflict of visions, and some political fallout from it is inevitable. It is also understandable that, in secular discourse, the Russian Orthodox Church is often treated as a political actor, because it clearly is. It is also an economic actor, a legal actor, a cultural actor, an educational actor, in sum it is active in literally every sphere of public life.

The question we ought to ponder, however, is how best to prevent this conflict of ideals from spilling over into outright hostility. One way to mitigate the political repercussions that derive from our conflicting eschatologies might be to recognize just how little this secular activity means to the Orthodox Church.

We should never lose sight of the fact that the Church sees itself, first and foremost, as a supernatural actor—the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in history. What do political battles matter when one is competing for every individual soul, for the very soul of mankind? This latter is the only struggle that has meaning for the Church, that is its raison d’etre, and its outcome will not be decided by politics.

Moreover, in this all-defining battle, the Church has an almost insurmountable advantage over all political actors, governments, and even nations. Its time frame for success is eternity, which is awfully hard to beat.

But how successful can Russia be in its efforts to propagate its moral framework? How attractive is it? The answer depends on which region of the world one is talking about.

If soft power is thought of as the use of religious and/or cultural affinity to achieve foreign policy objectives, then it is not surprising that most of Russia’s neighbors remain quite receptive to Russian soft power.

Sometimes, as in Ukraine and Georgia, this mutual dependency is manifested in a “love-hate” relationship that keeps Russia at the center of public attention, even as national elites desperately seek to distance their country from Russian cultural influence.      

Culture and religion therefore remain powerful assets in Russia’s efforts to establish a Eurasian Union and to impede alternatives, since it is always easier to forge political and economically attractive options from a common cultural foundation, than to attempt the reverse.

But the real test for Russian soft power will be whether it can shape preferences in areas of the globe that have traditionally been outside its cultural influence. To expand its reach, Russia is promoting two simple messages that are likely to resonate deeply with many non-Western states.

The first, is that it is alright for non-Western nations to be true to themselves. To succeed in the world, one does not have to move in lockstep with the Western model of development. The rise of the BRICS, Russia argues, has proven that diverse approaches to development can compete very successfully with “the Washington Consensus,” and that local traditions can provide a reservoir of social resources that can be used to enhance global competitiveness.

The second message is that it is alright to challenge prevailing Western notions concerning the advantages of a consumer oriented society. In many non-Western societies, consumerism is blamed not only for leading directly to spiritual crisis, but also to resource, demographic, and ecological crises. The common response has been to seek a sustainable, autochthonous spiritual development, upon which to build a sustainable, autochthonous economic development.

In his book, The Righteous Mind, professor Jonathan Haidt highlights the vast values gap that exists between the “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic” nations (WEIRD), and nations that prefer an “ethic of community” or an “ethic of divinity.” In these latter, Haidt writes, “the personal liberty of secular western nations”—including the unrestrained freedom of expression—“looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts.”

What has transformed this rather amorphous values consensus into a discernible global agenda for a new world order is the growing sense that the West, though still dominant in power, wealth, and resources, lacks the cultural and spiritual capacity to deal with many emerging global crises. Traditional religions also typically reinforce the idea that there is a limit to humanity’s ability to transform itself and its environment, and that to assert the contrary, as “WEIRD” values do, is dangerous hubris.

Most Western analysts, however, cannot fathom why this would lead to a confluence of interests among countries as diverse as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.[1] Perhaps a better way to think of it is this—the soft power of the BRICS is an expression not of any one set of national values, but of the common values that, according to these states, ought to underlie a new international order.

Russia’s moral framework fits this agenda like a glove, magnifying the impact of Russian soft power. Russia now believes that it can rely on a core constituency of states to assist it in the face of intense western hostility, since its efforts benefit not only Russia, but indirectly all nations that share the desire for a new international order.

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