Washington — We in the West made regrettable decisions in the immediate post-Cold War years, which have now been laid bare. Russia should not have been viewed as a defeated great power to be transformed into an image of the West, but as a great civilization newly freed to enrich the world alongside other great civilizations.
That would have helped to channel Russian nationalism toward cultural expression and exchange, not military competition. Great power theory, as expounded most notably by Mearsheimer, should not have been the basis of Western foreign policy. It has led the Kremlin to define itself in military terms and to engage in brutal attempts at conquest, to recover its lost great power status.*
Great civilization theory is not necessarily preferable, as offered by Huntington, who sees clashes of whole civilizations also in military terms. But an alternative to Huntington, known as dialogue of civilizations, offers outlets for expression that do not depend on military conquest. Two decades ago, the United Nations endorsed such an approach as advanced by Köchler, but it did not take root.
I recall watching the Sochi Olympics on television in 2014 with a sense of foreboding, which I shared with others then, and often since. Host country Russia offered an opening ceremony based on the history of its remarkable civilization. Television commentators cut away for commercials, with the promise of rejoining coverage when the Cold War defeat of the Soviet Union would be presented, to see if Russia would concede its fall as a great power. Nothing could illustrate better the Western view of seeing the world as great power military contests.
Russia President Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea soon thereafter.
It is too late to offer a dialogue of civilizations approach to Putin, a war criminal who, as President Biden suggests, must not remain in power. But it is not too late to offer a vision of what U.S. - Russia relations could be based upon in a post-Putin era. Offering a foreign policy based on mutual appreciation of great civilizations, not great power militaries, could speed the day of Putin's departure.
It would also provide an opportunity for the U.S. to define how we see the uses of this approach worldwide, especially as a non-authoritarian alternative to the increasingly obvious failure of great power theory.
*Anne Applebaum writes provocatively: "Now wondering if the Russians didn't actually get their narrative from Mearshimer [sic] et al. Moscow needed to say West was responsible for Russian invasions (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine), and not their own greed and imperialism. American academics provided the narrative."