Restraining Russia through friendship

May 20, 2024
USA vs Russia, eagle with the American flag against bear with the Russian flag Russian. In the background a brick wall with the flags of the two countries. Conceptual illustration

The late historian Paul Schroeder offered insights into how to bring Russia into a collective security arrangement.

With the death of scholar Paul Schroeder, international historians lost one of their most innovative and distinguished practitioners.

Schroeder’s approach to the study of international relations was ideational: it is not power or interests alone that shapes the behaviour of states but prevailing norms, values, and experiences.

As Schroeder showed in “The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848,” the transition from an 18th century dominated by warfare to a predominantly peaceful 19th century was the result of a radical shift in “ideas, collective mentalities and outlooks.”

Driving this transformation was the devastating experience of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, which convinced elites they needed to replace conflictual balance of power politics with the negotiation of differences and the peaceful resolution of disputes. The result of this rethink was the Concert of Europe, which was able to maintain a general continental peace for nearly a hundred years. There were plenty of wars and conflicts, including some notable great power clashes, but none, until 1914, that threatened the existence or stability of the system.

Like most historians, Schroeder was skeptical of historical parallels, but he made a conscious effort to link his studies of the past to the concerns of the present. In that regard, one of his most remarkable, and still relevant, essays was “Containment Nineteen Century Style: How Russia was Restrained.”

Imperial Russia emerged triumphant from the Napoleonic Wars and was in a position to become a hegemonic world power. But It didn’t even try, argues Schroeder. Because of its membership of the Concert and the European community of nations, Russia was enmeshed in restraining relationships with its friends and allies.

In making this argument Schroeder contested the stereotype of 19th century Russia as a dangerously aggressive and expansionist power.

Russia did expand into Asia but such extra-European expansion was the norm among great powers. Russian violence and military conquests were no worse than any of its rivals, and neither did its actions upset the equilibrium in the European theatre.

Russia’s European policy was characterised by Schroeder as “conservative, legalistic, anti-revolutionary and oriented towards peace and great power cooperation.” It had ambitions in relation to Turkey and the Black Sea Straits, but these goals didn’t include the destabilisation of the Ottoman Empire.

From the U.S. perspective, 19th century Russia was a markedly benign power — the state that stayed away from Latin America and sold it Alaska.

Schroeder stresses that Russian good behaviour was not primarily a function of benign intentions but of “the existence and operation of a system — a stable network of rules and relationships between states — that enables statesman effectively to seek peace and, even in a sense, compels them to promote it whether they want to or not. … Russia was restrained not mainly by her moderate impulses, but by a viable international order she herself helped to create.”

Schroeder’s contemporary reference point was the breakdown of the American-Soviet détente in the early 1980s as a result of renewed Cold War tensions. His message was that while the analogy between the foreign policy of Tsarist Russia and that of the Soviet Union was imperfect, historical as well as recent experience suggested that détente was a better way to manage relations with the Soviets than confrontation.

Schroeder was well aware that historical analogies can be distorting as well as illuminating, the most egregious example being the frequent invocation of the Hitler analogy to derail legitimate attempts at appeasement.

Schroeder believed that it was possible to derive from the history of international relations some eternal truths, notably that “any government is restrained better and more safely by friends and allies than by opponents or enemies.”

Schroeder’s prescription for managing Russian power remains relevant, not least because today’s Russia is a self-proclaimed conservative state that still sees itself as primarily a European power and would readily participate in a renewed concert of great powers at the global level.

No policy has been so persistently pursued by Russia and its Soviet predecessor as the creation of an inclusive European security system. The first such proposals came in the 1930s as a means of containing Hitler. Moscow’s striving for collective security was interrupted by the Nazi-Soviet pact, during the Second World War, Stalin embraced the concept of a peacetime grand alliance with Britain and the United States. After his death in 1953, the Soviets revived the idea of pan-European collective security and waged an extensive campaign to dissolve the Cold War blocs. Most extraordinary was a March 1954 proposal that the USSR could even become a member of NATO

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation sought a new, over-arching European security architecture, including Russian membership of NATO.

In 2009, Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, proposed an all-embracing European Security Treaty. Supported by his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, it reflected Russia’s aspiration for a “Greater Europe” with a multipolar Euro-Atlantic security system.

According to the current Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation that remains the country’s goal: “Russia’s long-term Euro-Atlantic policy is aimed at building a common space of peace, security and stability based on the principles of indivisible security, equal cooperation and mutual trust.”

Medvedev’s initiative was overshadowed and then derailed by the financial crisis, the Arab Spring, Western intervention in Libya and the civil wars in Ukraine and Syria.

Russia is now isolated and alienated from Europe and the object of escalating Western sanctions designed to reverse its takeover of Crimea and deter further encroachments on Ukrainian territory. There is no evidence that such sanctions have had any impact on Russian foreign policy in relation to Ukraine or on Putin’s policy in other parts of the world. In his presidential address on April 21, Putin was adamant that Western threats would not stop Russia from defending its interests as it sees fit.

There are those in the West who are clamouring to double-down on a hardline approach to Russia. However, history suggests that a policy of engaging, conciliating, and integrating Russia into the European and global community will be more effective in promoting peace and security for all states, including Ukraine.

Just now, the idea of a European security system with a Russian pillar as well as an American one seems fanciful, to say the least. But consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine that Medvedev’s European Security Treaty proposal had gained some serious traction in Russian-Western negotiations. Would the bottom have fallen out of NATO and the Western security system? Hardly. Would Ukraine have split over its geo-political and geo-economical orientation? Doubtful. Would Crimea still be part of Ukraine? Almost certainly. Would Russia and the West be collaborating rather than competing in the Middle East? For sure. Would we be facing into a new arms race and a new cold war? Definitely not.

Like all states, Russia has its interests, concerns, aspirations, and sensitivities. The threat of war with the West as a result of Russia’s borderland disputes and tensions with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and the Baltic States is very small but far from negligible. As Paul Schroeder said, “war sometimes just happens; peace is always caused.”

History also shows that the best way to influence and restrain a powerful and resurgent Russia is not to treat it as an enemy but make it your friend.


Republished from RESPONSIBLE STATECRAFT, April 23, 2021

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