There is a simple and familiar narrative framing the current moment in international relations. The story goes that the liberal, democratic West – and the ‘rules based international order’ it built after World War 2 – is now under threat from an assortment of wreckers led by the authoritarian Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Last week, Putin made some disparaging remarks about the state of liberalism in the West, which were swiftly rejected by several European politicians. The minor spat gave each side an opportunity to reaffirm its self-image in contradistinction with its opponent. But the fact is there are no serious matters of principle at stake in the West’s rivalry with Russia. Indeed, we can learn far more about today’s international political economy by examining what the two sides have in common.
For a small but telling example, compare Theresa May’s meetings with Putin and with Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman at the G20 last week. May greeted Putin with overt frostiness, correctly describing the attempted murder in Salisbury of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, most likely on the orders of the Russian state, as “a truly despicable act”, and ruling out any thaw in London’s relationship with Moscow.
The contrast with the meeting with Bin Salman was stark. On the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, May only asked the Saudis to conduct a transparent investigation, while stressing the importance of British ties with the kingdom. The prime minister knows full well that both the UN and the CIA have concluded Bin Salman himself bears ultimate responsibility for the murder, and that there is no chance of the Saudis carrying out a credible investigation. Her stance forms part of the political cover-up of the assassination. Clearly therefore May has no disagreement with Putin over the principle of state-directed murder, merely over the question of who does it and where.
Britain’s ties with Saudi Arabia themselves demonstrate that the supposed dichotomy between a liberal West and an authoritarian East is an ahistorical nonsense. Western powers have long played a vital role in helping the Saudis and the other royal families of the Gulf entrench their rule, equipping them to defeat any challenge. When a peaceful and broad-based pro-democracy movement was violently crushed by the Bahraini regime in 2011, London and Washington made a few disapproving noises while maintaining arms sales and shielding the Gulf kingdom from international censure.
Support for authoritarian regimes in the Global South, including against democratic counter-forces, is a recurring theme in Western foreign relations, and a direct outgrowth of the centuries of colonialism from which the West’s current power derives. Those empires were violent systems of coercion and exploitation, intrinsically and by definition. Often in the Global South, the continuation of tyrannical rule under local elites was required after formal independence to ensure the continued exploitation of their peoples and resources on terms favourable to Western power. Were it not for these enduring systems of violence, the West as we know it today simply would not exist.
Western qualms about authoritarianism in Russia itself were somewhat more muted during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, and even in Putin’s early days, before Moscow began to reassert itself as an independent global power. With post-Soviet Russia weak, compliant and unchallenging, the West essentially shrugged as Yeltsin sent in the tanks to shell parliament, imposed devastating economic shock therapy by decree, and unleashed the Russian military to pulverise Chechnya. Substantive indifference continued when the incoming Putin returned Russian troops to Chechnya in a second brutal war. Putin was objectively a murderous criminal before he acquired that status in the eyes of a Western political class for whom his real crime is failure to accept the dominance of the Atlantic powers.
As for the ‘rules based international order’, it is difficult to see how it is any more undermined by Russia’s annexation of Crimea or aggression in eastern Ukraine, than it was by the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, or by decades of Western support for Israel’s colonisation of the Palestinian territories. Similarly, it is difficult to see why Russia’s murderous intervention in Syria is a threat to the ‘rules based international order’, but Saudi Arabia’s criminal bombing of Yemen – sustained by Anglo-American support – is met with blithe indifference by most Western liberal commentators.
Putting aside the standard narratives, two lessons can be drawn from the current rivalry between the West and Russia. First, any notion that globalisation would render the nation state obsolete or subordinate to international capital has been comprehensively disproved. The state in a capitalist society – from Washington to London to Moscow – has its own interests and motivations, connected to but distinct from those of capital. As such, states will continue to compete and clash on the international stage.
Second, as Putin’s recent expression of his chauvinistic worldview shows, battles over values and culture play a key role in articulating the politics which mobilise that state power. Putin has won domestic legitimacy by presenting himself as the embodiment of Russian resurgence after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and the economic catastrophe of the Yeltsin years. His championing of ‘traditional values’, his personal machismo, the concerted attack on LGBT rights under his rule, all complement and reinforce a wider set of reactionary politics, just as Donald Trump embodies and performs the defensive, white, male backlash inherent to ‘Make America Great Again’.
And although it is currently floundering, liberalism had until recently an impressive record of telling a coherent (if easily critiqued) story that bound a widely appealing set of values to a political-economic project. Such projects are built and sustained through a complex fusion of values and interests. If the left is seriously committed not just to winning an election someday but to securing hegemony, then it will take these lessons on board, put aside false distinctions between ‘class politics’ and ‘culture wars’, and recognise (as Putin does) that one can only achieve real victory on this wider, interconnected terrain.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy, a regular writer for Novara Media and author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain