Building a pan-Eurasian security community?

Adrian Pabst (UK)

With the post-cold war moment of US unilateralism passing, the new age of multilateralism is firmly grounded in improved bilateral relations. In recent times, the clearest example of this trend is the “reset” of US-Russia relations. By contrast with a dangerous escalation of tensions between East and West during the Georgian conflict in August 2008, President Obama is genuinely committed to ending the new “Cold War of minds” and inaugurating an era of careful cooperation and perhaps even a wide-ranging partnership with Moscow. The Start treaty signed last month in Prague is a small yet significant element in consolidating the “reset” and strengthening ties with the Kremlin under President Medvedev. US-Russian engagement is also key to successful negotiations on further nuclear arms reduction, non-proliferation and a deal with Tehran on its nuclear ambitions.

For its part, a resurgent Russia is just as unsure about its global role as the EU post-Lisbon and the USA led by Obama. Like the rest of the ‘other Europe’, Moscow is disillusioned with Brussels and focuses instead on strengthening bilateral ties with big countries such as Germany, France and Italy. It is also forging deeper links with Turkey and the Ukraine in the hope of extending its ‘sphere of privileged interests’ and providing a counterweight to what the Kremlin views as the idea of a narrow Europe dominated by its western part and ruled by the EU.[1] NATO expansion is still the single most poisonous element of Russia’s relations with the US and Europe, even if security cooperation in a number of areas has been more effective in recent months.

At the same time, it is not clear what strategic importance the Kremlin ascribes to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – not least because Russia is vying with China over geo-political hegemony in central Asia.[2] This, coupled with the recognition that other groupings like BRIC won’t mutate into military alliances, explains why from the outset of his mandate President Medvedev has been pushing for a new pan-Eurasian security framework from Vancouver to Vladivostok (more about that later).

All of which raises the question about the shape of the emerging international system and the role of the three powers therein. Twenty years after the end of Cold War bi-polarity, the pendulum has swung from unilateral unipolarity to multilateral multipolarity – or a ‘multi-partner’ world, in the rather awkward words of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Terminology notwithstanding, the point is, first of all, that unilateralism/multilateralism denotes little more than a method or approach and, secondly, that unipolarity/multipolarity merely refers to the shape of inter-state relations. Neither term is a strategic concept with clear foundations and finalities. Appeals to principles and values such as democracy and free enterprise (USA), human rights (EU) or international law (Russia) sound increasingly sterile when considering the double standards with which they are frequently applied by various governments defending and promoting them.

Beyond the old IR theories of realism and idealism, it is equally clear that both ideas and interests shape relations between countries and that a whole host of sub- and supra-national actors and institutions are coming to the fore, especially the growing importance of regions and civil society in the development and democratisation of different societies within the wider Europe. As such, the state-centric grammar underpinning traditional theories of international relations is questionable and obsolete. At the same time, no new conceptuality has as yet found traction with the leaders of the world’s main powers.

What is perhaps less contentious and less contested is the argument that the existing security arrangements involving the USA, Russia and the EU are insufficient in order to secure stable and peaceful relations or address common threats and challenges, as I have argued elsewhere.[3] For this and other reasons, President Medvedev’s proposal for a new Treaty on European Security is potentially so significant. In December 2009, he circulated among his counterparts a draft version of this treaty aimed at creating a new security framework that includes North America, Europe and Central Asia. Building on an idea he has develped since taking office, the draft provides much-needed detail and is an invitation to other world leaders to engage in a fundamental debate on security principles and policies.

With new rules of military engagement and new multilateral structures, this framework seeks to put security within the shared Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian space on a solid footing. Twenty years after the end of the east-west divide, it also has the potential to provide a more unified Eurasian-Atlantic response to the ongoing terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan and the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

So far the fate of President Medvedev’s foreign policy flagship seemed doomed. Ever since he first suggested new security arrangements after his election in May 2008, the West’s reaction has been unmistakenly dismissive. Especially the USA and the UK have warned about covert attempts to subvert NATO. The EU’s response has ranged from lukewarm to outright hostile, reflecting the entrenched division between the “old Europe” led by France and Germany in favour of closer ties with Russia and the “new Europe” composed of former Soviet republics and satellites who are hostile to Moscow and seek geo-political guidance from Washington.

Moreover, western leaders have pointed to the NATO-Russia Council and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the natural fora to discuss shared security issues. Unsurprisingly, NATO views the Russian proposal with suspicion, a stance confirmed by the alliance’s new secreteary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen during pre-Christmas talks at the Kremlin and, more recently evinced by his invitation for Russia to join “NATO’s common European roof”.[4] For its part, the OSCE has failed to take the lead on the Russian proposals, even after the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia exposed the organisation’s enduring weakness and growing political irrelevance.

Critics have also repeatedly tried to dismiss President Medvedev’s important initiative as a Russian plot to weaken the West and legitimate Moscow’s eastern security alliances, in particular the CSTO and the SCO. However, the Kremlin’s proposals for a new security framework are based on a widely shared – if not publicly acknowledged – recognition that none of the existing institutions is capable of resolving the pressing security problems in the common Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian space. These include unrecognised states, “frozen conflicts”, territorial integrity and national self-determination.

NATO, the dominant alliance, is deeply divisive. Its policy of reckless eastern enlargement has in fact destabilised potential members such as Georgia and Ukraine and jeopardised strategic links with Russia. The EU remains divided, and the new appointments under recently ratified Lisbon Treaty are unlikely to produce a coherent and effective common security policy. The CSTO and SCO reflect Moscow’s frustration with US unilateralism and EU division but do not constitute genuine alternatives, not least because Beijing has traditionally refused to join any military bloc. That’s why President Medvedev’s draft treaty is addressed to “all States of the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian space from Vancouver to Vladivostok” (i.e. not the Chinese part of Asia) and international organizations of which China is not a member. Dubbed “NATO of the East”, the SCO has not been invited to join the Treaty on European Security either.

Now that Kazakhstan has taken over the OSCE’s chairmanship and NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is in deep trouble, the West cannot credibly dismiss the Russian project. With 56 members from North America via Europe to Central Asia, the OSCE is uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between east and west. Under Kazak leadership, the organisation could put President Medvedev’s idea for a Eurasian security community on the international agenda. In exchange for discussions and negotiations, the US and the UK could extract concessions on Afghanistan – including improved land and air access, Russian and Central Asian support to secure the country’s northern border region and limiting the SCO’s plans to expand its Afghan observer mission. Indeed, some of this has recently been agreed between presidents Obama and Medvedev, but more international involvement is required if the Afghanistan is to escape the current quagmire. President Obama’s current strategy of ‘escale-then-exit’ in and of itself won’t pacify the country or the wider region.

Likewise, a new treaty on European security could also change the dynamics in the wider Middle East. Such a framework would bolster Russia’s geopolitical weight in the region. The Kremlin is desperately seeking to use its leverage with the Palestinians and improved relations with Israel in order to convene a peace conference – a pet project which has so far failed to materialize. If the Obama administration backs the idea, then Moscow’s diplomatic relations with Hamas could be key to a successful rapprochement.

On the Iranian dossier, President Medvedev – unlike his hawkish predecessor – has indicated his support for tougher sanctions if Tehran does not cooperate and disclose its own activities. At the same time, he has repeatedly warned against the counter-productive effects of further international isolation and the regime’s hard-line stance at home. President Obama’s engagement strategy, coupled with Russian cooperation on oil and gas, could be the mullahs’ final opportunity to reach an agreement before Israeli air strikes or domestic regime change.

Twenty years ago, the transatlantic West responded to Mikhail Gorbachev’s extended hand by signing the OSCE’s Paris Charter of 1990 which aimed to create a common security framework. Unfortunately this joint initiative was subsequently sidelined by US unipolarity, NATO eastern expansion and an incoherent EU common foreign, security and defence policy. President Medvedev’s proposals for a new security treaty represent perhaps the last chance for a peaceful integration of Russia into a pan-Eurasian framework from Vancouver to Vladivostok. By including Russia and agreeing a new set of rules and principles, such a Eurasian-Atlantic framework can cement the “reset” in US-Russian relations and give the wider Europe more global geopolitical clout.

Adrian Pabst is lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. He writes frequently on geopolitics, Europe and religion for the national and international press, including International Herald Tribune, The Guardian, The Moscow Times and The National.

[1] See Adrian Pabst, “Turkey and Russia assemble an ‘axis of outsiders’,” The National, 7 May 2010, available online at http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100506/OPINION/705059944/1080

[2] See the seminal book by Bobo Lo, Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics (Washington DC: Brookings Institute, 2008).

[3] Adrian Pabst, “The Berlin Doctrine: From Atlantic Unipolarity to a Pan-Eurasian Security Community”, Russia in Global Affairs Vol. 7, No. 1 (January-March 2009): 83-95. Cf. my “The EU and Russia in a New Global Constellation”, in Armand Clesse and Andrei Kortunov (eds.), Reinventing and Reinvigorating EU-Russia Relations (Amsterdam: Dutch University Press, 2008), pp. 236-72.

[4] Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “NATO’s Common European Roof,” The Moscow Times, 22 April 2010, available online at http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/natos-common-european-roof/404492.html

Source: East West Review

The views expressed by the author may not concede with ones of ORIENTAL REVIEW.

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