These days there are two styles of foreign policy being practised; Paul Robinson here describes them: one is a "a traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities". In the other style, there are said to be two kinds of states: "the just and the unjust"; they are not "legally or morally equal". Others have called the second "idealism" or "moral diplomacy". There is a continuous tradition of the USA regarding itself as quite a new category of country as recounted here and so the moralistic stance is sometimes called "Wilsonian" after the President who wished to "teach the South American republics to elect good men" but it's quite bipartisan: witness the "Roosevelt Corollary" in which Theodore Roosevelt arrogated to the United States of America, as a "civilised country", the right to intervene "in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence". Neither of these approaches is new: there have always been countries that have believed that their gods gave them the mission of instructing and disciplining their neighbours and there have always been countries that were content to leave others alone.
The moralistic position is erected on the assumption that the speaker's country is virtuous; that its virtue is evident and demonstrable: that its virtue is a fact. The lack of virtue of the other country is also a fact. Some countries are virtuous and others are not and the virtuous ones are permitted to do things the others can't. Not assumption but reality; not hope but realisation; not relative but absolute; not subjective but objective. Stated that baldly, one wonders how any adult can believe such a thing. But they do. And with straight faces too:
Most of all, America is indispensible — and exceptional — because of our values… The world looks to us to stand up for human rights, LGBT rights, religious and ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities and people everywhere who yearn for peace. We challenge ourselves and other nations to do better.
How fortunate that the best and noblest country in human history is also the most powerful! The United States is the current headquarters of the notion that some (or is it only one?) countries are "exceptional" and operate under different, but higher, standards than mere ordinary ones. In the last couple of decades the idea has spread throughout the Western world generally via, as Robinson observes, the (self-awarded) distinction of "those who respect and those who don’t respect human rights". The West, it need hardly be said, considers itself to be a respecter.
So some of us are morally elevated and the rest of us are not. Those who aren't should look to their defences: it's bad for one's life expectancy to be on the defaulters' list as Slobodan Milosevich, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi can attest. It is striking how often this moral superiority is expressed by sanctions and bombing rather than by example, but the morally exceptional can do such things because they are morally exceptional. And, when Milosevic is exonerated, the WMD that was the pretext for Saddam's overthrow isn't there and it's discovered that Qaddafi wasn't "bombing his own people", moral purity lets the exceptionalists shrug it off and move on; children die, but in a good cause. Exceptionalists bomb hospitals by mistake; the others do it on purpose.
The "idealistic" camp is led by Washington, while Moscow has come to be the chief spokesman for the "realistic" camp. Practically every speech Putin makes on foreign affairs has an appeal to "multilateralism" or to Robinson's "traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities". Here he is in an interview in 2000, but many many times since:
The world cannot develop effectively and positively if one state has a monopoly on taking and implementing whatever decisions it wants… In the history of mankind, such a drive for a monopoly has never ended well. For that reason, we are constantly proposing a different democratic world structure.
There are several reasons why Putin (and Yeltsin before him) calls for the primacy of the United Nations in a multilateral world system. Two are obviously self-serving: Russia is a permanent member of the UNSC and, second, it fears that it's on the Exceptionalist hit list. And, given the predominance of "human rights violations" as justifications for "humanitarian interventions", the annual condemnatory US State Department human rights report shows it has reason to fear.
But there is another reason why Moscow is dedicated to "a traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities". And it's one that's easy to forget:
The USSR spent 70 years pushing an "exceptionalist" foreign policy and it was a bust.
The USSR, as the "world's first socialist state" was the standard-bearer for the "bright future of mankind", a novus ordo seculorum, even a new type of human – "новый советский человек". It was the exceptional country, it was the "most good and noble country in the history of mankind", it was the leader of "people everywhere who yearn for peace". It intervened all over the world in support of its self-awarded moral superiority. National Communist parties echoed Moscow's superior wisdom. The German Communist Party collaborated with the Nazis to weaken the Weimar Republic. Why? Because socialism would prevail when Weimar went down. But it didn't: the Nazis prevailed and the USSR paid a mighty price for their triumph. Cuba, a socialist state ("The Island of Freedom"), had to be supported by the Leader of World Socialism. That support brought the world close to a nuclear war. Any little movement that called itself socialist called for Moscow's help, even countries the Politburo's decrepit members had never heard of. They had to be provided with weapons, loans, aid and diplomatic support. It would have been impossible for the World's First Socialist state not to intervene in Afghanistan when the so-called socialist government there began to wobble. Once socialist, socialist forever:
When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.
How could the USSR avoid lending money or weapons to any state that said it was socialist? Peace movements had to be infiltrated because theory said that only socialism brought peace. Being exceptional has heavy obligations:
More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free. (John Kennedy actually, but Brezhnev probably said something like it, although at greater length.)
And it all came to nothing. Consider, for example, Poland. The USSR liberated it from the Nazis who had killed off about a fifth of the population; Stalin redrew the map so that, for the first time in history, all historical Poland was united and that territory was almost completely ethnically homogeneous. The USSR intervened in Polish politics and civil life for four decades by enforcing, as it believed it was morally obliged to do, the "bright future of mankind" to the expected benefit of the Polish people. Or so the exceptionalists in the Kremlin said. And with what result? The moment it became clear that the tanks weren't coming, Poland threw off the Soviets, the alliance and the whole socialist package. And so throughout the other Fraternal Socialist States. It was a bubble. Exceptional countries have no friends because they have no equals, they can only have clients; but clients have to be fed or coerced.
The Russian Federation, as the successor to the USSR, inherited what it owed and what it was owed. But there was a big difference: the debts were real; the credits were not. Russia has paid all that it owed and written off most of what it was owed. In the case of Cuba, in 2014 Putin wrote off $32 billion in debt. The USSR had lent money to African "socialist" countries – as Leader of the Socialist World how could it refuse? Putin just wrote off $20 billion of that. And so on. Exceptionalism was money down the hole.
In 1987 a short piece by Yevgeniy Primakov appeared in Pravda: "A New Philosophy of Foreign Policy". Essentially it argued that the USSR's foreign policy had been a failure: it had reduced security and was bankrupting the country. After 70 years of exceptionalism, what was left? No friendship, often the opposite. No monetary profit, just costs. The Leader of the Socialist Bloc and the Bloc itself evaporated as if they had never been. It was all for nothing. And worse than nothing: here's Putin himself in 1999:
For almost three-fourths of the outgoing century Russia lived under the sign of the implementation of the communist doctrine. It would be a mistake not to see and, even more so, to deny the unquestionable achievements of those times. But it would be an even bigger mistake not to realise the outrageous price our country and its people had to pay for that Bolshevist experiment. What is more, it would be a mistake not to understand its historic futility. Communism and the power of Soviets did not make Russia a prosperous country with a dynamically developing society and free people. Communism vividly demonstrated its inaptitude for sound self-development, dooming our country to a steady lag behind economically advanced countries. It was a road to a blind alley, which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation.f
"Outrageous price". "Historic futility". "Inaptitude". "Steady lag". "A road to a blind alley". Nothing: no money, no friends, no power, no prosperity. Nothing: neither at home nor abroad.
Moscow knows the exceptionalist road is "a road to a blind alley" because it wasted 70 years on that road. However imperfect and irritating the "traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities" may be, Moscow knows that "idealism" is completely worthless.
It's worth observing that the "Westphalian system" is named after the several agreements in 1648 that ended the religious wars in Europe by accepting the principle of cuius regio, eius religio or that each state would be allowed to do things its own way. In other words, Westphalianism was accepted only after idealism had burned everything to the ground.
It's an old lesson that Russia has learned but Washington, with its still-large purse, hasn't. Yet.