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2007 Munich Speech Anniversary: How Putin Became First Politician to Say 'Unipolar World' Untenable

© AP Photo / DIETHER ENDLICHERRussia's President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech at the Security Conference in Munich, southern Germany, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2007
Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech at the Security Conference in Munich, southern Germany, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2007 - Sputnik International, 1920, 10.02.2022
MOSCOW (Sputnik), Kirill Krasilnikov - Russian President Vladimir Putin's 2007 speech in Munich was an indictment of the so-called unipolar world order, which he sees as an unrealistic and hypocritical project, experts said on the fifteenth anniversary of the landmark speech.
On 10 February 2007, the Russian president spoke at the Munich Security Conference, an annual event that brings together leaders of countries, high-ranking government officials, as well as prominent public figures from business, journalism and academia, to discuss pressing international security issues.
In his speech, Putin took direct aim at the idea of the unipolar world order, highlighting its theoretical and practical shortcomings, taking special notice of the unconstrained use of force practised with blatant disregard for international law, specifically by the United States, which by that time had already intervened in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The president also expressed his concerns over NATO's expansion, which contradicted security guarantees given to Russia following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The alliance "has put its frontline forces on our borders," Putin asserted in 2007.
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Rebuke To 'Unipolar World'

According to Rein Mullerson, professor emeritus at the Tallinn University's School of Governance, Law and Society, the Munich speech should be considered within the wider historical context of the late 1980s to the beginning of the 2000s, with the West being confident in the so-called multilateral liberal world order, which was, in essence, an "ephemeral project serving the interests of the American power that did not hesitate to break the rules if that seemed to be in its interest."
"President Putin was the first world leader who openly declared that such a world was not only unacceptable (at least for Russia), but also impossible," Mullerson said, adding that the ideals of the aforementioned time period "contained not only a dose of naivety (for some) but also a measure of hypocrisy (for quite a few)."
This sentiment is echoed by Paul Robinson, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, who observed that the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US and its allies with "unchallenged military power," which they were naturally tempted to use.
"I wouldn't say that the West shows complete disdain for international law – 99% of the time it abides by it, but on occasion it breaks it when it suits it. As a result, its verbal attacks on others for breaking 'the rules-based international order' ring hollow," Robinson expounded.
Meanwhile, Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, went even further, saying that "the so-called ‘rules-based order’ makes up the rules as it goes along – always to its advantage."
"Putin was spot-on in his analysis, and I think his early warning about the hubris of liberal hegemony (above all invasion of Iraq) was justified by later developments, including the destruction of Libya and the destabilisation of Ukraine," Sakwa remarked.

Change of Course

The speech also provided a glimpse of Putin's attitude toward post-Soviet international relations and portended further developments in both international relations and Russian foreign policy.
"I always assign that speech to my students as I think it very well represents official Russia’s attitude towards the international system, and especially the European security system, that emerged after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. People who read that speech and took it seriously were better prepared for things that subsequently occurred – 2008, 2014, etc. – than those who dismissed it," William Wohlforth, the Daniel Webster professor of government at Dartmouth College, said.
Robinson interpreted the speech as a reflection of the Russian president's frustration with the Western approach to global politics and inattentiveness to his country's concerns.
"Putin began his first presidency seeking good relations with the West, but soon found that the huge difference in power between Russia on the one hand and the US and its allies on the other meant that the West wasn't very interested in listening to Russian concerns. This caused him to reconsider his position," the University of Ottawa professor explained.
Sakwa considers Putin's speech to be informed by the doctrine of "‘sovereign internationalism’, the type that has been enshrined in international law since 1945" as well as a reaction to NATO expansion coupled with US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mullerson, for his part, suggests that Western policies toward Russia facilitate a more conservative turn in the Kremlin.
"Geopolitical confrontation is often supported by ideological differentiation. Moreover, such a conservativism is not at all alien in the West and this is what is worrying liberal elites," Mullerson observed.

World's Reaction

At the time of the speech, the Western audience met it with a mix of befuddlement and consternation, without recognizing its importance as a statement of dissent against the prevailing system of international politics as well as its critique. Some say the negative assessment has not been adjusted over time.
"It [the West] has become less receptive. Russian policies are now ridiculed, and Putin demonised. We are in a far worse place now than we were even in 2007," Sakwa inveighed.
Robinson drew attention to the differing reception of Putin's speech in the West and the rest of the world, stating that the former is utterly unreceptive to Putin's message and sees it as evidence of aggressive intent.
"The rest of the world has a more positive attitude towards Russia, and generally good relations with it. That's not to say, however, that other states are inclined to throw in their lot with Russia – the balance of power remains in the West's favour and states have to bear that in mind," Robinson said in his outline of the situation.
A different perspective was offered by Paul Poast, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, who thinks that while the speech indeed captured "a certain strain of global dissatisfaction with the United States," the same attitude was prevalent in the US since many were opposed to the Iraq and Afghan wars by 2007.
"Also, the beginnings of the financial market meltdown were becoming apparent. To many, both were the consequence of failed US foreign policies: the pursuit of military primacy and economic openness as embodied in the Washington Consensus policies," Poast added, asserting that "while I think it is fair to have greeted the speech with a bit of incredulity and skepticism, Putin's criticism of US foreign policy was not outside the mainstream."
With this in mind, one may need to separate Western societies from elites, such as politicians and so-called mainstream media, who are described by Mullerson as "blindfolded by what they consider as the only true ideology" and finding it difficult to "give up dreams of the world controlled from one centre."
"The world is simply too big, complex and diverse to have its rich tapestry to be flattened into a carpet where only one pattern, be it of a Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Saxon, Confucian, Muslim or even secular liberal-democratic, would dominate. Many in the world, even in the Western one, have recognised this reality," the professor emeritus noted.
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