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What did Britain, France and Spain get right, and why has Russia failed?
The British, French and Spanish empires have all disappeared and these historical imperial powers have long come to terms with that evolution, even as they might have opposed it while it was taking place. Although the loss of the empire was at times painful and the withdrawal sometimes messy (or bloody), there was a successful disentanglement even if it took decades to implement. Spain had to come to terms with Simon Bolivar and the growing sense of nationhood in Latin America. France experienced the same anti-colonial movement, most forcefully in Vietnam and Algeria. Britain realized after World War II that the empire was no longer sustainable or affordable, and withdrawal with dignity was the best path.
And the end of empire turned out to be the best not just for the former colonies, but for the former colonial powers as well. With some exceptions, the three countries all enjoy positive relations and even occasional goodwill with their former imperial possessions. There was never much question in the colonies that London, Paris, and Madrid had something to offer a relationship, but other considerations such as sovereignty and autonomy mattered even more. Colonial rulers were resented, but with independence, and a little time, most countries were happy to engage with the former colonial power. The British Commonwealth boasts 54 members, the Organization Internationale de la Francophonie has 88 members. And Spain connects regularly with the twenty other Spanish-speaking countries on matters from high politics to soccer.
In other words, countries value these historical relationships if they can engage with the colonial power on their own terms. If they are treated with respect, if the consultations are authentic, there can be considerable utility in these bodies—both for the former colonies and for the former colonial power. My argument is not that these three were without fault. My argument is that they have come to terms with their faults.
Why has Russia followed such a different path in the journey to a post-imperial world? When the Soviet Union collapsed and nations in that Soviet empire were free to make choices, many of them showed a strong desire to avoid close links with Moscow. Not one of the six treaty allies of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact nations of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania (Albania withdrew in 1968)—chose to maintain a military treaty with Moscow. This blanket rejection must have been difficult for Moscow to accept. After all, the Soviet Union has supplied all training and weaponry to these countries for decades, yet seems to have failed in cultivating friendships or a lasting relationship. East Germany was absorbed peacefully into West Germany, and all other former Warsaw pact nations all joined NATO between 1999 and 2009.
This pattern repeated outside the Warsaw Pact, as three former members of the Soviet Union also signed up for NATO: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. However, Russia did not fail completely. It established its own alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, through which five other countries (Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) have joined Russia in a mutual security pact.
Why have Britain, France, and Spain generally succeeded and Russia generally failed in post-colonial relationships? Some supporters of Putin try to make the case that this collapse was due to U.S. provocation or other sinister designs. Let me offer some alternative explanations.
Firstly, imperialism is an attitude as much as a political structure. France, Britain, and Spain, have all offered apologies and aid to their former colonies. Russia disclaims any misdeeds and with regard to Poland, for example, states that its subjugation was both necessary and welcomed.
Secondly, domestic experience with open societies and open political systems. Britain, Spain, and France boast thriving democracies, with broadly established freedoms. These countries are comfortable with differences of opinion and are thick-skinned when encountering divergences. Russia, unfortunately, has become less tolerant and less open domestically under Putin. It should not be a surprise it takes a less tolerant view toward criticism from its former colonies.
Thirdly, soft power incompetence. Russia has an extraordinary number of chess grand masters and world-class engineers. Why don’t they offer their own Rhodes scholarship for engineers? Where is their Fulbright program for mathematics? Russia had dominant trade relations with their former colonies. The US offered unilateral trade privileges to the Caribbean nations. Where is the Russia’s Caribbean Basin Initiative for Eastern Europe and Central Asia?
Lastly, personal leadership. Harold Wilson wrote of “The Winds of Change” and was able to lead Britain out of colonialism in Africa. De Gaulle put his presidency—and his life—on the line to accomplish France’s withdrawal from Algeria. These two statesmen knew that what made a Great Power “Great” was not so much the assertion of power, but the restraint of power.
We are seeing all of this play out, sadly, in Ukraine. Russia seems unable to come to terms with the end of empire, unable to try to reach a relationship of equality with its former colonies, and still adhering to imperial myths that it was welcomed in territories it occupied. Russia needs a de Gaulle. It has a Bonaparte.