International relations amid the pandemic

The beginning of August was marked by two events which, without their fundamental significance, are essential for the global agenda in order to understand what international politics may look like in the future. First, relations between China and the small Baltic state of Lithuania fell de facto after the latter’s authorities decided to recognize the de facto sovereignty of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as part of the People’s Republic of China. Second, this is the first anniversary of the stormy domestic political events in Belarus that followed presidential elections that were not recognized by the United States or the European Union and that caused resentment in a significant section of Belarusian society.

In the first case we see how the behavior of a formally independent state is completely subordinate to the decisions of one of the great powers. Protection by the United States is Lithuania’s main national interest as Lithuania cannot ensure its own survival due to its lack of potential. In essence, China is now dealing with the implementation of one of the tactical tasks under the US survival strategy, even though it is formally a decision of a sovereign member of the international community. In the case of Belarus, the survival of the state in August – September 2020 was also ensured by the full support of Russia, for which the collapse of the Belarusian statehood would mean the emergence of a security threat. At the same time, in contrast to Lithuania, we cannot say that all of the Minsk decisions still correlate with the development of the optimal situation for Moscow.

At the same time, Lithuania and Belarus themselves are in a state of acute conflict. It started exactly a year ago when the Lithuanian authorities decided to take an active fight against their neighbor. During this struggle, Lithuania acted as the proxy for the United States and the leading states of Europe, while Belarus is again only marginally controlled by Russia, at least from the point of view of most knowledgeable Russian observers. But the survival of this country is in Russia’s national interest.

As we can see, in this case the great powers – Russia, China and the United States – are not interacting directly, but with those who alone cannot bear full responsibility for their actions. This raises the question of how great powers should act under modern conditions and, in principle, can build relationships with partners who have a sovereignty recognized by the UN, but who do not have the ability to pursue their own foreign policy. This question seems important, because the choice of diplomatic or power-political instruments depends on the answer.

From a Russian perspective, this is especially relevant as it is surrounded by such neighbors, just as the United States is surrounded by oceans.

In addition, in recent years it has not expressed a desire to regain full control of its neighbors in order to have a direct dialogue with its peers, as it did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the frontiers of the most important ones Forces of Eurasia were actually aligned.

The emergence of the dialogue problem with countries that are unable to behave fully responsibly has become a result of international politics in the 20th century. Over the past 100 years the international system has been filled with a multitude of states that are unable to ensure their survival independently. This process began after World War I, when the victorious powers became interested in creating a significant number of small countries that were absolutely dependent on them. Instead of the destroyed Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires, a large group of state units emerged in Eastern Europe.

None of them could play a negligible role during the next great war, 1939-1945. Even Poland, the most populous, was defeated in a few weeks and later reborn thanks to the victorious Soviet army. The others were more or less successful in building their own economic base during the “armistice” of 1918-1939, but their ability to ensure sovereignty over national defense was immediately refuted. All of these countries, with the exception of Finland, either came under pressure from internal circumstances or were defeated because they acted as potential or active satellites for the opposing sides.

After the end of World War II, however, the “parade of sovereignties” continued on a global level. In addition, after 1945 the great powers had extraordinary resources to manage international affairs – a colossal power gap created by the creation of large nuclear arsenals. In the period from 1950 to 1970, the main engine of sovereignty was the desire of the two great powers – the USSR and the United States – to create, on the basis of the European colonial empires, a network of their own client states that were unable to survive without the aid of Washington or Moscow. In fact, the process mirrored what had happened in Eastern Europe 25 years earlier, only the other empires were divided – the British and French colony.

Some time later, albeit on a smaller scale, China also joined this movement. Beijing’s resources were previously so limited that it could reliably advance a strategy of “national self-determination” to protect its own interests. Indeed, China lagged behind in this race and can now only ponder how the customer states of Russia or the United States can be so insecure of their future that they will hand over external governance to Beijing. So far we have not seen any convincing examples of such behavior.

In addition, after the collapse of their own colonial empires, Britain and France were able to regain control of the foreign policy of some of the units that emerged from their ruins. Now, in very rare cases, this control takes place directly and takes place mainly through institutional interaction mechanisms with the European Union or other organizations of the community of market-economy democracies.

As a result of the end of the Cold War, a considerable number of countries emerged not only in Eastern Europe, but also on the territory of the former USSR, which needed external support for their survival. Some of the newly independent states have presented compelling evidence of a move towards more effective sovereignty. The collapse of the USSR, as well as the collapse of the colonial system over the past few decades, has left Russia and China surrounded by a number of neighbors with whom they can forge relatively equal relations, just as the United States can practically do on an equal footing with Great Britain, Germany or France.

However, a significant number of these neighbors simply lack human and geopolitical resources. As a result, both great powers must now form a special foreign policy with an entire group of countries that takes into account the specifics of their situation. But they’re not the only ones. The United States and the leading EU countries are also developing specific policies towards those who entrust their survival to Russia or China, taking into account the role Moscow or Beijing will play in their fate. It is the conflict between the USA and Russia that determines the actions of Washington or Berlin, for example towards Armenia or Belarus, and not the actual bilateral relations.

Nor can Russia assume that there is normal bilateral diplomacy in relations with Lithuania or Romania. A contrary example is Russia’s policy towards Pakistan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan – countries that have the necessary resources for independent survival and responsible foreign policy. China has tried to build traditional relationships with the countries of Eastern Europe, but these efforts are now facing palpable difficulties.

It is very likely that, with the return of international politics to a dynamic balance of power, the leading powers will seek to limit their bilateral relations to those who really have the capacity to be accountable in their behavior. Incidentally, a gradual transformation of the usual diplomatic practice towards a special model that differs in terms of quality and content is to be expected. What this new content will be now is not a speculative but a practical one. This new kind of relationship can become a kind of proxy diplomacy, which is definitely better than the proxy war we are all familiar with.

From our partner RIAC

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