Foreign Policy

Dangerous Leviathans: Russia's Bad Philosophy

An assertive Russia has raised fears of a new Cold War by cracking down at home and flexing its muscles abroad. But to understand those worrisome trends, forget about Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin—certainly most Russians have.

Think back instead to the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who thought that the natural human condition is a “war of all against all”; that the security of a people depends on a strong, even authoritarian, state; and that successful states are those that strike the “posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another.” That sounds a lot like the recipe Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been following for much of the last decade with his slogans about “managed democracy,” “the vertical of power,” and “the dictatorship of law,” as well as his insistence on treating neighboring states as belonging to Russia’s sphere of “privileged interests.”

Now contrast this Russian version of Hobbesianism with the alternative vision of statehood and statecraft associated with Immanuel Kant. That giant of the Enlightenment spent most of his long life (1724-1804) teaching logic and metaphysics at Albertina University in the East Prussian city of Königsberg. Kant is the secular patron saint of today’s Europe. In his political writings, he advocated—and foresaw—a perpetual peace, based on democratic rule at the national level; a “confraternity of trade” among nations (an early version of the Common Market); a federation of like-minded states (much like the European Union); and even an alliance of republics to deter and, if necessary, defeat aggressive empires (a prophecy of NATO).

In our day, the pairing of Hobbes and Kant is often shorthand for the dichotomy between “realists” and “idealists.” But Kant did not come to his vision while dreaming. He was wide awake to the realities of his own time, including the violence and disruption of the Seven Years’ War. For five of those years, East Prussia was gobbled up by the Russian Leviathan. The city fathers of Königsberg had to swear allegiance to Catherine the Great. In the markets and shops that Kant passed every day on his meditative constitutionals, trade was conducted in rubles.

That episode presaged what happened to Kant’s hometown two centuries later. As a result of an agreement between Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill in Potsdam, Königsberg was ceded to the Soviet Union, the city’s Germans were deported, and the ruble again became the local currency. The cosmopolitan port was closed off from the world, in the process acquiring a new name: Kaliningrad.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it has recently been in the news. On Nov. 5 of last year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to deploy ballistic missiles targeted against Poland from Kaliningrad. It is hard to imagine a development that more vividly demonstrates how Russia has reassumed the posture of a gladiator, pointing its weapons and fixing its eyes on imaginary enemies. Although Russia has much to worry about, including the devastating consequences of the global recession, it has nothing to fear from neighboring Europe. The EU has been transformed from a region that had experienced a major war every generation since the 17th century into a zone of democratic peace.

Medvedev made his threat on Barack Obama’s first day as U.S. president-elect. After eight years of George W. Bush’s Euroskepticism, today the United States has a president committed to the transatlantic coordination of strategy toward Russia. The essence of that strategy should be, over time, to convince the Russians that their post-Marxist, post-Soviet, Hobbesian experiment is, in fact, unrealistic: Playing geopolitics as a zero-sum game simply won’t work to Russia’s advantage in an age of interdependence, global challenges, and transnational governance. The 21st century must be, if we are to survive it, an age that all nations, including Russia, understand as ill-suited to gladiators and leviathans—an age that will reward countries that share a commitment to transparency, cooperation, and mutual benefit. The search for common solutions to common problems—including the global economic crisis and climate change—will require a rule-based, consensual international system to which Russia will have to adapt if it is to be a full beneficiary of what that system has to offer.

One piece of Lenin’s otherwise discredited worldview still applies. He liked to say that history and the future both could be reduced to two pronouns: “who—whom.” That is, “Who will prevail over whom?” If Russia’s future is to be better than its past, then Kant will have to prevail over Hobbes.