Can Russia contribute to global governance?

Can Russia contribute to global governance?

17 June 2009

by Charles Grant

Like the US, China and India, Russia has never been a big enthusiast for multilateral global governance. When the Russians believe that working through multilateral institutions will suit their interests, they will do so. But Russia’s history, size and traditions make it sceptical of multilateralism. Only with great reluctance did then President Vladimir Putin sign the Kyoto protocol on climate change – when he realised that Russia would benefit financially through the sale of unused carbon allowances.

Russia has never shown a lot of interest in multilateral institutions, other than the privileged clubs it is a member of, such as the G8 and the UN Security Council (UNSC). Presidents Yeltsin and Putin have had similar views on global governance, both preferring to talk of multipolarity rather than multilateralism.

As a G8 member, Russia has not been in favour of broadening the membership to include countries like China. But now that the G20 has become an important group, in some ways replacing the G8, Russia willingly takes part. Russia evidently likes the UNSC, being one of five veto-wielding members. But it has shown less interest in the UN as a whole and stayed on the sidelines during the discussion of UN reform at the end of Kofi Annan’s tenure as UN secretary-general. When Russia does take part in global bodies, it often seems more interested in the status of membership than in active participation.

Russia is ambiguous on whether it wants to join the World Trade Organisation – its membership talks with the WTO have dragged on since 1993. Earlier this month Russian trade officials told EU negotiators that they hoped to join the WTO this year – but then Prime Minister Putin said that Russia would want to join only as part of a grouping with Belarus and Kazakhstan. That is likely to delay membership.

Russia is more comfortable with regional organisations than global bodies, perhaps because it can play a leading role in them. It likes the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which links a number of former Soviet countries, and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which brings together most of the Central Asian countries and is dominated by Russia and China. There has been talk in the Kremlin of a ‘gas OPEC’, hooking together Russia, Iran and other producers such as Turkmenistan.

Russia strongly dislikes NATO for several reasons: the US leads the alliance, Russia believes the West would not allow it to join, and NATO’s expansion symbolises Russia’s strategic retreat since the Cold War. In recent years Moscow has taken against the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose observers have criticised the conduct of elections in former Soviet states. That is one reason why President Dmitri Medvedev came up with the idea of ‘a new European security architecture’ last year. Medvedev has said this should bring together Russia, the US, European countries and European security organisations. But his government has not yet produced any specific proposals.

The economic crisis is spurring governments around the world to think seriously about reform of global governance. For example the membership of the Financial Stability Forum is being broadened to include the leading developing economies. The IMF and World Bank are preparing for another round of reform. The effort to combat climate change is likely to lead to new global institutions. Yet Russia has been reluctant to put forward its own proposals on global governance. Why?

Russian foreign policy is hyper-realist. Russian diplomats tend to believe that countries are most likely to achieve their objectives through being tough and unyielding rather than by compromising or working things out in international organisations. Their worldview focuses on power rather than rules. It is natural for large and strong countries to be realist; it tends to be smaller and weaker states that see multilateral institutions as a bulwark against bullying by the powerful. And perhaps Russia’s difficult history – it has never had defined frontiers and has usually got on badly with its neighbours – has encouraged the realism.

The fact that Russia is big makes it reluctant to cede much authority to multilateral bodies. For in international organisations small countries can wield disproportionate influence. One thing that Russian diplomats find infuriating about the EU is that small countries can veto its decisions – for a while Lithuania blocked the negotiation of an EU-Russia trade agreement. Tiny Georgia could, if it really insisted, stop Russia joining the WTO. Seeing itself as a great power, Russia has – ever since the Congress of Vienna, almost two hundred years ago – liked the idea of a concert of powers. Thus it enjoys its role in the ‘quartet’ that is supposed to handle the Middle East peace process: Russia sits alongside the US, the UN and the EU.

Russians should rethink their scepticism towards multilateral institutions. The Russian economy is globalising. Sberbank’s recent purchase of a major stake in General Motors Europe is just one indication of this trend. Gazprom is buying energy infrastructure in many EU member-states. Russia’s leading metals companies are building global networks. The long-term prosperity of the top Russian firms depends on their buying companies and raising money in the world’s major financial centres.

Russia is developing global economic interests and will need to defend them. This is best done through strong multilateral institutions. If Russia joined the WTO it would be harder for other countries to impose anti-dumping duties on Russian exports. As a leading exporter of energy, Russia has an interest in joining the International Energy Agency, and helping it to develop into a body that can smooth out volatility in oil and gas prices. Russia should also take more interest in the future of the IMF and the World Bank, and in the emerging institutional framework for regulating global financial markets.

The Europeans – who, unlike the Russians, Indians, Chinese and Americans are instinctively multilateralist – should encourage the Russians to view multilateral institutions as a tool for promoting their national interests. The WTO is the prime example of an organisation that would deliver tangible benefits to Russia, and the EU – as Russia’s biggest trading partner – should urge the Russians to made up their minds to join it.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.