At a roundtable event in Moscow, top experts debated the “hypocritical” and “insincere” foreign policies of both Russia and the West in the post-Cold War era.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during  one of their meetings in the Kremlin in Moscow. Photo: AP

In the times of Russia-West confrontation, a number of Russian and foreign experts raise their eyebrows at the post-Cold War diplomatic methods. At a discussion that took place this week in Moscow, organized by the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) and the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, they discussed the importance of being able to talk frankly about national interests without resorting to deception or hypocrisy to hide true motives.

The topic of the debate was indicative: “Hypocrisy vs. Diplomacy: How Insincerity Undermined the World Order after the Cold War.” It brought together well-known Russian and foreign experts, including the head of the CFDP Fyodor Lukyanov, British diplomat Robert Cooper, New York University professor Stephen Holmes, the head of the Center for Liberal Strategies Ivan Krastev, Russian diplomat Alexander Aksenenok, Russian International Affairs Council General Director Andrei Kortunov and many others.

Many experts agreed that those approaches that came to the fore after the end of the Cold War are becoming obsolete today due to what pundits see as “hypocrisy.” According to their logic, NATO expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy promotion across the world in the name of national interests, Russian and Western policies in Ukraine and the Middle East — all this exemplifies how insincerity became routine for diplomats and global decision-makers and resulted in the crisis between Russia and the West.

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Lukyanov argues that one of the key problems that undermined world order was NATO expansion disguised under the West’s goodwill to provide security and free choice for those who sought it. In fact, NATO turns out to have always been a military and political bloc, which Lukyanov described as a “hypocritical project for all [stakeholders],” including for those who launched it.

Sergei Karaganov, one of the speakers of the round table, echoes this view. He sees NATO as “a political arrangement” aiming to support liberal democracies and, most importantly, “keep Russia at bay.” With NATO membership having doubled since the 1990s, the Alliance became not a real, but rather potential threat after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, which triggered the War on Terror launched by U.S. President George W. Bush, according to Karaganov.

In contrast, Kortunov doesn’t see NATO expansion as a purposeful act of hypocrisy. He argues that it was just a matter of miscalculation and failure to come up with necessary solutions to repair the international system. However, Cooper argues that NATO succeeded in bringing stability in Europe. What it really did is it stopped European countries from fighting each other, and Cooper sees it as a big achievement. In fact, it is the precondition that formed the basis for European prosperity, because NATO made European countries feel safer. And this is good for democracy and stability in the region generally, he said.

At the same time, Bruce Jackson, an American political consultant, argues that NATO expansion didn’t necessarily seek to contain Russia and, in fact, the Western stakeholders didn’t expect it to result in such consequences, because during the first years after the end of the Cold War, the Alliance expanded in “[an] absolutely benign international environment” until the 1999 Yugoslavia bombings and Sept. 11 attacks, which militarized not only NATO, but the world order itself. By 2008, NATO expansion was officially over, Jackson said.     

“In general, Russia probably overestimates the amount of hypocrisy and deception in the world largely because it lives apart from the world,” he told Russia Direct. “For almost 500 years Russia has discovered conspiracies against Russia, and there are not as many as they would think.”

Misguided diplomacy

According to Lukyanov, 2008 was a momentous one for Russia-West relations, at least because there was no certainty whether Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members or not. There were vague promises, not guarantees for membership in the Alliance. Yet stakeholders – Tbilisi and Kiev – interpreted this ambiguity in their own ways and pinned their hopes on NATO. This led to a misunderstanding and, then, to the crisis in Russia-West relations, given the fact the Kremlin overtly protested against Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO.

Likewise, a participant of the round table discussion from Germany (who asked not to be identified) said that such diplomatic ambiguity and NATO's “open door language” brought about unintended consequences: The West created more problems than it solved.

“Hypocrisy and the desire to present one’s position in a more favorable way and pass over in silence one’s real intentions were and will be common for diplomacy and politics,” Lukyanov told Russia Direct.  “However, the problem is that post-Cold War politics was initially designed and based on passing over in silence and shying away from calling things by their real names. Such tactics were assumed to prevent conflict, but in reality, they brought about conflict.”

Kortunov echoes this view. Russia and NATO stopped their cooperation at a time when they needed this cooperation most. Amidst this conflict, the emergence of a common security system becomes mission impossible unless the regime in Russia changes or the West makes some concessions (which is highly unlikely). In such an environment, only two parallel security systems are possible, according to Kortunov.

With the victory of Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, NATO expansion might stop or slow down and Russia finds itself in a very delicate situation, according to some pundits. On the one hand, the reversal of NATO expansion might bring instability in Europe, which would be not in Russia’s interests in the long-term. On the other hand, Russia seems to be interested in reversing NATO expansion and welcomes Trump’s rhetoric about abandoning the Alliance. In fact, this produces the impression that Russia itself is insincere.

And, moreover, such hypocrisy can be found in the Kremlin’s policy in Eastern Ukraine. As Cooper points out, Russia doesn’t see itself as part of the conflict with Kiev. In fact, it plays a very significant role in the war by supporting the Donbas rebels.

“In the Ukrainian crisis at the moment Russia claims that it is sitting at the table as a mediator,” he told Russia Direct. “I think it is pretty hypocritical because to anybody looking at the conflict, it is clear that Russia is not a mediator, it is a part of the conflict.”

As Krastev said, hypocrisy “is not only what you are doing, but also how you are justifying your policies.” In such an environment of mutual distrust, hypocritical behavior is replicated by each of the sides and this could be dangerous, warns Aksenenok.

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Indeed, it is like a vicious circle, in which neither Russia nor the U.S. is ready to establish a sincere dialogue because they are mentally prepared for deception.

“Diplomacy can be hypocritical, when it deals with the public, yet it should be based on the ‘behind closed doors’ principle, when diplomats talk honestly and frankly about real national interests,” Lukyanov explained to Russia Direct in an interview. “And the problem is that the line between the public statements of diplomats and their behind-the-scenes talks is disappearing, there is no difference between what diplomats say in public and behind the scenes. And this results primarily from distrust. But it creates even more distrust.”

Idealism, naivety or hypocrisy?     

The fact that politicians, be they Americans or Russians, might be driven by idealistic motivations (in the case of the Democrats) or realistic calculations (in the case of the Republicans), is not a game-changer. The lack of trust remains a problem. Partly, it is because self-created ideals or calculations might dangerously mislead, confuse foreign policy and lead to unintended consequences, according to Stephen Holmes from New York University. 

For example, the Kremlin might see the U.S. endeavor to promote democracy as attempts to destabilize Russia “by covert and deniable means” and, thus, Moscow attempts “to use deniable cover and means to destabilize the United States,” said Holmes, pointing out that such a response from the Kremlin is the consequence of what Russia sees as hypocrisy.

No matter how idealistic one might be, sometimes the best intentions might lead to disastrous consequences. Although the idea of democracy is not cynical and its promotion is not necessarily bad, it might lead to the rejection of the idea of democracy, as indicated by the experience of the Middle East, said Holmes during the discussion.

The problem of Europe and the West in general is that, driven by noble and idealistic motivations, they could not understand the real motivations of the Kremlin and where its red lines were drawn. The Ukraine crisis is a good example. The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and NATO enlargement became such a red line for the Kremlin, with the promises to grant Kiev membership in the Alliance. Some Western experts see it as “the complete loss of trust” and “strategic deception,” if not perfidy or just naivety.

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However, being naive in foreign affairs is sometimes even more dangerous than being hypocritical, as Cooper told Russia Direct. Likewise, being extremely straightforward and blunt is not the best way of engaging in diplomacy. Take, for example, U.S. President-elect Trump.

Although many Russian experts believe that his presidency might create new opportunities for Russia, given his blunt style of negotiations, their Western counterparts raise eyebrows at such tactics. Despite the fact that Trump makes no bones about his cynical nature and doesn’t seem to be hypocritical at all, he is “a big unknown” for the U.S., Russia and the world, Cooper said. He changes his views very fast. Whether it is worse than hypocrisy or not remains to be seen.  

At any rate, Trump’s mercurial style is hardly likely to help him earn a good reputation, a key asset in the modern world. As Kortunov pointed out, the future international system will be based on trust rather than on law. That means former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s approach of “trust but verify” won’t work anymore because of increasing challenges to validate information and different narratives. So, reputation will play the key role in establishing honest dialogue between stakeholders. Both Russia and the West should keep this in mind.