Blog: Balance of power shift
Dave Leggett | 14 August 2008
It's not 1968 is it? Condoleezza Rice was bang on there. But there has been a shift in the international balance of power with the rise of an economically more powerful Russia that is now starting to 'assert' its interests - and the West seems to be in some disarray in terms of knowing how to deal with today's Russia. One thing is obvious though: Western firms are falling over themselves to get presence in Russia, one of the few places where the business barometer is looking up at the moment. Western carmakers are at the front of that wave, suppliers looking on and ready to follow. The OEMs have invested considerable sums and don't want that investment - or the returns from it - endangered.
What business leaders will likely be saying to politicians is that they would rather see Russia brought more into the international community as a positive participant, than see Russia marginalised or isolated.
After the Bush administration has gone, it makes sense for the new one to build bridges with Russia and do things like help Russia into the WTO. That would be beneficial on a number of levels. On a cynical level, the more Russia becomes a part of international organisations and institutions, the more leverage there might be down the line if Putin and Medvedev are replaced by people even more instinctively hostile to the West. But also, more engagement should turn out to be economically advantageous for everyone - not least ordinary Russians who ought to see the eventual emergence of a healthier free market economy alongside the legal and democratic institutions and safeguards that we take for granted (largely absent in Russia).
And a more Western friendly and internationally active Russia might be less likely to flex its muscles the way we have just seen in Georgia (a spat that is a lot more complex than Western media headlines sometimes suggested).
The suggestion that a Russian oligarch might be interested in buying Hummer off GM is certainly an interesting counterpoint today to the comments coming out from the US government about Russia risking international isolation (big deal, many Russians will think). The reality is that Russia, after a long post-communist period feeling cowed, is now much more economically powerful and self-confident. It is sitting on massive energy reserves that Europe needs. Maybe there's a tendency in some quarters to think back to an age when the world was effectively a chess game between two superpowers. But it's a lot different now (and there's the emergence of China, also). Russians are becoming enthusiastic consumers of material goods with a penchant for upscale Western brands and international travel. Hummers - brash statements with US military associations - are extremely popular there.
None of the above excuses bad behaviour, but do we want an isolated Russian bear with a sore head that might lash out again or a bear that can see the long-run benefits in a more cooperative and collaborative path ahead? It's not 1968. But also, it's not the mid-seventies arms race Brezhnev era or the more slavishly pro-Western 1990s Yeltsin ('just one more drink and then I'll stop dancing') period either. It's something else and it requires some smart thinking by Western politicians.
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