Staunton, October 12 – The creation by the United States of the Trans-Pacific Partnership signals both the continuing American role as the key pole in international affairs and the declining importance of Europe, developments that “paradoxically” have more serious consequences for Russia than any other country, Vadim Shtepa says.
On the one hand, it highlights the inability of Russia to function as the other pole of international relations. The country lacks the economic power, and its military strength may win it some short term victories but over the longer term by itself is a “negative” factor that drives others away, the regionalist argues.
And on the other and more profoundly, it leaves Russia “without ‘a West’” to define itself against, thus calling into question the meaning of debates that have informed Russian intellectual and political life for more than two centuries between Westernizers and their opponents, the Slavophiles.
The passing of a Europe-centric world is not a problem for the Europeans who for some time have been accustomed to avoiding any suggestion of the superiority of their culture over others, and it is not a problem for the US or Asia, both of which will become partners of Europe rather than antagonistic competitors.
But for Russia, the end of a Europe-centric world is a real crisis. In the 19th century, Russians divided over whether to become European or to distance themselves from it. In the 20th, “this dichotomy was rapidly reproduced in the USSR,” with Soviet propaganda presenting the West “in the form of a global enemy.”
Today, Shtepa continues, “anti-Westernism has again become in fact the official doctrine.” But there are two problems: On the one hand, unlike in tsarist and Soviet times, when Russia had its own state ideology, “present day [Russian] anti-Westernism is pure reaction,” opposed to everything.
And on the other, with the formation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Shtepa argues, it is not clear just what the West is, given how difficult it is to put under that rubric Japan, New Zealand and Chile. As a result, “’anti-Western’ rhetoric is losing all meaning; and ‘the struggle with the West’ is degenerating into hostility to the entire rest of the world.”
That in turn highlights something else, the Russian regionalist says. How is Russia to identify itself? The country isn’t “east” in critical ways, and “Eurasianism doesn’t work either – it is too broad and can be give a plethora of definitions.” Moreover, Eurasianism typically presupposes an Orthodox-Muslim “civilization,” something Russia’s “interference in an intra-Islamic conflict destroys any possibility” of achieving.
In many ways, Shtepa continues, “Russia today reminds one of the Byzantine Empire which also consider the West its chief enemy but fell as a result of a shock from the East.” In addition, Byzantine civilization was deeply conservative and was afraid of any real efforts at modernization.
Tsarist Russia felt itself to be the successor of Byzantium and conducted two wars in the 19th century in failed efforts to “liberate Constantinople.” Indeed, even “Dostoyevsky’s ‘Diary of a Writer’ in places looks like a collection of slogans resembling ‘Tsargrad is ours.’” Now, even if Russia took Istanbul, it would not have access to the world ocean because of British Gibralter.
Russia had another opportunity at that time to break out of the cage it had kept itself in at the other end of the earth, “but because of the dominance of Euro-centrism in Russian politics, this was not given great attention.” That possibility was to develop Alaska, but the tsarist authorities feared what that might mean for them and sold it to the US.
There are many theories about why the tsars did this “but one of the probable ones is that the Russian government wanted to prevent a mass resettlement there of the recently liberated peasants,” who would create a new kind of society with a civic worldview and would ultimately break away from the empire the way the US did from Britain.
“The Pacific Ocean space has always been considered by Russia as a distant periphery,” Shtepa says, pointing out that its ports there came into existence as military outposts while the ports in the west coast of the United States developed as trading centers. That difference, military versus economic, is one reason why Russia couldn’t be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
There is one chance for Russia to overcome this alienation and reorient itself toward the Pacific. That would involve the construction of a railroad linking Eurasia and America via a bridge across the Bering Straits. That idea circulated after the construction of the Trans-Siberian, and it had the backing of the last tsar and his government before they were overthrown.
Some Russians talked about this idea in the 1990s, but all too soon, “these global-integration ideas in Russia again yield to customary opposition to the West. Although in reality,” Shtepa notes, “Alaska is to the east of Chukotka: Russian geopoliticians have simply forgotten that the Earth is round…”