Lord Palmerston, too strong-minded to stoop to hypocrisy and political correctness, once famously remarked that “countries have no friends, only permanent interests”. What, however, are a country’s interests? Let us not willingly walk into the linguistic trap of treating a society as one person that has one mind and, if rational, acts to satisfy his preferences. A society, consisting of never fewer than two persons and typically many millions more, has never fewer than two sets of preferences and usually millions more. A single set of “social” preferences exists only in the notorious “social welfare function” of welfare economists, who must imagine and postulate one, for without it they would have no leg to stand on. One economist’s “social welfare” or “Social utility function”, however, is neither more nor less false than that of another.

Is it, then, the case that whatever a country is doing, it is pursuing its interests, since its actions are the only evidence showing what the country deems its interests (preferences) to be? If it chooses to go to war, it is because under the circumstances war was its preferred alternative. It has “revealed” it to the spectator by choosing it.

To regain the ability to judge a state’s policies, countries must be understood to have many classes, layers and groups having divergent preferences and objectives, both short and long term, and policies which result from the top dogs prevailing over the underdogs. Seen in such a way, it is seldom possible to judge a state’s action as wholly rational. Two actions taken at the same time may well be blatantly contradictory and counter-productive. Sometimes, a madman seems to be in charge of the steering wheel.

There seems to be at least one thing that is a shared aim of nearly every Russian. They all wish their country to be admired and even feared a little. For all that, they manage to behave in ways that kick own-goals when it is their fervent wish to score real goals. Instead of achieving admiration or fear, they display a fatal talent for attracting outraged contempt and ridicule. It is high time to voice the suspicion that this is a recurrent feature of Russian behavior both today and intermittently over much of Russian history. The evidence is anecdotal. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of major and minor anecdotes showing actions whose consequences could by no stretch of the language be said as “preferred” by those who decided on the act. In this paper, we will only touch upon only a very few.

For the first, let us go back to 1223, to an event that has had and still has a decisive influence on everything Russian. At the time, it was widely and correctly foreseen that Ghenghis Khan was on the point of expanding his Mongol (Tatar) empire by a westward move through Russia. Russian military potential was insufficient to resist the Tatar armies. The leading principalities of an as yet not united Russia, Novgorod and Suzdal, had the option of concluding a defensive alliance with Poland and Hungary, two of Europe’s strongest kingdoms of the era. Both were firmly Catholic having good relations with Rome. The Russians saw a great danger in an alliance with their western neighbours, expecting their Orthodox faith to be contaminated and their Patriarch inevitably losing his place of Primacy to the Pope. They declined the alliance and were crushed by the numbers and generalship of the Tatars. Russia fell under their overlordship for the ensuing 250 years and the Russian character became what it has remained ever since, a mixture of Slav tenacity, servility and emotional excess and Oriental cunning, duplicity and mistrust of all things foreign. Its relation with Europe can never be such as would fit the ordinary co-existence of two civilised states.

Another anecdote, this time a contemporary one, illustrates the Russian capacity to make itself look absurd and contemptible in Western eyes when they are trying to impress the world with being the “tough guy” who will return a harder one to any blow. Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitski acting for the Anglo-American Heritage Capital, discovered a scam by which a small group of high Russian police officials stole $230 million owing to Heritage. For his pains, the lawyer, was arrested in 2008 by the same officials, tortured in prison, refused medical help and died a year later in prison. An inquiry by a quasi-governmental commission under the aegis of the totally powerless President Medvedev in 2011 declared the charges against Magnitski “fabricated”. The US legislature ruled that 16 of the Russian officials sharing the guilt for Magnitski’s judicial murder must not get visas for travelling to the US nor possess assets there, an interdiction that did not bother the officials concerned in the least. The Russian media praised the officials for being “true patriots”. But not to leave the “provocation” of the US Congress unrevenged, the Russian government prohibited the adoption of Russian children by Americans, a measure said to protect Russian orphans,p—or was it to punish them? Topping it all, Magnitski has been posthumously tried and convicted to 4 years in prison for, of all things, tax fraud of $17 million. It is hoped, however, that Mr. Magnitski will be allowed to serve out his sentence in his coffin. This drama is a series of acts that look simply bizarre especially as they were committed by a state that always insists on deserving more respect by the West than it is getting.

Another recent anecdote illustrates the inconsistency bordering on craziness by which Russia handles the difficult business of serving its interests, ever since the collapse of its socialist planned economy, the country had been trying to get admitted to the World Trade Organisation, but was kept out because of the high degree of state intervention in its price system. Now it has at long last been admitted, accepted as “one of us” with some reluctance by the member states that are supposed to behave with mutual decency in international trade. Russia has almost immediately proceeded to raise a handful of non-tariff barriers that violated both the WTO rules and the promises the Russians gave prior to their admission. One such fresh measure is the imposition of a tax of $420 on imported automobiles. The alleged object is to cover the future cost of recycling the cadavres of these cars once they have ended their useful life—showing praiseworthy care for the environment. It seems to go without saying that only imported cars have limited useful lives; Russian-made cars never become useless scrap, needing to be recycled to protect the environment. Russia is, of course, unlikely to get away with this move, but the very fact of trying it during their honeymoon with the WTO makes one wonder about the minds at work in looking after Russia’s “best interests”.

For more on these topics, see Russia’s Economy: Putin and the KGB State, by Paul Gregory, Sept. 5, 2011, and Russia’s Socialist Heritage by Anthony de Jasay, Nov. 5, 2012. Library of Economics and Liberty.

Clearly, there must be many divergent views inside Russia about what those interests are and which ones are the “best”. If there is any intelligible reason why the country so often conducts itself in this fashion, it is perhaps that these interests diverge too much and produce cacophony. A good deal of luck and the passage of time might eventually sort out the worst of these divergences, but it would take much courage to bet on it.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989), Against Politics (London, 1997), and Justice and Its Surroundings (Indianapolis, 2002). His most recent publications include Political Philosophy, Clearly (Indianapolis, 2010) and Political Economy, Concisely (Indianapolis, 2010). His next volume, Economic Sense and Nonsense: Reflections from Europe, 2007-?2012 (a volume in The Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay), edited and with an introduction by Hartmut Kliemt, is forthcoming from Liberty Fund.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.