Confrontation or Cooperation? The New Russia Is no Longer a Crippled Giant
Many of the worlds up-and-coming new powers neither embrace nor aspire to the Western model of liberal democracy. This makes the idea of an "alliance of democracies" a nonstarter. The new powers include authoritarian regimes and they demand a role in global governance. Russia is ready to cooperate, if the West is ready to take it seriously.
Compete, confront, or cooperate. One of these verbs will define the next era of Russia's relations with the West.
All of these changes clearly mark a new stage in international development. The Cold War was followed by 12 to 14 years of the post-Cold War era. The dawn of the 21st century saw the end of this period and the beginning of a new one that I call NEC -- a New Era of Competition, Confrontation, or Cooperation. This will be a period of transition, uncertainty, and competition.
The weakening of the traditional democratic model of development has dealt a serious blow to the ideal of political democracy, which has suffered from the economic success of authoritarian nations. China is doing much better than the more democratic -- but far from fully democratic -- India. A partially democratic Kuwait is lagging behind the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. A democratic Lebanon and the Palestinian state ruled by democratically elected radicals are in the throes of civil war. Their more authoritarian neighboring Arab states are doing better.
Indeed, at least for the time being, the one and only shining path for humanity has been replaced by multiple paths. Until the 1990s there had been two shining paths: democratic capitalism and communism. The latter collapsed ignominiously. The West celebrated the final and seemingly irrevocable victory ("the end of history"). In addition to winning a moral victory, the West enjoyed a redistribution of wealth, human, and other resources in its favor. However, this process was eventually stopped and reversed by economic slowdown and -- most importantly -- the success of new capitalist and relatively authoritarian states. It is most likely that the setback of traditional Western democratic capitalism is temporary. The vast majority of more affluent and comfortable countries are capitalist democracies, and it is highly likely that with increasing wealth the new capitalist states will move toward more democracy. Yet for now and for the next decade or so the West will continue to lose the geopolitical, economic, and ideological competition.
In addition, recent years have seen dramatic changes in the energy sector. A decade ago, 85 to 90 percent of the world's fossil fuel reserves were controlled by major Western oil companies or by the governments of producer countries compliant to the West. Today, the situation has been reversed with more than 90 percent of fossil fuel resources accessible outside of the United States owned and controlled by the national corporations of producer nations that are much less dependent on the West. The shifts in the energy sector have caused an acute sense of vulnerability and unease, especially in Europe. Despite the rhetoric about diversifying energy routes that bypass Russia, Europeans realize that they have no plausible alternatives but to rely on Russia and other outside sources. Meanwhile, Russia has alternative solutions for its gas and oil, namely the eastern and domestic markets.
Faced by new shifts in international power, the West is contemplating a rapprochement after 15 years of drifting apart. The idea of a new "alliance of democracies" floated by American thinkers was even embraced by the Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Some Europeans, fearful of their weakened position in the face of new competitors, have put forth similar ideas. The idea of setting up a community of powerful and responsible states to lead the fight against new threats is reasonable. Yet the "alliance of democracies" project, as it is presented now, smacks of a pact made by the seniors against the juniors. In all seriousness, if implemented, this project could exacerbate and institutionalize a new wave of competition and systemic confrontation.
Russia has largely benefited from many of these economic and energy changes. For the first time in history, the winds of luck seem to be blowing into Russian sails. The resurgence of Russia has become especially evident against the background of the relative decline of the United States because of Iraq, and Europe because of its "lowest common denominator" policies and temporary loss of direction. The West's persistent inability to stabilize the Middle East has amplified Russia's voice. Even the growth of China has increased Russia's importance as a possible counterbalance to, integrator, or ally of the emerging superpower. The growing demand for fossil fuels and the ensuing rise of prices has made Russia look like an "energy superpower."
Yet much of Russia's success is self-made. With the presidency of Vladimir Putin, the country resurrected itself from that of a nearly failed state in the late 1990s. It has since pursued mostly sound economic and financial policies. A great part of the country's economic growth is now generated by sectors other than oil and gas. Russia won -- against all odds and predictions -- a political victory against separatists and Islamists in Chechnya, although at a horrible price. It demonstrated the political will of its leadership and the resolve and unity of the nation. Most people in Russia believe that the current tensions with the West are a result of the latter's dissatisfaction with Russia's new assertiveness. This is only partly true. Russia's resurrection and its efforts to change the rules of the game, which were set during the years of Russia's near-collapse and weakness, exploit the West's present weaknesses and attempts to protect its position.