Russia must tread more softly

Old men who have lost their potency comfort themselves with the thought that they can ‘still do it’. So do collapsed great powers. The outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair fantasised that his country’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States gave him unique influence over President George W. Bush. The European Union, having lost its ‘hard’ power, believes that ‘soft’ power can do just as well. Russia’s illusion –occasionally shared by France – is ‘multipolarity’. ‘The formation of a multipolar world’, wrote Yevgeny Primakov in 2003, ‘is the main vector of the world’s development’. President Putin echoed him at Munich this year. ‘The unipolar world… did not take place’.

The world is certainly not unipolar in Putin’s sense of ‘one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making’. What Russians find hard to admit, though, is that one of the poles is very much more powerful than the others, including Russia. A quick comparison of ‘capabilities’ makes this clear.

The USA is the world’s largest economy and by far the world’s largest defence spender. The Pentagon military budgets are equal to the combined budgets of the next 12-15 states. The US accounts for 40-45% of all defence spending in world. It is the only country which regularly makes advances in military technology. In relative terms, the US ‘is militarily more powerful than any political entity since the Roman Empire’. US troops are stationed on 140 bases round the world; its navy patrols the oceans. The USA is a world power, Russia a regional power.

Russian experts like to deny that the United States ‘won’ the Cold War. They argue that the USA and Soviet Union supported each other as super-powers, and that America’s command over its allies disappeared with the disappearance of the Soviet threat. There is some truth in this. But the notion of a symmetrical collapse of superpower status is a fantasy. The US remains the ‘indispensable power’ in the war against terrorism and in stopping nuclear proliferation. US power has partly occupied the areas vacated by Soviet power in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Moreover, despite the recent surges of anti-Americanism, the United States projects far more ‘soft’ power –the power of attraction – than any other country. In the cold war era, the ‘socialist model’ of development had considerable ideological appeal, especially in the third world. Today Russian soft power is close to zero, while the ‘American way of life’ continues to be popular.

In the cold war era, the Soviet economy was between a third and half the size of America’s. Today it is one-seventh. And while it is true that Russia has been recovering strongly from the collapse of the 1990s, it is still very much a one-track economy. Oil fuels its growth, and gives it geopolitical leverage. But its performance depends on buoyant oil prices, and the price of oil is cyclical.

Russians are not alone in pointing to the huge US current account deficit as a problem for the American economy. This is not necessarily so. Being highly ‘leveraged’ can be a source of strength, for countries no less than for companies. It depends on your prospects. And as Keynes once remarked: if you owe your banker a million dollars, he controls you; if you owe him a billion dollars you control him.

Rehearsing these painful truths is not intended to humiliate, but to draw a moral. America can afford to make mistakes; Russia cannot. Russian truculence has come too early in its recovery. If it wants to be a real pole in a multi-polar world it should concentrate on building a broad-based economy. Meanwhile its foreign policy should be designed to conciliate and please, not to annoy.