RD Interview: The director of Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin, sheds light on the implications of Brexit for Russia, Europe and the world.

Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin: "The problem of the European Union is its failure to create the united identity of Europeans." Photo: Reuters

Russia Direct sat down with Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, to discuss the implications of Brexit on the EU, Russia and the world. He also explains why countries are seeking today to increase their sovereignty and how regional powers, including Russia, can respond to this trend.     

RD: Today many countries seek to increase their sovereignty and be more politically independent during a period of globalization, as indicated by the recent exit of the UK from the European Union. Does it mean that globalization is in crisis today and the pendulum has started swaying in the opposite direction, toward fragmentation?

Dmitri Trenin.: Indeed, the pendulum is swaying in another direction, but it is not the opposite movement back to its previous state. The pendulum is rather swaying into a different dimension. In other words, we have already experienced the first wave of globalization, which started in the late 19th century, and the second one, which was boosted by the collapse of the Soviet Union and brought most of the benefits to the West.

Today this stage is over. We are just now in a different dimension. The West is rather in a defensive position today and we are witnessing this trend both in Europe and the United States [with the increasing influence of right and nationalistic forces].

And the West understands that today it can benefit much less from globalization than other countries. On the other hand, there was the period that people sought to immerse in this globalized environment and didn’t care about their nationality and identity, with mass standardization of commodities, be it iPhones, hotels, clothes, cars or televisions. These all became commonplace. In fact, there were not many differences between Shanghai, London and New York in this regard.

Dmitri Trenin. Photo: Russia Direct

This trend was dominating, but now it is over and people — having acquired the culture of the affluent and technologically developed world — don’t identify themselves as Americans or citizens of the world. Instead, people in India, China or elsewhere are trying to promote their own national identity, including the collective one. 

RD: With so many countries seeking to increase their national sovereignty today, what does this mean for Russia given the fact that its previous attempts to integrate in the Western world and maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space partly failed?

D.T.: It is a big challenge for Russia, which is good, because it does need moderate challenges, but not shocks to the system. I have in mind those challenges that Russia is able to respond to effectively. What is the worst and dangerous for Russia is the feeling of self-assured satisfaction and perception that it is a great, powerful and invincible country with unlimited resources. It can lead to another stagnation. People of my generation have already experienced this feeling of stagnation in the Soviet era [from the early 1960s to the late 1980s], when they were confident that everything was fine, when the rising oil prices were maintaining the illusion of prosperity.

Today, faced with urgent and pivotal problems (which could turn into existential problems), Russia has a chance to resolve many long-standing challenges. After all, Russia is frequently behaving irresponsibly as a nation. It lives in a state of illusion and doesn’t resolve problems until they bite it severely. It is a matter of mentality. Today we don’t have the illusion of prosperity and as a country we have to understand what is to be done in this situation.

RD: Do you mean that the situation, when many countries seek to boost their sovereignty and national pride, are driving to become more competitive globally?

D.T.: Yes. First, it gives an opportunity to Russia to determine its fate by itself and be more self-reliant. We got rid of the illusion of Russia being able to become part of the West. It means that Russia is alone and doesn’t see itself as a part of a bigger entity. In my view, it is good because we cannot shift our responsibility to somebody else.

Second, our neighbors in Eurasia — Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and others — are also seeking to prop up their national sovereignty; they just want to be themselves and avoid becoming the provinces of a greater Russia. All this means that there won’t be the second Soviet Union: the Eurasian Union won’t be another political entity with supranational institutions; it could be based only on economic principles.

 Read the first part of the interview with Trenin: "Why Russian society should pay more attention to Kremlin's foreign policy"

And it is a good sign, because if we have started another wave of the integration of the former Soviet republics, we would have to give financial and economical support to these countries, which will never become part of Russia and might choose another vector of integration.

RD: With the Brexit having become reality, what is the future of the EU?

D.T.: The European Union, from my point of view, has reached the point, in which the gap between the rigid bureaucracy of Brussels and the national democratic governments of the EU became too big.

The problem of the European Union is its failure to create the united identity of Europeans in contrast to the Soviet Union, which succeeded in coming up with the identity of the Soviet people to a certain extent: There weren’t any serious tensions and differences between ordinary people, no matter in what Soviet republic they lived, be it Azerbaijan, Georgia or Armenia. Such unity was especially common for big cities: People lived like a united community.

However, the European Union failed to create such unity and migrants only exacerbated the crisis, which had existed in the dormant state until recently. Experts have been talking about this problem for decades, while pointing to the fact that the EU is supranational and far from being truly democratic, even though the European parliament is elected directly through democratic voting. Yet it is not the EU parliament that takes the key decisions, but its bureaucratic structures — the European Commission as well as the European Council, which brings together representatives of national governments.

So, it is hard to predict the future of the EU. Hopefully, this future will be based on the primacy and leading role of national governments, with their national interests taken into account first and foremost, not the interests of the EU supranational bureaucracy. However, it doesn’t mean that there should not be the European Commission and other institutions; this bureaucracy is important for certain reasons, but shouldn’t play the primary role in the EU.

RD: Do think that a new European Union will be a better partner for Russia after the Brexit?

D.T.: In reality, it doesn’t matter what kind of the EU will be better for Russia. The key question is not whether the UK is a part of the European Union or not, the key question is what position toward Russia Germany will take. One of the most serious problems of Russia’s European policy is that Moscow-Berlin relations are not in the best shape today.

They worsened their relationship, which was historically friendly from the time of Germany’s reunion [after the fall of the Berlin Wall] to the start of the Ukrainian crisis. Hopefully, they will maintain relations at least on a working and cooperative level, and it would be good if it happens sooner rather than later. But today we need to create a new — more healthy — foundation for such relations. The previous foundation is outdated and requires a renovation.

RD: So, Brexit is no game-changer for Russia?

D.T.: No, it is not a game-changer at all.      

RD: How is the trend of increasing sovereignty in the world fitting into the context of the multipolar world?

D.T.: Multipolarity means that the world is polycentric. Today there are many different regional centers, which differ from the point of view of political heft and attractiveness. Attempts to increase sovereignty and boost polycentrism co-exist today. In fact, there are very powerful geopolitical centers. The U.S. today is the world’s most influential and dominant power today.

Obviously, China is bolstering its status, clout and role in the international system. Some Chinese pundits even claim that we are on the way to a new bipolarity, which means that the world will be divided between those who team up with America (Europe, Japan and others) and those who prefer China, including Russia.

However, the situation is more complicated. On the one hand, there are several powerful centers: China and the U.S. play the role of such centers. But, on the other hand, Russia has also the potential to become such a powerful center. Likewise, India could become such a center. But today — far from being almighty — the U.S. turns out to be unable to control the current situation in different regions, although previously this situation was easy to control either by European countries or the United States.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "Is Europe coming apart at the seams?"

Take, for example, the events in the Middle East, which are today out of control of the United States. But, again, far from being successful in fighting against such enemies like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) or the Taliban in Afghanistan, Washington also cannot team up with its allies, which are acting autonomously. For example, Turkey conducts an independent policy as an autonomous subject.

RD: And Japan?

D.T.: Yes, Japanese Prime Minister put himself into opposition to Washington, when he came to Russia to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in defiance of Obama’s recommendation not to go. Americans had to admit it as a matter of fact.  Likewise, Saudi Arabia, the old historical ally of the United States, is attempting today to diversify its foreign policy, its security policy. So, the U.S. cannot control their closest regional allies.

Regarding Russia, it is facing the similar problem, because none of the former Soviet republics and no members of Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization recognized Crimea as part of Russia, while eight years ago they also didn’t recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If the U.S. and Russia have such allies, today’s balance of power is much different from the one that existed during the Cold War.

Likewise, if one talks about China, there is no country that Beijing can effectively control and impose its will on. Even Pyongyang seems to be defiant to China if we talk about the North Korean nuclear program. So, on the one hand, there are several centers of power, but, on the other hand, these centers cannot impose their agenda on smaller stakeholders and don’t attract them like a magnet any more.

The fact is that most countries in today’s world are comparably young states, which are less than 70 years old. When the UN was created, it comprised about 50 independent members, with 10 more independent states not included in the first edition of the UN. I mean there were 60 independent states seven decades ago. Today the number of UN members and independent states almost reaches 200.

Also read: "How the Russian political elite view Brexit"

Many of these states failed to create a good governance system. And if one looks at the process of how the European countries had been building their governance system throughout history, it was very sophisticated and it required a lot of time. However, this process might be faster today, but it is still complicated. Small countries are experiencing the difficulties when they have to put themselves into opposition with their donors and backers.

We are witnessing this trend in the relations between the U.S. and its allies, between the European Union and new EU members, which initially followed the example and principles of Brussels — there were no differences between them at all in the early stages. Yet today all these countries have changed their approaches and rhetoric and seem to be very tough with Brussels.

This interview was published as part of Russia Direct's July reportIs Europe unraveling: How the Brexit vote will change the EU and its relations with Russia and the world?This report brings together the analysis from Timofey Bordachev of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, American sociologist and political scientist Jack A. Goldstone, Aurel Braun of the University of Toronto, and Dimitri Elkin, Russian-American writer and businessman. It also includes an interview with Vivien Pertusot, the director of the Paris-based think tank IFRI (French Institute of International Relations). To get access to the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.