The most influential foreign policy trends in international affairs are basically liberalism and realism. As theoretical concepts, they oppose one another without any doubts. In practice, the differences can sometimes be blurred because both of them consider the use of military practices as a means to a goal and none of them forget about the preeminence of the national interests, regardless of how it is defined.
In this article, I will not provide an abundance of details and facts about foreign policy of the US, Russia, or Romania. My aim is only to give a clean, clear, and generalized description of each. Hopefully, this will improve our understanding of current events, rather than confuse us with theoretical and conceptual nuances and academic debates.
To start off, I will talk a bit about the US and its liberal internationalist agenda. Stemming from its exceptionalism the US is acting in the world as a leader, a proponent and protector of values and socio-political standards. Whether we consider the progressives or the neoconservatives, both of them use idealistic rhetoric either as instigation against isolationism or as disguise for materialistic purposes. The democrats appeal to ”Western values” to gain support for a greater military involvement in the international arena out of genuine humanitarian concerns. The neocons pack a pragmatic, power-inspired political agenda under a ”national security” and ”good versus evil” painted cover.
The two sides differ under one consideration: their relation to multilateralism and international institutionalism. The first ones intend to receive international political and public approval for any kind of intervention. In the eyes of neocons, this translates into weakness and fear of blockage. The second ones disregard the need of a multilateral basis for US foreign policy. Such a behaviour brings them accusations of imperialism and evangelical militarism.
An interesting question would be: can the US consider a more realist approach to international politics? By this I mean an approach that puts aside ideals, values and other normative considerations. I tend to think that this cannot happen mainly because of one reason: the US was the winner of the Cold War. The conclusion of this almost 50 year old ideological confrontation brought to the US what it took away from present-day Russia: an immense soft power. The power of ideas, the power of international attraction, the power of legitimacy in the eyes of the public opinion. To my mind, any policy-maker in the US cannot but use soft power as an instrument in dealing with any type of interaction with the outside world.
As mentioned above, in Russia’s case defensive realism is the only option left to assert itself as a big power. Communism failed as an ideology, and the other strong ace in the hands of Russian politicians, conservatism, cannot handle the pressure of a fast spreading international liberalism.
The EU’s expansion in Eastern Europe, the latest US military engagements in the Middle East and Northern Africa alongside its pivoting towards Asia-Pacific, NATO’s growing strategic interest in the greater Black Sea region, China’s growth, they all provide a physical threat of encirclement to the Russian Federation.
There are three ways to protect yourself in the international system. One is to utilize all diplomatic and institutional means of engagement, the most important of which is international law. Due to the neocons’ disregard of such ”utopian” elements (Iraq war), and due to the easy manipulation of Security Council resolutions (no fly-zone turned into regime change in Libya), the Russian leaders cannot feel protected by international agreements and treaties, and see the Western request to do so as hypocrisy.
The second way is to make huge use of the public opinion through soft power. As already argued, Russia is not in the best position to present itself as a peaceful, conservative power because of a long imperial and soviet history that comes back to haunt. Finally, the only strategic ally of policy-makers in this case is pragmatic, defensive realpolitik. The use of economic, political and military leverage remains for now the only effective way of pursuing a national interest that is perceived to be endangered.
If the cases presented above are in clear antagonism, Romania’s foreign policy provides an interestig hybrid example of both of them.
As most of the small actors in the international system, Romania must use pragmatic tactics to survive under the pressure of big power competition. This view presents Romania as a realist player. If so, how then do we explain the importance of liberalism in the political and public domestic debate? How can we explain the idealistic aspirations expressed during the process of joining NATO and the EU? If we assume that Romania plays power politics, why don’t policy-makers understand the logic behind Russia’s actions?
To respond to these questions, I would argue that Romania is doing a simple geopolitical act, which is bandwagoning. Romania is not a military, economic or soft power. But the US and the EU are. By having them as allies, it gains two folds. First, it allows a small country to have a seat at the decision-making table through institutional cooperation. It gives a voice that neutrality and isolationism would just cancel. Second, it offers protection against historical enemies both through choosing sides, the US opposing Russia, and through creating ties, as in the case of its relation to Turkey inside NATO or Hungary inside the EU.
In my opinion, Romania is a very strategic, realist international actor that is very capable of understanding the strength of liberalism and international cooperation. If the US is the incarnation of soft power, Russia of hard power, then Romania is the perfect example of ”smart power”, the right combination of the former two, which appears to be the future path in international relations.