International Law

Readings: Chris Borgen on Realpolitik in Russia's 'Near Abroad'

By Kenneth Anderson
Saturday, December 7, 2013, 5:02 PM

Readings: Christopher Borgen, "Russia, Moldova, and the EU: Realpolitik as Normative Competition," Opinio Juris, October 23, 2013; Christopher Borgen, "The Protests in Ukraine and Normative Geopolitics," Opinio Juris, December 3, 2013.

Chris Borgen, law professor at St John's Law School and Opinio Juris blogger, is a leading expert on the increasingly fraught law-and-geopolitics of Russia's so-called "near abroad" - particularly today the countries of Ukraine,  Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia.  He has written extensively on the Russian periphery states over many years.  While much of the world's attention is on the geopolitics of the Middle East or China's security provocations in the Pacific, Professor Borgen draws our attention to the crisis emerging most visibly at this moment in Ukraine but also, in ways less visible in the West, other states on Russia's periphery, too.

Writing in several posts at Opinio Juris, Professor Borgen explains the background to the situation in Ukraine at this moment, and argues that what's underway is fundamentally a "struggle over the normative futures" of these countries: do they turn, in both a geopolitical but also profoundly "normative" sense, to the West and concretely the institutions of Europe, or do they turn toward Russia?  In one sense this is a geopolitical, material, and economic choice - but in another sense (one that will eventually have great importance for regional geopolitics), this is a matter of the normative institutions to which these periphery countries turn, the ones that with which they interact in international relations and law, but also the ones upon which their internal institutions finally model themselves.  Will they be the institutions of Europe or those of Russia?

The two blog posts, together, are something like a long-form essay - expert and informed, but not strictly academic, and highly readable.  They have a wealth of useful hyperlinks, and Professor Borgen's SSRN page is well worth a look, for deeper policy and academic work.  This is a underemphasized part of the world, at this moment, but one that over time will have impacts, particularly on Europe.  But I would observe, at a more abstract level, that Professor Borgen's analytic category of "normative geopolitics" is important on its own.  It points, I believe, to something that sometimes goes unnoticed in the realms of "hard realist" international relations: institutions internal to a state tend to drift toward the "normative" character of those internal to the hegemonic power (including regional ones).  I don't want to say Professor Borgen necessarily thinks this is so; I also don't want to overstate the "tendency," which does not lack for counterexamples.  Still, it seems to me one tantalizing and, in current geopolitical context, scary implication of his observations of Russia's near abroad.  At stake, he says, is a

struggle to define the normative futures of countries in Russia’s “near abroad,” particularly Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia ... At issue is whether these countries will become more fully integrated into “European” institutions (especially the EU) or reintegrate with revamped “Russian” institutions (such as the Eurasian Customs Union). When a state is on one side or another of a normative border (Lithuania is part of the European normative order, Belarus is in Russia’s), normative boundaries coincide with national boundaries and the situation is relatively clear. But some states, such as Ukraine, are what I have called “systemic borderlands” that contain aspects of two or more normative systems. When normative systems overlap and jostle within a country, the result can be normative friction.  This can relate to domestic laws, such as whether a particular conception of property rights or of human rights will be adopted. It can also concern international legal norms, such as to which treaties a state will become a signatory or which international organizations a state may join.

"Normative borders," "systemic borderlands," "normative friction" - these are analytically powerful ideas for understanding what's at stake in Russia's near-abroad, and I agree with what I take to be Professor Borgen's observation that normative frictions can occur (and perhaps most radically occur) when a state, such as Ukraine, has two or more such normative systems active within the state - internal to it.  At issue is which way a state, such as Ukraine, will tip; also at issue, however, is what normative system, and the state (or states) that embody that system, emerge as the regional hegemon as multiple states tip toward one or the other.  Perhaps no regional hegemon clearly emerges; perhaps over time, in this region, it turns out to be Europe or Russia.   The stakes for security, economic relations, many things, are considerable.

(I offer some observations of my own on hegemony and legitimacy, with particular reference to China and the United States, in my 2012 book, Living with the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order , in Chapter 3 (especially pp. 85-90; this is a free pdf at SSRN), and in the Conclusion (pp. 266-268).)