On the Principle of Reciprocity in Foreign Relations
At least one measure of how propagandized we have all become in North America is our incapacity to imagine the world from the perspective of any leader or nation not sufficiently servile to American and Canadian corporate interests. What Anthony Blinken describes as the ‘rules-based international order’ at the domestic level is the unruly, arbitrary order of a greedy power elite whose goal in the past 50 years has been to lobby for deregulation and privatization of economies, and austerity measures for everyone except themselves. The freedom they advocate is freedom from taxes, freedom to pollute the environment, warm the planet, strip workers of safety standards, benefits and reasonable wages, and gut any government program that might improve healthcare, educate the masses, lift people out of poverty or guarantee them a reasonable living after they have retired.
In foreign affairs, the ‘rules-based international order’ means keeping intact an American-dominated military-industrial-surveillance complex and ensuring that the terms of a global economic order are wholly determined by American interests and priorities. Any country that poses a threat to this hegemonic military or economic order is immediately labeled an enemy or existential threat.
Let us take the situation unfolding in Russia and the Ukraine for an example. Whatever you may think about whether Russia should or should not intervene militarily to end the ongoing civil war in Ukraine (which, by the way, originated in an American-led coup against a democratically elected government), the one thing that everyone should see as reasonable and justified is Putin’s demand that the US make assurances that NATO forces will not enter Ukraine and limit the eastward expansion of NATO troops and weapons. If the US had the foresight to make such a commitment it would certainly go a long way to easing rising tensions.
Putin’s demand arises in part out of a promise that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. At the time Baker vowed to Gorbachev that “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or forces of NATO one inch to the east” and he completely agreed with Gorbachev’s view that any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable to the Soviet Union. Many commentators have interpreted this exchange as a kind of quid pro quo between diplomats: The Soviet Union would allow the United States to keep its presence in a reunified Germany within the framework of NATO, and the US would not make any aggressive moves to station NATO forces on the borders of the USSR. More specifically the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany had three components:  that until Soviet forces had completed their withdrawal from the former GDR, only German territorial defense units not integrated into NATO would be deployed in that territory;  that there would be no increase in the numbers of troops or equipment of U.S., British and French forces stationed in Berlin and  that once Soviet forces had withdrawn, German forces assigned to NATO could be deployed in the former GDR, but foreign forces and nuclear weapons systems would not be deployed there.
Unlike the Treaty on the Final Settlement, Baker's putative promise to Gorbachev was not codified in any legal document or treaty agreement, which explains why, from an American perspective, it has never been taken seriously, let alone honoured—not that legal agreements or international treaties have ever mattered much to a country that sees itself as ‘exceptional’ and ‘above the law’. But Baker’s assurances went entirely out the window after 1997 when NATO deployed troops in eastern Europe, including Poland, and the former Soviet countries of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Balkans.
Russia’s response to all of this was not initially aggressive in any military sense—as it might well have been. However, the relentless NATO push eastwards did finally provoke a Russian invasion and subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. From Putin’s perspective the rationale was rather straightforward: Crimea was a former Soviet republic with deep cultural, economic and political ties with Russia. Now, one can certainly question Putin’s aggressive military move, but it is really not that difficult to understand why he would not want a Crimea orUkraine (the largest nation in Europe, with a 1400-mile land border with Russia) to be integrated into an anti-Russian NATO military alliance. Putin’s worries about the continuing encroachment of NATO is precisely the reason why in 2021 he began to build up Russian military forces along the border with Ukraine. All of these escalations are worrisome in the extreme since they could very well end in a deadly military confrontation.
Invoking the Baker-Gorbachev verbal promise at this point does not help much. What is at the heart of the issue here is not Putin’s recent and more aggressive rhetoric, but American resistance to anything like a principle of reciprocity. Observing a principle of reciprocity is the foundation of good and peaceful relations between nations. It is grounded on the idea of mutual respect for the sovereignty of other nations—or, put simply, treating other nations as we would want them to treat us.
What it requires is that political leaders and diplomats try to view the world from the perspective of the interests and priorities of another nation, and from there attempt to come to agreements based on mutual understanding and compromise. Colonial Britain, totalitarian USSR and fascist Germany were not the least interested in any sort of principle of reciprocity, and in the past seventy years, exceptionalist and imperialist America has no time for reciprocal reflection. Indeed, colonialism, the arrogant belief in extraordinary status, or the sort of mythic manifest destiny that serves to rationalize the belief that one’s own country is pre-eminent or destined to rule those nations considered economically backward or uncivilized, is very obviously anathema to the principle reciprocity.
However, it is, in fact, something like a principle of reciprocity that Putin is calling for in his demand that NATO withdraw its aggressive forces on the border of Russia. From America’s perspective, this demand appears ‘highly contentious’ only because they have been the dominant military and economic force since the demise of the Soviet Union.
It does not take much in the way of reciprocal reflection to imagine what the US reaction would be if Russia decided to position troops and weapons in Canada and Mexico or surround the east and west coast of America with warships and submarines. The mere suggestion appears ludicrous, even laughable. But the fact that this kind of reasonable reciprocal thinking would be greeted with scorn or consternation by mainstream media and many North Americans is really just a measure of how propagandized we have all become in holding to the belief that we are just ‘better than them’. There is no good reason for NATO to deploy troops or weapons anywhere near Russia’s border, just as there is no good reason for Russia or China to surround America with their own military forces. Unfortunately, not only is Putin’s petition for NATO withdrawal considered to be implausible but, in Orwellian terms, it is viewed as an outright ‘act of aggression’—a dangerous existential threat by a rogue nation.
The reason for all this is very clear. America is finally realizing that its exalted hegemonic position has been gradually eroded by a militarily stronger Russia and a China that has opened its economy, raised living standards, and through its belt and road initiatives become the world’s number one exporter of goods and services. From a geopolitical perspective, only those few who are not steeped in North American arrogance, belligerence, and media propaganda will be able to perceive how completely asinine and destructive it would be for America (and NATO) to enter Ukraine, eschew diplomacy, or dogmatically refuse to make any effort to de-escalate a potentially catastrophic confrontation.
More broadly speaking, the incapacity of politicians and media pundits in this part of the world to imagine American imperialist ventures from the perspectives of either Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, and the moral blindness that assumes America is a singular force for good in the world, while Russia (and China) are imperialist existential threats to peace and economic security, is not merely delusional but a dangerous and even lethal approach to peace-oriented foreign relations based on the principle of reciprocity.