BEARR Trust 20th Anniversary Annual Lecture 2011

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The BEARR Trust 20th Anniversary Annual Lecture 2011 was held at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) on 7 June 2011. The speaker, Dr Bobo Lo spoke about Russia and the New World Disorder.

Dr Bobo Lo is a leading independent expert on Russian and Chinese foreign policy and author of a number of books and articles on Russian foreign policy, and in particular on the relationships between Russia, the US and China. The speaker was introduced by Sir Roderic Lyne, KBE CMG, former British Ambassador in Moscow and Patron of BEARR. Jonathan Charles, new Head of Communications at EBRD and formerly at the BBC, welcomed the guests. In his opening words, Sir Roderic observed how Russia’s usually consistent foreign policy has altered in the wake of recent changes in the world, in particular the events in North Africa. Its abstention over the UN Security Council Resolution No 1973 on Libya was a major departure from Russia’s normal behaviour, which was either to support or veto resolutions, and never to abstain. At this uncertain time in world events, Russia is finding that, apart from its nuclear arsenal, it has few levers of hard or soft power on which to draw to influence the course of events in the world.

Dr Lo addressed Russia’s ability to meet the challenges of the new world disorder and its prospects as a centre of influence in the world. He flagged up some wishful thinking in Russian analytical circles about the situation today: for example that Europe is now a negligible force and the US much weakened, while power has shifted to the East. While this is true to some extent, Dr Lo thinks the decline of the West is by no means as great as many believe, and disputed the notion that there is such a thing as “the East”, because the Asian region is very diverse, including important countries such as Japan and Indonesia, as well as China. In the US, there is indeed greater appreciation of the limits of American power, and Europe, as a collective entity, has become a negligible actor in international politics. In addition, the global financial crisis has called into question Western economic and moral leadership and even the notion of a unitary West has become more tenuous.

Despite this, and the relative decline in the influence of the “great powers”, other groupings such as the G20 or the BRICs still wield little collective influence. No power has emerged – nor is likely to emerge anytime soon – to replace the US as global leader or even to share in its leadership responsibilities. China has neither the capacity nor the inclination to build a Sinocentric world order. Today, the world has never been so interdependent, but regionalism is still stronger than globalism. Dr Lo thought there is unlikely to be a new multi-polar world order for at least two decades, and that tensions will increase, especially between the US and China. By 2030 a US-China bipolarity is likely to emerge. This will constitute a condominium of shared interests as well as rivalry.

Looking at where this leaves, Russia, Dr Lo felt that Russia needs to establish a new identity and purpose in the world to ensure its continuing relevance and influence. Russia faces huge challenges: at home a growing brain drain, the need for innovation and reduce its dependence on energy; along its borders, how to recalibrate Russian influence in the post-Soviet space, with a less manipulative approach towards the ‘frozen conflicts’; to develop a new quality of engagement with Asian countries and organizations, and a regional development strategy for the Russian Far East; and, to reconfigure Russia’s relations with the West, including cooperation with the US on security in Afghanistan and counter-proliferation in relation to Iran and North Korea.

Dr Lo is not convinced there has been a new strategic direction in Russian foreign policy over the past 12-18 months. Moscow continues to see the international system as one defined principally by the relations between the great powers and is not inclined to accept a second rank status. There are few signs of significant change in Russia’s approach to global governance. It is a minor player in the G-20; it dislikes the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) and is indifferent to larger global issues, such as climate change. Moscow believes strongly in the primacy of national sovereignty and prerogatives, and is ill-disposed towards democracy movements. However, it is more tactically flexible than before – which is why it has been relatively accommodating over Libya, a secondary priority for Russian foreign policy. Russia seeks partnership with the West in order to modernise, but its success in this project depends overwhelmingly on endogenous factors; the West can help, but only at the margins. Russia’s relations with Europe have not changed fundamentally. Longer-term, Russia seeks association and cooperation, not integration, with Europe. Moscow believes it will be increasingly able to dictate the terms of this interaction.

Summing up, Dr Lo observed that China’s rise, and that of Asia more generally, represents a huge challenge to the West, but an even greater challenge to Russia. Russian foreign policy is in transition – but to what is uncertain. What is clear is that Russia’s prospects depend more than ever on domestic outcomes. It either has to modernise or risk marginalisation.

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