“Paris would not support Tibetan independence,” or the Importance of Self-Importance in IR

Pity Sarkozy. He leads a former great power slowly sliding into second tier status. France is stuck with: a small population, normal economy (ie, ok, but not drawing any particular positive excitement or attention), seemingly immovably high unemployment for an OECD country, a seemingly permanent domestic ‘social fracture’ of reinforcing race and class cleavages which damage France’s reputation, a tepid, inward-looking Germany that simultaneously outweighs and burdens it, a constant struggle with Amero-philic Britain and Eastern Europe, and the long shadow of the French military’s dismal record in the last 100 years. In short, outside of Europe and its near periphery, why would anyone give a d— what Sarkozy thinks?

As I was reading about Sarkozy’s embarrassing effort to get China to pretend it cares what he thinks about Tibet, it made me think about how frustrating it must be for former great powers to live with their declining relevance. Someone really needs to write this dissertation, because you could argue that French foreign policy since WWII or Russia’s since the Cold War has been primarily focused on trying to get others to take them seriously – to listen to them and accord them ‘weight’ as a ‘player.’ National glory, or rather its recognition by others, not national interest is the foremost driver of these resentful former great powers’ foreign policy. The psychology here is fascinating, because the deep aching for peer recognition, for ‘respect,’ is so obvious. I recall reading some article about how Spain, another middle power with a burden of past imperial greatness, was so desperate to get invited to the G-20 – to make the global top 20 cut – that Zapatero actually begged G Brown for an invitation.

I am trying to imagine Hu Jintao wondering why he is even listening to the French at all on East Asian questions. Who gives a hoot out here what the EU or its member states think? Honestly, no one.

It seems to me there are at least 2 good strategies to make others think you matter when you really don’t.

1. French: Bluff.

Act like you still matter and maybe you will. DeGaulle, Chirac, and Sarkozy were masters of this. Act with all the obnoxious swagger of a viceroy of New Spain or the British Raj. Go to general conferences, but have side conferences with others and make ostentatiously sure that the non-invited know you are having a meeting and they weren’t invited. Give press conferences talking about ‘core players’, ‘contact groups,’ ‘main actors,’ ‘critical relationships,’ etc. Obscure worsening power balances behind a cloud of pop-IR jargon about ‘new structures,’ ‘changing regional orders,’ ‘a revised international architecture,’ ‘dynamic forces of globalization,’ etc. When desperate, pull a Chirac and just tell rising powers to shut up.

2. Russia: Make as Much Trouble as You Can.

Crises you help keep boiling will always ensure your ‘relevance.’ Putin is a master at this. Putin’s goal is restoration not growth. Once Gorby and Yeltsin became collaborative, Russia’s ‘relevance’ declined, even as its ‘normality’ rose – a rich irony. Russian cooperation helped make Eastern Europe a happier, freer place, isolate the DPRK, tame Saddam, open Central Asia to gas export and growth, pacify the Balkans. But this Russian good behavior threatened to make Russia into something like Germany, France or Japan – a power of moderate strength with a limited ‘greatness,’ generally cooperating in liberal-minded efforts led by the US. This is what Russia should be for awhile, and it’s not so bad to be normal.

Ironically, such cooperation is in Russia’s national interest, traditionally defined. A wealthier, unified Korea might trade more with Russia (especially its backward Far East), as E Europe now can. A quieter Middle East would certainly relieve secessionist fears in Russia’s Muslim fringe. A nuclear-armed Iran is hardly in Russia’s interest, nor is a bizarre, erratic DPRK.

However, by stirring up trouble, obfuscating issues, and obstructing progress and breakthroughs, Russia maintains its importance.If Korea or Iran were solved, everyone else would promptly forget about Russian opinion. That is ultimately the great fear of the Kremlin. Russia doesn’t care a shred for about Korean unification or the Shiite awakening. Rather, as long as these issues remain unresolved, Russians will get invited to important conferences, can posture in front of TV cameras at the UN, issue foreign policy statements about Russia’s importance that will get western attention, etc. Take the Balkan example of the 1990s. Russia had no national interest at stake in the Balkan wars. There was no critical national resource or long-standing Russian interest. Nothing was going to return the Serbs, much less the other Yugoslav ethnic groups to a Russian sphere of influence. (They’d left under Tito long ago.) Russian backing of Serbia was solely to defend Russian relevance for its own sake. Orthodoxy was not the issue, but Russia’s right to be called up – to have the ‘red phone’ on its desk ring too – when the big boys work out problems. As long as the Balkans was a mess and Russia had influence with some of the actors, then the west worried about Russian opinion.

In IR we usually worry about managing rising powers. How do we integrate China, perhaps later, India and Brazil, into global rules? But the converse is pretty interesting too. How do former imperial or great powers learn to live with their diminished importance? Germany and Japan required cataclysmic defeats and humiliation to become good global citizens living within their means. But not even the full awfulness of Stalinism seems to have convinced Russia that the rest of the world would like it to play a less obstructive, tedious role.

3 thoughts on ““Paris would not support Tibetan independence,” or the Importance of Self-Importance in IR

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  3. Pingback: Cheonan Sinking Changes Nothing: Kor. Inst. of Defense Analysis (1) | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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