The Economist print editions
August 8, 2008
The Kremlin wants a new security club for Europe and Asia. Can it work? And should it worry America, which (see article) is relearning to love its allies?
WHETHER the story is Muslim separatists killing Chinese policemen, Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz to Western oil tankers, lethal fighting in a breakaway province of Georgia or Russia planning to put nuclear bombers in Cuba in retaliation for perceived American adventurism in Europe—just to take news items from the past few days—it is easy to see why officials in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere think the security of the Eurasian land mass could be in better hands. Old alliances such as NATO, and looser outfits such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), do not seem to fit the bill. They are, critics say, too narrow in their membership, legally flimsy and too old-fashioned in their scope. High time, so it would seem, for something better.
That, roughly, is the thinking in Moscow, where for the first time in years Russia seems to be offering new ideas rather than old grumbles. Fuller details are promised in September. For now, the plan as outlined by President Dmitry Medvedev, and promoted by Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, is to have a big international conference in Moscow next year, attended by all NATO and EU countries, Russia and its ex-Soviet allies, as well as China and (probably) India, to set up a new security organisation to deal with issues such as terrorism and illegal migration. And who could object to that?
So far, the Western response has been muted. Some countries in Europe like the idea of a security structure that would rely less on American hegemony and more on international law. Others are privately sceptical, but think it would be rude to dismiss the plan before hearing it in full.
The idea of security organisations that span Europe and Asia is nothing new. Russia and China set one up by treaty in 1996. In 2001 it became the six-member Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (India and three other countries are observers). This aims to deal with the three big dangers (at least as seen by autocratic multi-ethnic countries): terrorism, separatism and extremism. The outsiders who support Islamist extremists in the North Caucasus are likely to be the same people who back Muslim separatists in China’s far west and insurgents in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley—so the thinking goes. The SCO’s chief role is still to swap information and co-ordinate anti-terrorist work.
It has gained weight since then, becoming both a talking-shop for countries twitchy about American dominance and developing a loose military role. Last year member states played war games in Central Asia—the biggest Russian-Chinese shindig of that kind since the Sino-Soviet split half a century ago. That prompted panicky reactions: “OPEC with bombs” or “the WWW” (World Without the West).
Such talk is exaggerated. Bobo Lo, a London-based security pundit and author of a forthcoming book called “Axis of Convenience”, says the SCO’s main aim is to promote Russian and Chinese interests in Central Asia “without spooking the natives”—in other words, smaller countries in the area. If it becomes too controversial, it loses usefulness. A Tajik-backed bid for Iran to get full membership, launched in April, has got nowhere.
One aim of the Russian plan may be to nudge Western countries into taking the SCO more seriously. It would have a seat at the table at the planned conference, ranking alongside international bodies such as NATO. Western nervousness about the SCO and similar bodies risks looking hypocritical: the EU and NATO fume about Russia’s use of “divide and rule” tactics, using bilateral arrangements to undermine multilateral organisations. Yet that is pretty much how the West treats Kremlin-sponsored international organisations.
But the big problem facing any new organisation is not Western fastidiousness but deeper conflicts of values and interests. Even the SCO does not function altogether smoothly. Russia and China are partners on some things, but rivals on others. Arms sales from Russia to China have slumped in the past two years. Russian policymakers realise that a rising China will become a steadily stronger neighbour, keen to redress past injustices. In the long term, says Mr Lo, these may include “red line” issues, such as the territories that a weakened Chinese empire ceded to tsarist Russia. That imbalance seems to be diminishing Russian enthusiasm. Russia is resisting full Chinese membership of the G8. Talk in Moscow of a “multipolar world” has given way to praise for “common European civilisation”. “They are worried that in a multipolar world not all poles are going to be equal,” says Mr Lo.
So how would the new Eurasian security organisation reach agreement? Disputes between pro-Western and pro-Russian states have crippled the consensus-based OSCE, an outfit that was once much liked by Russia as a non-military alternative to NATO. Russia banned OSCE election monitors from recent elections and has sidelined it in escalating conflicts such as Georgia (see article). So the new outfit is unlikely to find agreement more easy.
America and European countries will be encouraged if Russia truly wants to be part of a space that foreign-policy wonks such as Dmitri Trenin at the Carnegie think-tank in Moscow call the “Greater West”. But the problem is that being “Western” is hard to define. Speeches by Russian policymakers seem to reflect a 19th century understanding of Western-ness, based on a mixture of national sovereignty and a common cultural heritage in Christianity.
Those ideas are out of step with the realities of the 21st century. Western countries now sign up to lots of sovereignty-limiting multilateral accords, and try to live up to agreed standards on human rights and political freedom. Such agreements are anathema to many in Russia and other SCO countries, who see them as hypocritical and irrelevant to security.
In practice, it is often either the propagation of common values (in the case of NATO) or common dislike of those values (in the case of the SCO) that provides the sort of glue that can hold an international body together. Is any ideological glue strong enough to fuse the whole of Eurasia into a single unit? On any of the challenges common to all the countries in that vast area—from collective security to energy supplies to minority rights—views diverge. Until that changes, the prospects for the Russian grand design look dim.
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