The Role of the Superpower in Russian Political Culture

The quest for identity construct is inextricably linked with the vision of Russian greatness in contemporary Russian political discourse. The two behavioral logics discussed above are closely related to the role and place of the notion of superpower in the constructs of global and regional politics of Russia. There is a commonly accepted vision that superpowers are not born by universal contingencies. They become such by building up forces of power as the viable bases for survival and the elimination of other hegemons, which are the two true tasks every hegemon faces. In the Gramscian view, a superpower should possess two types of hegemonic power on the level of the international system: the power of the dominant group to effectively coerce the opponent (a kind of “direct domination”) and the power to gain the consent of other actors to follow the presented course of action (somewhat “indirect”), which a true hegemon showcases.65

The form, substance, and purpose of such influence, however, remain within the competence of this political culture. Superpower can either use pure “hard power” in Bismarck’s famous term Blut undEisen (blood and iron), employing traditional and conventional military means of warfare, or “soft power,” which in simple terms means “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment.”66 The notion of “soft power” was born at the end of the twentieth century out of the emergence of new “trends,” as Joseph Nye calls them, on the international scene: economic interdependence, transnational actors, nationalism in weak states, the spread of technology, and changing political issues.67

Being a superpower carries a dual burden that is oriented both inward and outward. The inward orientation means that a superpower needs to be recognized as such at home, by own citizens, who would feel proud of their country’s actions in the international arena. It boosts the morale of its own people and instills feelings of confidence at being a citizen of and being protected by their country. The outward orientation, as it follows from its name, means that a superpower needs to be acknowledged as such on the regional and global levels. It projects the superpower identity toward other actors in the international system and also means that from the liberalist/constructivist perspective, a superpower becomes a role model and a trendsetter for others to follow.

There are different and even conflicting views on what constitutes a superpower, highlighting diverse categories and approaching the matter from diverse theoretical angles. They all, however, tend to agree on two commonalities, by which the hegemonic qualities can be evaluated: the concepts of “coercion” and “appeal,” which are synonyms for “hard” and “soft” powers, respectively. In order to be a true superpower, a nation must possess both of these qualities: “hard” coercion will foster the establishment of a superpower nation as a winner of the years of confrontation against other countries with similar aspirations. However, it is the “soft” appeal that would cement the power achievements and provide for the longevity of the superpower. In simple terms, a superpower should be feared by some and admired by others.

The notion of “coercion” directly follows the realist school of thought and its rational logic of consequentiality, which evaluates the pros and cons by the actors of following or rejecting the hegemonic options imposed on them. Even if we assume, as Harold Lasswell did in 1930, that “the role of politics is to solve conflicts when they have happened,” the hegemon can still employ the “political methods of coercion, exhortation, and discussion” to engage in compellence to peace.68 The quality of compellence as enjoyed by a hegemon can be viewed in its relative power to effectively impose its own will on the other actors and, conversely, to withstand the imposition of the will of the others onto itself. In the wake of human civilization, Greek historian Thucydides provided the all-embracing definition of a hegemon as a power actor: “The standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” 69 Much in the same line of reasoning, Andreas Antoniades believes that “the concept of hegemon may imply a great capacity for coercion and/or a great degree of influence or control of the structures of the international system and the international behaviour of its units.”70 John Ikenberry and Charles Kupchan also focus on the “hard power” qualities of a hegemon by arguing, “The constitutive elements of hegemonic power include military capabilities; control over raw materials, markets, and capital; and competitive advantages in highly valued goods.”71 These capabilities are indispensable for the establishment of a true superpower in the international arena.

In promoting its own vital national interests, a superpower can use its coercive force legitimately (or not) in any of its embodiments, ranging from economic sanctions, diplomatic or other forms of blockade, or even an open war, which, as we know from Carl von Clausewitz, is “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”72 What matters here is the will of a hegemon to compel, based on its power capabilities, those who consider themselves hegemons: a true hegemon must prove to itself and to others that it is in a position to project its power outwards.

The second characteristic of a superpower—“appeal”—can be seen in the mix of liberalism and social constructivism in international relations. It reflects some work of the logic of consequentially in that it contains seeds of voluntary acceptance of the hegemonic options and lifestyle by others (usually weaker actors in the international arena) who will?ingly decide to follow the political course defined by “their” superpower. It also invokes the logic of appropriateness in following the political “appeal” of the hegemon out of the desire to openly swim in the superpower’s waters. This latter category is more interesting, since it represents a clear departure from the power-infused rhetoric and actions of the rational choice-based logic of consequentially and involves more or less the free will of the actors to follow the presented course of action or to resist. According to Antonio Gramsci, “There exists democracy between the ‘leading’ group and the groups which are ‘led,’ in so far as the development of the economy and thus the legislation which expresses such development favour the (molecular) passage from the ‘led’ groups to the ‘leading’ group.”73 Here, the notion of democracy negates coercion as the main tool for spreading hegemonic dominance and provides for the voluntary “appeal” needed to persuade the actors to follow the courses of action offered (and not imposed) by the hegemon. It also brings the notion of identity into compellence discourse: actors choose to side with a hegemon because they are associating themselves with it. This reflects Robert Gilpin’s view on the hegemon, who distinguishes between “dominance” and “leadership,” where the former involves a certain degree of coercion and forces acceptance of the hegemon’s options and the latter reflects mostly a voluntary decision by the actors to follow the hegemon, who acts here as a role model.74

There is nothing wrong per se on the normative level with the notion of the superpower in the international arena. The word itself does not mean that the country that views itself as a superpower and is considered as such by other actors of the international system should be necessarily menacing the stability and integrity of those actors by posing constant threats to their sovereignty. Different countries at various junctures were superpowers in the contemporary sense of the word: ancient Rome, Persia, the Mongol Horde, Great Britain, France, and Spain all had enough economic might supported by their numerous colonial possessions and enough military land and sea powers to protect their own sovereignty and to successfully project their own vision on the work. They fought, of course, with each other and with others, but their wars that were primary to their true superpower nature, within the contemporary international environment, have gone into a deep coma in the rapidly globalizing world.

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