Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia, Singapore and Kuwait and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.
In a recent post, Sam Roggeveen gave us a few highlights from a speech by Bob Carr at the Lowy Institute. As can be expected from the mercurial Australian Foreign Minister, his remarks appeared to have been caustic (Anglosphere), thoughtful (relations with Indonesia), learned (relations with China) and a little bit surprising (Russia).
Fortunately for folks like me, now residing a few thousand kilometers away from Sydney and the Lowy Institute but still very much interested in Australia's foreign affairs (which I happen to believe do not always get the hearing they deserve here in Europe), the speech is accessible on the Institute's website, giving everybody the chance to dissect the Foreign Minister's every word. That's probably a bit unfair, as Carr's delightful speech was apparently mainly unscripted. If only all foreign ministers would do this once in a while.
However, his polite answer to the very first question in the Q&A, asked by TASS, appears to have been really off the cuff. He cited Russia as an example of the West's difficulty in seeing the foreign policy perspective of other parts of the world.
So, Russia as a misunderstood actor on the international scene? Well, well. Let's look at the present picture.
Russian policy regarding Syria comes to mind first. It can be summarised as follows: a glorious piece of thoroughly immoral (children killed with Russian-made tanks, aircraft and artillery by a regime gone berserk) and shortsighted (Russia will most likely be on the shitlist of whoever comes after Assad) realpolitik testifying to an inability of a regime to change policy in response to a fluid situation (an inability which Russia shares with authoritarian regimes closer to Australia) and correctly judge the new impact of the 'flat world' (social media, citizens initiatives etc) on the policy of any country.
To preempt: please do not come back with the tired line of how shocked Russia and China were when their tolerance of the decisive UN Security Council resolution on Libya finally led to regime change there. Anybody who bedded with the devil (Qadhafi), including many Western governments and institutions through to the venerable London School of Economics, knew full well from the beginning that this was a marriage of convenience and that they had to be ready for any calamity.
Let's further look at the present Russian economic policy abroad, which is dominated by internal policy considerations, harshly punishing those who question absolute state control on all economic matters and rewarding those whose investments abroad are first and foremost made to acquire technology for Mother Russia. It is an 'economic' foreign policy which does not hesitate to turn the oil and gas spigot off and on according to the policy du jour.
To preempt again: do not come back with the line about the West using economic sanctions too. There is a fundamental difference between leaving Ukrainian households cold in midwinter, in flagrant violation of bilateral agreements, and punishing the Iranian regime for openly flouting international agreements on nuclear proliferation and thus putting a whole region, and beyond, under an existential threat.
No, while Bob Carr's general remark about trying to see the other guy's point of view is of course a basic tenet of all diplomacy, Russia is probably a poor example. It is at present led by a man who appears to be unwilling to overcome his past as a representative of a secret service of an authoritarian regime, unable to see the world except in terms of us vs them, and unable to get over the irrevocably lost Soviet glory which, as we were taught by history since 1990, was held up solely by bayonets, unable to turn them into ploughshares.
The most visible face of this regime, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is a capable diplomat of the 'my country, right or wrong' school (I knew him well when we served as representatives of our respective countries on the Second Committee of the UN in New York in the 80s), but manifestly unwilling or unable to correct disastrous policy from the top such as Putin's apparent decision to stand by a rotten and doomed regime in Syria to the very end.
Photo by Flickr user BBM Explorer.