By Fil Lekkas:
Americans take bitter pleasure in speculating about the consequences of their country’s decline. But how might the immense, energy-rich, and nuclear state of Russia respond to the wane of U.S. power? On February 21, Calhoun College, in association with the Yale International Relations Association and the Poynter Journalism Fellowship, hosted Paul Starobin, contributing editor to the National Journal and author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age, to discuss what Russia might be like in four potential post-American worlds.
Whatever its future context, the Russia of today—and likely of tomorrow—is in a sorry state. With a shrinking population, “abysmal healthcare”, rampant corruption, an unruly and inefficient military, and an economy dependent on resources extraction, “Russia has been a declining power for over 20 years”. The regime of Vladimir Putin—led by him as Prime Minister for 12 years, and as President for 6—has financed its doings with a vast oil revenue, a product of sustained high oil prices.
However, as Russia has declined, so has America. This post-American world, to which Russia will have to adjust itself, will take on one of four forms: either a return to Westphalian multipolarity, a Chinese Century of Sinic preeminence, a Ancient-Greece-like world of city-states, or a homogenized universal civilization.
In the first of these, the Russian establishment would thrive. Without a global policeman to resists its moves, Russia would see few challenges to how it treated its “near-abroad”. Intriguingly, such a world could see stronger relations between Europe and Russia, as the threateningly expansionist policies of NATO—largely spearheaded by the United States—would recede along with the US.
Although it might be somewhat taken aback, Russia could manage in a Chinese Century. Having traditionally looked to Europe for cultural guidance, it would feel uncomfortable submitting to the Chinese, towards whom the Russians harbor a largely “condescending and racist attitude”. Combined with Russian fears over Chinese expansion into Siberia, this scenario would be tough to manage—but Russian energy exports to China would surely dominate the relationship.
Russia could almost be said to already inhabit the age of city states; in Starobin’s words, “everything that is happening in Russia … is happening in Moscow”. This is nothing new, as dominance by a single city—going as far back as Rus and Novgorod—is a hallmark of Russian history. In a world of city-states, Moscow’s preeminence would only be reinforced.
The final and most novel option is that of the universal civilization, which Starobin describes as a “Davos world, if you will, on steroids”, referring to the annual globalization-celebrating fête. This would be the world most foreign to Russians, as nationalism rather than cosmopolitanism colors the thinking of both the elites and the public. In a world dominated by well-enforced global standards of justice and commerce, the Russian instinct would be to resist vociferously.
How Russia engages with the world of tomorrow will have consequences not only for its own 180 million inhabitants, but also for those it might choose to trade with, imitate, or even invade. Though divining the future will never be a perfect science, it is a necessary (and fascinating) task.
Fil Lekkas ’14 is an Economics major in Calhoun college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.