Lavrov’s Lament: A Russian take on the rules-based global order

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At the end of last month, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov wrote a spirited defence of international law in Kommersant, Russia’s main business paper. True to form, the country’s top diplomat lamented that, unlike the West, Russia still wants universally accepted principles of international law to govern international affairs. But what does it mean for these principles to be universal? And how does Russia play a role in the ‘internationality’ of international law? According to Mr. Lavrov, in a multipolar future, the West should no longer get away with imposing its will on the rest of the world. Yet, despite Mr. Lavrov’s ostensible sympathy for a more equal international order, the article scarcely hides a nostalgic plea for Russia’s return to the rule maker status the country enjoyed before 1989. In doing so, Mr. Lavrov provides proof for the divergence of national approaches to international law, as has been noted by Anthea Roberts, Lauri Mälksoo, and others. We are left to conclude that Russian approaches to many aspects of international law still differ substantially from those taken in the rest of the world, despite appeals to universality.

The rules-based order and the rules of international law

Following Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Joe Biden in Geneva last month, Mr. Lavrov signaled his discontent with the “warnings” uttered by US officials after the talks in Villa La Grange had ended. He appeared irked by the manner in which Western states had carefully prepared a unified stance against Russia at the recent G7 meeting in Cornwall, the NATO summit in Brussels, and the meeting between Mr. Biden and the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission.

At these meetings, the West supposedly ‘cemented the rules-based world order concept’ as opposed to the universal principles of international law, with the UN Charter as its primary source. Russia’s main objection is the lack of clarity. Mr. Lavrov states that the West ‘shies away from spelling out the “rules” it purports to follow, just as it refrains from explaining why they are needed.’ Whoever acts against the will of the West is immediately, and without any evidence, accused of being a rule breaker, he writes. Particular scorn is reserved for the habit of the Western family to call itself ‘an anchor for democracy, peace and security.’

In response to accusations of ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘non-democratic behaviour’ at the address of non-Western states, Mr. Lavrov denounces the universalizing claims of the West, observing that the world has more than just one civilization. The 500-year era of Western imperialism and colonial domination is being replaced by a multipolar world. In this vision, it is implied, Russia can stake its claim as one of the new ‘poles’. Mr. Lavrov muses whether, ‘messianic aspirations apart’, democracy is, in fact, the most effective form of government to cope with threats ‘that transcend borders and affect all peoples, no matter where they live’, hinting at the usefulness of “autocratic democracy”. Even an uncritical reader notes that the Foreign Affairs Minister allows himself, too, a measure of vagueness and ambiguity.

It is worth pausing at Mr. Lavrov’s key message. What exactly, then, is the alternative Russia is putting forward? In other words, what is the difference between the ‘rules-based order’ and an ‘international order based on universal principles of international law’?

As it turns out, it is about who is given an opportunity to speak. Mr. Lavrov notes that the West seeks to ‘shift the conversation on key issues to the platforms of its liking, where no dissident voices can be heard’. Instead of talks at the UN, the West gathers in self-selected ‘appeals’ or ‘partnerships’. At the same time, these exclusive groups of states impose sanctions on other states, without regard for the UN Charter. The West promotes ‘totalitarian rule in global affairs’, Mr. Lavrov writes, unflinchingly. He adorns Western “rules” with quotation marks, claiming these are replacing international law, and revising the history and outcomes of the Second World War and the Nuremberg trials. One example of this, according to Mr. Lavrov, is the way the West interprets the right to self-determination. Why does Great Britain still control the Falkland Islands? Why did Kosovo obtain “independence” (again, quotation marks by Mr. Lavrov) whilst the principle of self-determination was cast aside when the people of Crimea voted for reunification with Russia? The answer he gives is clear and simple: Western interests.

Of course, the fact that the so-called referendum in Crimea did not provide for a status quo option and was conducted at gunpoint does not seem relevant to Mr. Lavrov. Moreover, Russia holds, at least, an equally duplicitous position on the right to self-determination. After all, do material Russian interests precede the right to self-determination claimed by some in Tatarstan, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova, and Georgia?

Mr. Lavrov calls it an ‘interesting detail’, but the eponymous paragraph on linguistic differences does a lot of heavy lifting for the Minister’s position. The title of the original Kommersant article was “O prave, pravakh i pravilakh”, purposefully translated on the Foreign Ministry’s website as “The Law, the Rights and the Rules”. It is no coincidence, notes Mr. Lavrov with a hint of glee, that the three terms in Russian sound so alike, while they sound entirely distinct in English. Rules are ‘the decisions taken by the one who rules’, while the law consists of ‘generally accepted laws’. Mr. Lavrov calls this ‘reflecting on linguistics, worldview, sentiment, and the way they vary from one nation or culture to another’. In truth, these linguistic musings can equally be described as an ordinary semantic trick. In French, a Western language by all means, ‘le droit’, ‘les droits’, and ‘les règles’ all share a common root in Latin. The same goes for my mother tongue, Dutch, in which ‘recht’, ‘rechten’, and ‘regels’, respectively, sound even more similar. Mr. Lavrov’s point is that a Russian’s promise is held as sacrosanct, because of a centuries-old tradition of making handshake deals. A Westerner’s promise, conversely, such as NATO’s “assurances” that it would not expand eastward, is unreliable. It is striking, however, that someone who purports to defend the consensual nature of international law and rejects unilateral rule-stetting, relies on historically spurious claim about unprovable assurances to make his point.

Having rather quickly exhausted the common tropes of Western disregard for international law, Mr. Lavrov pivots to a discourse of moral panic. Apparently, one of the threats to global stability is that ‘in a number of Western countries, students learn at school that Jesus Christ was bisexual’. Mr. Lavrov, a pre-eminent enthusiast of evidence, does not state the specific countries or schools in which this harrowing case of aggressive LGBT propaganda is allegedly being portrayed. Any attempt to shield youth from such propaganda is tragically prevented by an “enlightened Europe”. It is left to the reader to figure out whether and how advocating for non-discrimination of LGBT people is ‘imposing totalitarian rule in global affairs’.

Blinded by its own superiority complex

Because of its own ‘veil of superiority’, Mr. Lavrov observes hypocrisy in the West’s behaviour: whereas it wants to export democracy to other states’ domestic political arenas, it refuses to engage in more equal and democratic international affairs. As Russia sees it, different beliefs and values inherited from many past generations, ‘learned at mother’s knee’, merit equal respect to the West’s liberal rules. Mr. Lavrov sees a potential solution in universal platforms, such as the UN, where the West is not dominant, and agreement can be reached in a solid, sustainable, and objective way. This is purportedly not the case in the EU and NATO, which ‘continue to subjugate other regions of the world’ as part of their ‘self-designated global messianic mission’. Mr. Lavrov is quick to note that Russia’s involvement in the CIS, the CSTO, EurAsEC, and the SCO, is always based on ‘parity’ and ‘mutual agreement’. The implication is that NATO, an alliance making its decisions by unanimity, has illegitimately recruited its new members against their will. Similarly, the EU has supposedly overpowered its eastern European member states. Meanwhile, we are to presume that Kazakhstan does not feel threatened in its statehood, or that Tajikistan and Belarus are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States with equal status to the Russian Federation. In the end, the accusation of hypocrisy is an evergreen of international relations, but often more of a boomerang than a substantial argument in any honest debate.

After his plea for a ‘multipolar’ and ‘polycentric’ world, in which different approaches to international law exist and must be balanced with one another, Mr. Lavrov unsurprisingly changes tack when it comes to acceptance of Russian views: ‘There have been no unilateral concessions since the late 1990s, and there will never be.’ He illustrates this by noting the ‘hysterical response’ to ‘Moscow’s efforts to stand up for the rights of Russians in the aftermath of the bloody 2014 government coup in Ukraine, supported by the United States, NATO, and the EU’.

To proceed on the international stage, Mr. Lavrov proposes talks among the Group of Twenty, the BRICS, and refers to Russia’s initiative to form a Greater Eurasian Partnership. Clearly, there must be some value in getting together smaller groups of states, outside of the halls of the unwieldy UN, after all. Furthermore, Mr. Lavrov proposes reforming the UN Security Council and ending the excessive representation of the West. This, of course, is a legitimate concern. It has long been recognized that the 1945 balance of power no longer sufficiently legitimizes the division of power at the UN in 2021, though substantial reform remains extremely unlikely. Of course, Mr. Lavrov’s argument might come to hound him one day, as one can equally discuss the merits of Russia’s contemporary status as a P5 Member.

Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov has some genuine and well-founded concerns about how power is exerted in international affairs. Contrary to Russian appeals to the universality of international law, it remains clear that Russian approaches to international law differ on multiple levels from those taken in the West. Mr. Lavrov, by equating and identifying ‘international law’ selectively with documents such as the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, defends a world order in which the Soviet Union was a dominant rule-maker. The Russian Federation, which recently appointed itself through a constitutional amendment either as the USSR’s successor, or as its ‘continuator’, is no longer in a position to exert that same power. Mr. Lavrov’s lament is a clear indication of this decline.

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