The Gilded Giraffes
Without great powers come great anxieties
Several years ago, students approached me to start a reading group about Russian foreign policy. I am minimally qualified to teach this, and I want to stress minimally, but when students make a request like this they don’t need the world’s leading expert: they need someone who can steer them through databases and reading lists. Having a motivated group of students makes up for a decade of teaching experience, because motivated students will do the reading and the recommended reading. (And I know these students were motivated because they asked for this in 2016, before everyone got interested in the subject.)
Path dependence is one of the most powerful forces in the universe, and years later I find myself teaching a semi-regular Honors seminar on this topic. (Hey, Russianists don’t complain about their field being de-funded without reason.) Years of reading and the occasional workshop and conference have even turned me into someone slightly more than minimally qualified to teach the course. That’s especially the case because this is an excuse for me to teach about identity and foreign policy, something that is hugely important but which doesn’t fit with my U.S. Foreign Policy course.
As a result, I find myself teaching about opulence and tiny giraffes.
Let’s back up. A common interpretation of Russian foreign policy ambitions holds that Russia strives for recognition as a great power—derzhavnost, as the University of Toronto’s Seva Gunitsky explains the term:
A word that’s difficult to render into English precisely, derzhavnost essentially means both being a great power and being recognized as such by others. In Russia’s immediate neighborhood, this means an unquestioned sphere of influence, similar to America’s Monroe Doctrine. In dealing with other powerful states like the U.S., it implies respect, prestige, and peer recognition rolled into one—in other words, a seat at the table managing global affairs.
But here’s a puzzle: Russia has been seeking derzhavnost for centuries. It makes sense that Russia’s national ego would be bruised during the chaos of the Nineties, when the United States disregarded Russia as it made policy; it similarly makes sense that Russia would feel slighted in, say, the aftermath of its defeat in the Russo-Japanese war. Yet Russian foreign policymakers also felt slighted when Moscow (or St Petersburg’s) power was in the ascendant—when by any reasonable definition Russia was a leading state, like during era after the Napoleonic Wars or even during the early Cold War.
What’s key, as the Norwegian scholar Iver Neumann wrote back in 2008, is that Russia never felt itself to be accepted as a great power. Great-power status requires more than maxing certain metrics or being on the winning sides of wars—it requires a political system that meets the norms established by the gatekeepers of international society. Today, for instance, that means living up to the generic liberal aspirations of broadly “Western” society in human rights and democracy; two hundred years ago, it meant living up to (down to?) other Western values, like restricting women from taking part in government. More broadly, as Neumann discusses, European and Western powers have been suspicious of Russia for failing to develop liberal institutions and independent (but disciplining) societal groups that would enable Russia to create a compatible, “modern” society.
Russia, in other words, has long been “backward” in Western eyes. This is a critique that, in its general lines, Russian reformers have also made—the Westernizers and later descendants. (In some of the cringier manifestations of the early 1990s, the critiques ran so thoroughly anti-nationalist that they made me—not exactly a Russian nationalist!—squirm uncomfortably.) It is also one, however, that seems to account for many of the problems Russia has faced with trying to square its need to develop more liberal, open institutions with the fundamentally top-down political logic that has been the recurrent feature of its regime. Among those problems, Neumann noted in 2008, is a consistent problem in turning its potential into realized power.
But how do we know that the West has never really accepted Russia as a great power? Well, there’s lots of pieces of evidence—but one way is to look at the jokes the West tells about Russia. Humor is important: it needs an automatic response to function, and they often play with cruelty, juxtapositions, and transgression. So texts that use humor can tell us what people found to be worthy of mockery—a nice way to lay out where the norms of a society really lie.
And here we come to the giraffe.
Yes, that’s the 2010 DirectTV ad by Grey New York featuring a Russian oligarch in a lavish mansion—the one topped off by a quick peck with his tiny lap giraffe. The joke here is that Russian oligarchs in the post-Soviet era were absurdly, ludicrously wealthy—but also that they had no taste (and, given the prominence of the scantily clad models, probably few morals as well). The Russians may have money (“Opulence! I has it,” the spot begins) and the cutest li’l pets around, but they don’t belong.
Why do these ads matter? Because they show how even the Russians who made it according to a materialist game were still not going to be accepted by Western society. They were objects of ridicule and scorn, not envy and admiration. They had money but no position. (Tellingly, you could recast the first commercial using an African kleptocrat or an NBA baller, and you would hardly have to change a thing.)
The drive for status and recognition is a fundamental part of international society, all the way back to the time of the Amarna tablets in ancient Egypt. One wonders whether all of this could have been avoided if, perhaps, the West could have just played more to derzhavnost—but it is also the case that, intermittently at least, the West did make overtures along these lines (remember the G-8?). Just because a drive for recognition is frustrated doesn’t mean that it could have been satisfied.
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