Restructuring the World by Normative Means: Challenges and Opportunities for Russia

Alexandra Shapovalova

PhD in International relations, Doctorant student, Institute of International Relations, Kiev National Taras Shevchenko University, Ukraine.

In the light of global crisis lasting for almost five years the traditional advantages of the West in world politics have turned obviously relative. Its military power is ever more costly and ever less effective for imposing stable order in strategically important regions. Its economy is creeping and prospects of its growth are still obscure. And with resurfacing deep societal imbalances Western ideational leadership is also fading away. In many respects the West finds itself excessively dependent upon foreign markets including those of rising powers which strive to retain and expand their political autonomy.

This means that the gap between the West and the Rest cannot be sustained by usual power instruments and in several years it can be narrowed to a dangerous and irreversible extent. Such perspective prompts the United States as well as the European countries to exert urgent efforts in order to prevent imminent assault on Western leadership in the global system.

The strategy to be deployed for this purpose has crystallized in the last two years and consists in promoting major realignments of global and regional powers around the newly consolidated Western community. This strategy has as its main vehicle the normative influence wielded through redefining economic and political rules within and outside that community. And its practical implementation proceeds along two initiatives presented as a centrepiece of Barack Obama second presidency – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP or ‘Economic NATO’) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

These projects are intended to form an exclusive circle of countries with close political proximity and high-level normative convergence. Within these frameworks new basic socioeconomic rules could be agreed that would further be extrapolated outwards to the markets of alien regions. Economically this circle would benefit from revitalized capital flows leading to essential reindustrialization of its economies, while normative expansion to third countries, spurred by their aspirations to have an access to the core zone, would enable the renewed West to shape external markets according to the own needs. Rising powers remaining outside the core, first of all China and Russia, would have to adapt to the new rules and make strategic concessions. Thus the centre-periphery structure of world economy and hence of world politics would be secured and Western leadership reasserted.

This strategy of economic and normative consolidation may be quite logical outcome of the tendencies unfolded in recent years where consensus on global rules is hardly attainable, and the economic weight of rising powers makes the increase of their formal representation and political influence in the global institutions inescapable. Perhaps normative impact is actually the only potentially efficient and not so costly leverage at the West’s disposal now. But in political sense it is quite risky and may bring destabilizing outcomes in no less scope than military force. In addition, its implementation is far from unproblematic given the trends dominating the transatlantic relations as well as in US interaction with Asian states over the past years.

Problems with implementation

Despite widely spread idea that crisis may generate radical renovation of domestic and foreign policies, the key global players demonstrate the opposite inclination towards sticking to decades-old reliable methods and ties. In this vein, after several not very convincing attempts at opening to the ‘new horizons’ Washington again returned to traditional alliances and partnerships that underpinned its international posture after the Second World War. Though shattered by centrifugal forces due to inevitable differentiation of interests, these alliances seem more promising in the sense of resource sharing and political solidarity in times when going-it-alone is not a viable option any more. Leaving aside an even more intricate constellation in the Trans-Pacific dimension of US policy let’s focus upon its transatlantic component.

The European states still remain the closest allies for the US since, as Simon Serfaty argues, no other two poles in the world may form a more complete partnership than the US and the EU[1]. But the situation looks not so unequivocal from the vantage point of the EU interests and priorities.

On the one hand, since the beginning of 2000s the EU has persistently aspired to forge a new quality of transatlantic partnership in order to maintain American security engagement in the European continent and retain own position and influence in transatlantic compact. But at the same time, European capitals exhibited little enthusiasm to the prospect of being drawn into American strategy of military interventions outside Europe. Ensuing indifference on the part of Washington generated anxiety over possible ‘transatlantic divorce’. Election of Barack Obama raised far-reaching hopes in this regard and led to amelioration of political atmosphere between the two shores of the Atlantic. But the actual shifts in relationship turned rather ambiguous, and the clear common vision of the future global order as well as of major international issues has not emerged[2], due to reasons not dissimilar to those of George W. Bush era. The kind of conceptual stalemate was aggravated by disagreements over anti-crisis measures and US announced ‘pivot to Asia’ threatening to further reduce American engagement in Europe.

On the other hand, in the post-bipolar era the European Union managed to accumulate important assets which however modest as they may seem provide it with a capability to pursue own strategy in the international scene. In the economic dimension the EU has long turned into US competitor allowing the analyst to speak about ‘transatlantic bipolarity’ in trade matters[3]. It also elaborated a full-fledged normative basis and consistently employs it as a power leverage in interactions with third countries precisely in the way the US envisage for TTIP. At last, in the past decade the EU built up its own web of relationships with neighbouring and remote regions which although not extremely influential lays the ground for its political autonomy, and renouncing it for the sake of supporting US global strategy looks fairly unreasonable.

Certainly, Washington put forward potent arguments behind its ambitious proposal. It portrays it as a last resort means that can avert EU economic stagnation and political downscaling and, in general, keep alive the euro zone and the European integration as a whole. Its appeal may be even greater if combined with substantial political benefits for particular member states, first of all Germany and Great Britain or for communitarian institutions like the European Commission.

But the real implications of this project should be assessed more carefully. The economic benefits of a suggested free trade area for both sides seem disputable and much depending upon its concrete parameters. Even in the best case the foreseen growth rate does not exceed 0,5 % of the EU’s GDP provided the complete opening of markets, which is far from guaranteed.

No more clarity is there in political and institutional side of the matter. Here the main challenge stem from the prospect that streamlined transatlantic integration may really absorb the European project and thus put a brake upon its movement towards a kind of federal model. The recent history already witnessed such a shift when EU-NATO cooperation forestalled essential deepening of European defence integration as was predicted by Hanna Ojanen[4].

An even more significant problem emanates from the process of converging of regulatory rules and eliminating non-tariff barriers. Up to now the EU rejected to make its normative basis subject to negotiations with a third state and it is hard to imagine how it may compromise it this time especially when several major agreements with solid normative components are underway with neighbouring countries.

The matter is complicated by the fact that the conceptual ground for such convergence is also out of sight. it is an open secret that the US and European practices of economic regulation and state-society relations differ to a serious degree. In essence, consolidation inside the supposed core circle may prove no easier to carry out than potentially projecting it outwards after that.

Apparently, all the above mentioned problems may find more or less satisfying solution provided sufficient political will. Initially there was abundant voluntarism on the part of the EU institutions to strike a lucrative trade deal but as far as the issue is discussed by foreign ministries in the course of setting the mandate for negotiations, numerous reservations arise which can postpone reaching agreement within the EU. And the calendar of the project is rather pressing – American side urges to sign the deal in 2015 and the European Commission dared to set the deadline even earlier in 2014 before the elections to the European Parliament. But these terms are hardly realistic.

Another serious nuance must be mentioned in this context. The post-bipolar era unleashed a process of rediscovering mental, societal and cultural divergences between US and the EU. Together with generational shifts in the United States away from Cold War mass affinity with Europe it produces a context where transatlantic proximity is not taken as granted by European and American public. Such considerations stipulate a necessity in blurring distinctions and reinforcing societal solidarity between the two shores of the Atlantic while accentuating the divergences and gaps with non-Western societies. Ostensibly, a recent wave of same-sex marriage campaign is an integral part of such tactics and it actually contributed to further cultural fence-mending with the outer word.

In sum, the key transatlantic question today is whether the US manages to impose China threat on the EU to an extent justifying economic and normative subordination like it managed to impose Soviet threat to subordinate it strategically sixty years ago. But the EU should realize that agreeing to the US proposal amounts to agreeing to the global strategy it promulgates, a strategy where there would be scarcely an autonomous role for the EU.

Global and regional risks

Normative strategies as such – and the EU has amply experienced it elsewhere – are accompanied by a range of problems starting from the problem of indirect political effect due to which normative influence in each concrete case depends on the reaction of the recipients. But the US ‘two-rings’[5] strategy contains even more serious risks for global governance that cannot be voluntarily dispelled.

As many observers pointed out, it threatens to subvert current multilateral order where general political compromise by all stakeholders is the imperative conditions for progress. In the first turn it will challenge global trade and development institutions, notably the WTO. For the EU that has ever been a protagonist of effective multilateralism inscribed even in its security strategy assuming its failure and contributing to it is a rather confusing political step[6]. It has ever constructed its foreign policy identity in terms of ‘the other West’ acting in contrast to US exceptionalism and arrogance to smooth the disproportions of world development. In fact, its ‘normative power Europe’ pretence is founded upon contrasting its international posture with that of US[7].

But the weakening of global institutions is only part of the problem. Their functionality is already fading and the time when their reforming alone could be sufficient for adjusting world power balance is over. But substituting them with bilateral deals is by no means an optimal solution. Preferring bilateral bargaining over multilateral compromise in order to sustain the power asymmetries may engender new round of balancing unchecked by any universal claims. It should be born in mind that asymmetry even on cooperative terms may endure only when recognised and accepted by both sides, otherwise it produces only exacerbation and desire to vindicate own status. In present day multipolar world it is not the case. Artificial fixing of global hierarchy through arbitrary limiting the range of countries participating in elaboration of economic rules will lead to antagonizing rising powers, entrenching polarization of the global system and setting a new overwhelming conflicting structure.

Perhaps for somebody conflicting structure may seem quite pertinent and even attractive owing to its disciplining effects but there are no reasons to deem that in such structure the West will be able to retain its pre-eminence indefinitely. Unilateral escalating tension and rising stakes would create significant pressure for the West itself which not all of its participators would be willing to withhold. Burden sharing has always been a delicate issue for transatlantic community ever containing an essential element of free-riding. Can Washington this time throw behind its design sufficient weight to bind its partners and simultaneously to impose necessary concessions on its rivals? The answer is far from obvious.

Moving global competition into normative realm is hardly a stabilizing development. Norms and values are deeply interlinked with societal worldviews and the rifts they promote elicit highly emotional reactions in the public-at-large. Instead of intended delaying the shaping of already crystallized multipolar landscape, normative differentiation may catalyze its emergence in an explosive balance-of-power mode deprived of meaningful multilateral restraints.

Russia: how to win the game without participating in it

The role of Russia in the US normative strategy is clearly defined as an outsider that at a certain stage will be compelled to accept the Western terms due to economic or strategic reasons. But even if the task of ‘coercion into cooperation’ of Russia is somehow secondary for this policy in comparison to containing China, Russian front nevertheless is important for elaborating and sophisticating the Western normative toolbox. Russia and East European states are primary objects of the EU normative strategy developed under Eastern Partnership programme which is wholly supported by Washington. And recent trends demonstrate a new round of intentional bringing of normative differences to the fore of the US and EU’s Russia policy.

Russia’s response to those trends is two-fold. On the one hand, Moscow adopted the tactics of overt rejecting Western allegations against its normative pitfalls and voices public criticism at the Western values and their practices that sometimes bring about the ever more visible societal distortions and imbalances. On the other hand, Russia embarked on creating an own normative platform within the framework of Customs / Eurasian Union. Such steps are useful though their implementation as for now looks clumsy and hardly improving Russian international and domestic profile.

But the game that is unfolding in world politics does not allow for purely defensive strategies. Normative fence-mending by the West cannot be matched by symmetrical fence-mending by Russia not least because Russian capabilities for that are below the necessary scope. What is more telling, for Russia trying to build own fences means playing the US game and pouring water at the mill of American projects. Russia is gradually getting entangled in normative competition over values, standards and worldviews before producing an alternative she can come up with.

That competition in itself is highly unfavourable for Russia forcing upon it a choice of either norm-contender role that she is yet not apt for, or norm-taker status that she cannot and should not reconcile itself with. Russia needs an own normative strategy which can be projected outwards and its shaping is currently underway but lacks two essential elements that constitute the principal underpinning of Western normative power – firstly, a pretended universal legitimacy of its norms and, secondly, high living standards of its society.

Russia will not gain much from simply criticizing Western norms or creating a set of technical rules relevant for restricted Eurasian space. No more will it benefit from adopting a staunch anti-Western posture. Delimiting mental and cultural distinctions from the West makes sense only with subsequent formulation of an own universal message and worldview upheld with perceptible improvement of socioeconomic situation in own society. Russian potential ability to offer such a message for its direct environment as well as for the world as a whole emerges its key political advantage in comparison to other rising powers. But proceeding from a defensive stance Russia will hardy be able to formulate it. To that end much can be drawn from its XIX century strategy of promoting universal value of Russian culture[8].

Of course, such normative strategy should proceed along adequate political and economic efforts aimed at preventing the disruption of the existing multilateral world order and emphasising the risks of such disruption together with the progress that can be achieved through multilateral consensus-building process. But under present circumstances relevant normative positioning is indispensable for successful pursuing of the likewise policy line.


[1] Serfaty S. The West in a World Recast // Survival. – 2012. – Vol. 54, No. 6. – P. 33

[2] Alessandri E. Transatlantic Relations Four Years Later: The Elusive Quest for a Strategic Vision // The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs. – 2012. – Vol. 47, No. 3. – P. 20-36.

[3] van Oudenaren J. Transatlantic Bipolarity and the End of Multilateralism // Political Science Quarterly. – 2005. – Vol. 120, No. 1. – P. 1-32.

[4] Ojanen H. The EU and NATO: Two Competing Models for a Common Defence Policy // Journal of Common Market Studies. – 2006. – Vol. 44, No 1. – P. 57-76.

[5] Доктрина Обамы. Властелин двух колец / Авторский коллектив: С.М. Рогов, П.А. Шариков, С.Н. Бабич, И.А. Петрова, Н.В. Степанова

[7] Duke, Simon ‘Misplaced ‘other’ and normative pretence in transatlantic relations’ // Journal of Transatlantic Studies. – 2010. – Vol. 8, No. 4. – P. 315-336.

[8] Почепцов Г.Г. Cмислові війни в сучасному світі

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