This may come as a surprise, but I majored in Political Science in college. My concentration was international relations, so I spent a great deal of time talking and reading about this subject. Within the small enclave of Poli Sci majors, I had the reputation of being the “Realpolitik” guy. Unlike most of my classmates, I had little patience for organizations such as the UN (this hasn’t changed much). I often exasperated my political science professor with my views; I even once got the comment, “International relations is not a zero-sum game!”
While that is often not the case, I think there are plenty of examples in international relations where the actors approach the situation in question largely from that perspective. Game theory aside, the most common phrase to describe this type of foreign policy is Realpolitik. The phrase was coined, and the practice refined, by the 19th century Prussian chancellor, von Bismarck. He is generally looked upon dimly in academic circles because of his drive to replace the primacy of France in the continental system with that of Prussia largely through threats or use of force. However, his practical nature, and the very nature of the continental system itself, lent itself to this kind of competitive relations between nation-states.
Fast forward to 2008. We are close to marking the end of the last large-scale use of realpolitik, namely the Cold War. While the Cold War was born on the ideological underpinnings of the competition between liberal democratic capitalism and totalitarian communism, it was also marked by the use of realpolitik, if not under other names. The fall of communism was supposed to be the “end of history”. While communism has largely found its way (rightfully so) into the dustbin of history, it has been interesting to watch the resurgence of Russia over the past year. Starting with the “election” of the new Russian president, moving forward through the “incursion” into Georgia, and now this. Lost in all of the news about the U.S. economy and the team that President-elect Obama is putting together was the news about the conclusion of a joint navel exercise between none other than Russia and Venezuela.
So what’s the big deal? Well, unless you live under a rock (or in Hollywood), Venezuela is led by the current darling of the worldwide socialist movement, Hugo Chavez. A reasonable person could chalk him up as yet another in a long line of blowhards from Latin America, however he was one thing that most of the others did not: oil. The United States gets a significant amount of its imported oil from Venezuela, and more than once Chavez has threatened to shut off the supply. That would have a significant impact on our already-wounded economy.
So what is Russia’s part in all this? On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense. The Russian Navy doesn’t operate very much in the waters of the Western Hemisphere anymore. Every now and again they might have a ship or two make a goodwill visit to Cuba, but by and large, the Russian Navy stays close to home. So what is the answer? I submit to you that it is realpolitik. The simple fact of the matter is that Russia still sees itself as a superpower, and has been recently flexing its muscle as if to prove this is so. Russia does have considerable sway over the old Central Asian Republics, which have been a considerable source for new oil and natural gas reserves since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They also have historically coveted, if not control over the actual landmass, influence over the Middle East. Of course, that is hard to do when you primary rival to continued global influence has much of its military and intelligence resources parked in the area.
The backdoor, at least from Putin’s view of things, seems to be Venezuela. While there have been nothing but platitudes coming from Chavez about Obama, I have little doubt the tune will change once Chavez forces Obama (hopefully) to stand up for American interests. While Chavez can probably do very little real damage to the United States, he can certainly be a distraction; yet one more thing for an American administration to deal with, and take its eye of the ball when it comes to Russia’s apparent move to remake itself in a more aggressive image. Russia, despite its own issues with militant Islam, has played a very minor role in the U.S.-led war on terror. There have also been several differences of opinion when it comes to issues such as former Warsaw Pact countries gaining membership into NATO and the deployment of ballistic missile defenses.
Does this mean that a new Cold War is coming? Hardly – what made the Cold War unique was the ideological underpinning along with the unusual (from an international relations perspective) of having only two countries in a position of potential dominance. Our current system is more like the old continental system of the 18th and 19th century. Which makes the return of realpolitik all the more plausible.