Foreign Policy — Debate (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of Lord Ryder of Wensum Lord Ryder of Wensum Conservative 4:00 pm, 26th February 2009

My Lords, I have long admired the reflections of my noble friend Lord Marlesford on foreign affairs and I congratulate him on his speech today.

I want to contribute briefly on one subject: Russia. I welcome Vice-President Biden's "reset button" speech in Munich designed to mend fences with Russia and I applaud the Russian Foreign Minister for declaring his desire for relations between Russia and NATO to get back on track. However, I hope that these two men are not indulging in naive expectations. After all, we have endured political leaders in Washington and London whose fragile historical knowledge has landed us in quagmires in Iraq and elsewhere. Some leaders have belonged to the neoconservative tendency and others have rejoiced as disciples of Woodrow Wilson's belief in global democracy, now refashioned as liberal interventionism. The actions of these principles have damaged respect for the West.

East-West relations deteriorated after the 2001 Genoa G8 summit, when Vladimir Putin's efforts to sculpt a modus operandi with the United States were shunned by President Bush, who lacked a grasp of the Russian mindset. Putin is merely the latest in a long line of autocratic Russian and Soviet rulers. He is a Tsarist without the regalia. It was said in 1917 that the only change to diplomacy was the personnel in the Kremlin. When the Cold War ended, not even Kremlin personnel changed in weight of numbers.

Democratic transition has stalled in Russia. This is no surprise; Russia was never likely to speed towards a pluralist liberal democracy with Jeffersonian institutions founded on the separation of powers and the rule of law, underwritten by a free press. Russia is not liberal, yet it is as liberal as it has been in its history. Nor is it likely that Russia will want to share western values. Putin is icy to our purest forms of democracy and markets. His Tsarist model will survive for the foreseeable future. The collapse of the rouble and social unrest in Russia's rust belt strengthen his position.

In Russia, the urge for territorial expansion has always been generated by vulnerability and the anxiety of invasion. This fear of encirclement is centuries old, stretching back to the Mongol Khans, the Poles and Lithuanians, the French and the Germans. It is genuine, not feigned, and concreted into the Russian psyche.

Of course it is natural that Soviet republics, victims of Soviet tyranny, should want to embrace liberal democracy. It is equally plain from a study of Russian history and the nation's fear of encirclement that it should feel the need to establish spheres of influence. Yet Vice-President Biden's Munich utterances, as well as our Foreign Secretary's speech in the Ukraine last August, specifically ruled out acceptance of Russian spheres of influence.

Today's spheres of influence, although different in size, are no different in character from those that determined the balance of power in mid-19th-century Europe. Spheres of influence are hewn from landscapes to produce a balance of power that is either stable or precarious. At present, it is relatively stable. The skill of Palmerston and Bismarck was to gauge the difference. My noble friend Lord Marlesford aptly quoted Palmerston on allies and enemies. Contemporary leaders should conform to this wisdom; after all, the world has not advanced to the so-called end of history, but has merely fragmented into different sides, reshaping older rivalries. In terms of the balance of power, Russia is not a strategic threat or an unceasing enemy. Nor is it brewing an ideology for export. I subscribe to the Kissinger maxim that the balance of power is a permanent undertaking, not an exertion with a foreseeable end.

The arrival of a new Administration in Washington affords us the chance to contemplate these realities and, for once, to use the past as a signpost to the future. Centuries of Russian behaviour cannot be reordered by the West. The challenge is not how to change Russia but how to manage our relationship with Moscow. We must achieve a better balance between containment and selective engagement, by testing Russia's desire for a more harmonious relationship in the tradition of pragmatic caution. This entails modifying our tone with Moscow over democracy. It requires a pause from raising extra flags outside NATO headquarters. After all, meaningless guarantees can lead to shameful betrayals. It demands a freeze on the installation of ballistic missiles in eastern Europe and it means an acknowledgement of Russian energy dominance in the Caucasus. We should strive for a settlement with Russia, a tacit understanding of power balances, in our own interests. We share common objectives, such as restricting the hazards of radical Islam and persuading Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, or hampering it in its efforts to do so.

President Obama's election is leading to a review of the West's relationship with Russia. I hope that the Government, and in particular the Government-in-waiting, will devote extra attention to studying how the lessons of history should guide the West to a more realistic approach.