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IRRUSSIANALITY: Mutual lack of introspection

Every so often, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow publishes a forecast of where Russia and the world are headed in the near future.  At the end of last year, the Institute of International Relations in Prague published an English-language version of the latest IMEMO forecast in its journal New Perspectives. Now the journal has issued a set of responses to the forecast by several Western scholars and a member of IMEMO. They’re worth a brief look.

A common theme runs through all the responses. The authors all agree that when analyzing current East-West tensions, Russians have a tendency to see their own country as essentially reactive – that is to say that they portray Russia as simply responding to Western provocations. In doing so they deprive Russia of agency, and so deny that it may be in part responsible for the current crisis in Russian-Western relations. Instead, the West is held to be entirely at fault.

Thus Mark Galeotti, in the first response to the IMEMO forecast, remarks that, ‘What is most striking is that Russia is presented throughout this report as object, not actor. It may be a victim or a beneficiary, but the initiative is always elsewhere.’ This, he continues, ‘demonstrates a determination to paint Russia as the geopolitical victim, which is in itself a form of passivity, a sense of a country as lacking the capacity to influence, let alone master its fate.’

Likewise, Tuomas Forsberg of the University of Helsinki accuses the Russians of ‘attribution bias’, which ‘conveys the image that the criticism of Russia in Europe is mainly an outcome of malevolent intentions and not related to Russia’s own behavior.’ And Ruth Deyermond of King’s College London speaks of a ‘strengthened perception amongst Russian analysts and politicians that the US political establishment is irredeemably Russophobic’ and notes that Russian elites view foreign affairs through a ‘prism of grievance’.

I have some sympathy with these complaints. As IMEMO’s Irina Kobrinskaya writes in the final article in the journal, ‘While external factors certainly act on Russia, Russia also acts.’ Portraying oneself always as responding to the actions of others is a useful way of declining responsibility for one’s own behaviour, but also self-deceptive and liable to prevent one from a proper analysis of why one has ended up where one has. If Russians persist in viewing themselves solely as victims, then they’re unlikely to come up with constructive solutions to their problems.

But, as the saying goes, ‘it takes two to tango’. In another article in the journal, Minda Holm of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs speaks of a ‘mutual lack of introspection’. Holm complains that according to IMEMO,

the Russian state merely reacts to an antagonistic partner defined by ‘anti-Russian hysteria’, and nothing is said of where that sentiment, however exaggerated or unfair, emanates from. Whilst the roots of the ‘Russia factor’ lie in both past stereotypes and strategic needs, Russia’s own actions are also clearly part of the cause.

‘This form of one-sidedness is an impediment to any hope for an improved relationship’ says Holm. At the same time, however, she notes that Western analysts are equally guilty of the same intellectual failing. As she writes,

The current desire, and/or reflex, to cast Russia as an external enemy is strong in liberalWestern epistemic circles. Unwanted domestic political developments are often connected to Russia based on circumstantial evidence, and/or a reduction of the agency of others.

Thus, Holm concludes, ‘I am sympathetic to their [Russians’] critique of the tendency in self-defined liberal states to cast Russia as the enemy with little critical introspection.’ Russia-West relations’, she says, ‘seem locked in a mutual negative dynamic where nuances are increasingly left out of representations of the Other.’ Each side views themselves as purely reacting to the malign activity of the other. Each side therefore fails to understand its own responsibility for the breakdown in relations. What can done about this? ‘For a start,’ says Holm, ‘academics working on these questions have a particular responsibility not to fall into the traps of unproblematically reproducing simplified enemy images.’

Regular readers of this blog will hardly be surprised to learn that I completely agree. I would say also that it’s not enough just to understand that one has committed mistakes. Returning to the attribution error, it’s all too easy to designate one’s own misdeeds as ‘mistakes’ while attributing the misdeeds of one’s adversaries to their malignant character. Critical introspection has to go beyond admitting error and also involve admitting wrongdoing. The only caveat I would add is that in engaging in this critical introspection one shouldn’t overdo things. It’s one thing to understand that one’s own side has behaved badly; it’s another to then conclude that one’s own side is always wrong and the other side always right, and end up going full-blown Noam Chomsky or Gary Kasparov (a comparison which is probably a bit unfair on the former).

That caveat notwithstanding, let me finish by quoting the Gospel of St Matthew:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Every now and again I come across something I wish I’d written myself. ‘Mutual lack of critical introspection’ is a case in point. It hits the nail firmly on the head.