Russian revisionism and the status security dilemma

Steven Ward has smart things to say about this whole Ukraine thing. He argues that Putin is acting out of distress over continued Western denial of Russia’s place in the sun.

Though he doesn’t make it explicit, his article puts into question claims about the “open, inclusive and flexible” character of the “American liberal order” that is supposed to allow for the peaceful accommodation of rising challengers. It’s pretty clear that this now-standard liberal trope downplays the very real limitations to status and power mobility within the liberal order or, at the very least, the existence of such perceptions in key countries like Russia, China, Brazil, etc. Whether these perceptions have a basis in fact or not, they are deeply consequential.

That said, though I clearly sympathize with the argument (and made it myself here before), it begs the age-old question of whether Russian revisionist behavior is a product of status obstruction and spiral dynamics or motivated by something else entirely and just exacerbated by these dynamics. In the latter case, more accommodationist policies could potentially be dangerous as well. You can call it the status security dilemma if you want. I don’t have the answer to what are the underlying motives any more than Ward does, but this is a central piece of the theoretical and policy puzzle that essentially determines everything else. Just saying that “Putin isn’t Hitler or Tojo” isn’t terribly informative.

Moreover, part of the problem with this argument is that status, security and economic goals are all hard to disentangle here (and usually elsewhere), such that it might not be possible to concede more status to Russia without making concrete policy concessions that carry real security and economic implications for Europe and for the US. Token concessions meant to stroke Russia’s ego (like G8 membership) are just not enough anymore. This is the exact same problem the US is facing with China, in that all possible cheap concessions have been made, and now any further adjustments to the international political (and institutional) order require the US (and Europe) to give up some influence and autonomy over real policy issues. As we know, however, power and influence can be reallyreally hard to part with. Grand bargains that reshape the field are not easy to accomplish, and usually involve some bloodshed (see also here and here).

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