Post-imperial attitudes: Britain after the war and Russia today


MOSCOW. (Ian Pryde for RIA Novosti) - In June 1992, the president of the Kyrgyz Republic, Askar Akayev, a research physicist before going into politics, told me in an interview that although the former Soviet republics were flying apart just like the universe after the Big Bang, eventually they would be drawn back together again by their own gravity.

So it should be no surprise that after the apparent chaos of the 1990s, cooperation among the former republics is increasing, nor that Russia's commodity-fuelled recovery has seen Moscow become more assertive in recent years.

The real surprise is that these trends have caught most Western and Russian observers off guard.

In fact, a better reading of Russia and of Russian and Western imperial history shows that Moscow's attitudes were almost pre-programmed. After all, the desire for international power and influence is hardly unique to Russia, nor are there any intrinsic reasons why Russia should not assert its own interests - which may or may not be in line with those of the West.

Britain's post-war attitudes

U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson remarked in 1962 that "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role."

A more accurate and fuller description would have been that America had taken over the empire, rather than Britain having lost it.

After the Second World War, Britain's largely Oxbridge-educated politicians and mandarins were keen to maintain a significant military presence overseas. The problem was that the country was financially exhausted and its putative ally, the United States, denied Marshall Plan aid to Britain - even as it lavished money on Europe. In order to finance its considerable commitments abroad, London was forced to take on a loan from Washington - a loan whose conditions undermined Britain's economy and finances for decades and which was only repaid in late 2006.

By the time Britain gave up its policy of maintaining a presence "East of Suez" in 1971, the United Kingdom was seen as "the sick man of Europe" because of its ailing economy and low growth rates.

But loss of empire and domestic economic and social problems, such as chronic labor unrest, did not undermine the desire for status, power and influence. The Foreign Office believed in the myth of the "special relationship" with the United States, and that Britain was Greece to America's Rome. In the early 1990s, the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, proudly proclaimed that "Britain was punching above its weight" internationally.

Under Tony Blair, the Labor government has claimed it is pursuing an "ethical foreign policy" and made several notable military interventions for, it says, humanitarian reasons.

More recently, Britain decided to retain its nuclear deterrent and Blair has called for a national debate on Britain's future military role in the world.

This may sound anachronistic nowadays and smack of imperialism, but it finds many parallels in the behavior of other former and current empires, whether formal or informal, with the United States, Russia, France and China maintaining considerable military establishments and nuclear forces or even expanding them.

But the difficulty of financing expensive military commitments and the risk of "imperial overstretch" remain as great as ever, as even the U.S. is finding out. A strong argument can be made that for decades, Britain's mandarins were more concerned about "managing decline" and the country's withdrawal from empire while maintaining a large overseas military presence than on improving the economy and the country's living standards, an approach which greatly reduced Britain's ability to solve its domestic problems. This is doubtless a major reason why Britain failed to regain any real self-confidence until the emergence of "cool Britannia" in the mid-1990s - some 50 years after the loss of empire and the emergence of the Commonwealth.

Seen against this kind of background, Russia is not only recovering far more quickly psychologically than many supposed, but also much faster compared with other powers which have lost empires in recent history.

Russia in the early 1990s and now

Anyone from the United Kingdom living in Russia in the early 1990s should have noticed that Russian attitudes at that time were remarkably similar to those in post-war Britain.

There was the same disorientation among elites and the broader population at having lost an empire without suffering a military defeat, the same belief in the innate superiority of the mother country, the same expectation that "the world owes us a living" - and the same gulf between rhetoric and resources, between the myth and aspiration of continuing global power and influence on the one hand and the reality of a shattered economy on the other.  

Many argue that Russia's seven-year recovery is all down to oil and gas and that the reform effort has slowed in recent years. This is not the whole truth - the banking and retail sectors are developing fast in Russia, for example. But Russia's windfall energy profits are closely paralleled by Britain's revenues from North Sea oil, even though Russia's reserves are much greater.

It has often been remarked that Britain squandered its oil money on paying benefits to the ever-rising numbers of unemployed which resulted from Margaret Thatcher's economic policies in the 1980s - even though the government found the funds to increase defense spending.

Russia too has been spending more on the military in recent years. But since 2000, it has also built up the third-largest gold and foreign currency reserves in the world. It also has a sensible budgetary policy and has so far refused to pump huge amounts into the economy to buy off voters.

Although the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an alliance set up in the early 1990s to govern relations between former Soviet republics, never really got going and might seem to have disproved Akayev's thesis, bilateral and multilateral cooperation between its members, as well as with other countries such as China, is increasing. Organizations based in Eurasia are also developing, including the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Conference on Interactions and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA).

Russia is also returning to the Middle East and looking to East Asia in terms of oil, gas, trade and communications as it regains self-confidence.


Russia's resurgence has unsettled the West, especially after the recent oil and gas disputes with neighboring countries. Anatol Lieven suggested recently in the Financial Times that the West should handle Russia the way the United States has been managing its relationship with China since the late 1970s.

But this is a backward-looking policy and is in any case inappropriate for Russia and Europe since it fails to take into account the current and likely future direction of geopolitics.

The relationship between the U.S. and China could well undergo serious strain in the future over Taiwan and more generally, as China's economy, military and power continue to increase, tilting power away from Washington and more towards Beijing, despite the growing interdependence on trade and debt between the two countries.

This could well lead to greater assertiveness by Beijing, fuelled in part by Chinese nationalism based on past perceived insults at the hands of the West and Japan and a sense of innate superiority stemming from its 5,000-year-old culture. This in turn is likely to lead to Beijing's increasing desire for Western and other countries to recognize China as a Great Power.

The problem for the West is that though Russia's mindset is rather similar, there are crucial differences. Russia has no outstanding territorial issues equivalent to that of China's claims over Taiwan, although it too feels a sense of grievance at many Western policies following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia also has an acute sense of its own history as a European and Asian empire and a global superpower. It believes in its own historical "civilizing mission" in the former Soviet Union, especially with regard to the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia east of the Urals - the Baltic republics are the big exception since they were of course much closer to Europe both geographically and culturally.

Like Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union before it, contemporary Russia will always feel insecure because of its geography. Great Britain lost an overseas empire on other continents far removed from itself, but the Russians and the East Europeans are close together and can all too easily feel threatened by each other. Russia is also very aware of its "soft underbelly" in Central Asia and in the late 1960s was fearful of a Chinese invasion in the Far East.

Russia's historical legacy means that it will continue to suffer from a combined superiority and inferiority complex. It is well aware of its past status as a superpower and imperial great power, but at the same time it knows that its economic performance is far behind that of the West in terms of per capita income, and that its institutions are not up to "civilized" Western standards.

But Europe is appreciably more stable than East Asia, not least because it has much more integrated economic and security structures in the shape of the European Union and NATO. ASEAN is a much looser organization, and the fears in Asia of China's increasing military and economic clout seem considerably greater than European worries about Russia. Asia too is much less developed than Europe in terms of energy distribution, and despite the recent progress, it still faces a major problem in North Korea.

There is then already an institutional basis for the kind of intensive dialogue between Russia and the West which is needed to manage their mutual relationship. What the West needs, however, is a better understanding of Russia's attitudes and approach.

It must understand that Russia wants to be part of the West economically and culturally, but that it also has Great Power claims despite its weakness - which is precisely why President Putin has emphasized that Russia is an energy superpower. At the same time, as Eurasia cooperates more, Russia will play a major role, including in the former Soviet republics.

The Hubble Space Telescope has allowed astronomers to look further into the universe than ever before, and most now believe that rather than contracting again, the cosmos will go on expanding forever. Advances in scientific knowledge might have proved Akayev wrong on the future of the universe, but he is probably right about the politics.


Ian Pryde is CEO of Eurasia Strategy & Communications, Moscow.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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