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Policy brief | 29 January 2018

Proud and Prejudiced: The risk of stereotypes in Russia-West relations

Joseph Dobbs argues that policy-makers in Russia and the West must be more aware of the impact that stereotyping has on decision making. “To stereotype is to be human, and this is as true of diplomats and world leaders as it is the rest of society” writes Dobbs.

See the full report here: “Proud and Prejudiced: The risk of stereotypes in Russia-West relations”

Stereotypes, argues Dobbs, can “worsen pre-existing security dilemmas”. This paper explores three potential stereotypes and oversimplifications in Russia-West relations: Vladimir Putin the master tactician, the expansionist opponent and mutual weakness.

President Putin: “One common theme in the West is that the Russian president is a ‘master tactician, but a terrible strategist.’” This, according to Dobbs, meant that some policy-makers considered Russia’s actions (such as Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine) as reactions to Western decisions and weaknesses, and not as part of a broader strategy.

The expansionist other: Both Russia and the West oversimplify many of the actions of the other as expansionist. For Moscow this explained Western activities in Eastern Europe in the years ahead of the Ukraine crisis as being aimed at pushing Russia out. For the West some view Russia’s behaviour as an attempt to re-establish imperial power. This has pushed both sides to view the other as more aggressive than perhaps was intended.

Mutual weakness: In the eyes of many Russian specialists, Western unity might soon become a thing of the past. Especially, if as some in Russia believe, the European Union is on the verge of collapse. Some in the West believe that, as President Obama once put it, “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters”. Such fixed and un-nuanced perceptions of each other’s weakness leads to overconfidence and underestimation of the other side.


  • Recognise the role of stereotypes. Like any addict will tell you, the first step to recovery is recognising that you have a problem. This is necessary for all actors in the foreign policy community, including politicians, diplomats, military leaders, journalists and civil society.
  • Speak more often to your opponents. The most obvious way in which both sides can better understand the other, and the other’s perception of themselves, and thus avoid acting on stereotypes, is through communication. Engagement, at both a civil society and diplomatic level is a fundamental requirement for better understanding and, thus, better policy.
  • Reverse cuts and increase funding to foreign policy making bodies. Stereotype-free policy demands effective information gathering and effective diplomats to engage in the dialogue and analysis that is essential for better understanding. Cuts to foreign ministry budgets across the West belie this reality.
  • Institutionalise independent assessments across and between foreign policy structures. Political and military leaders must ensure that they have received various independent assessments of crucial foreign policy decisions vis-à-vis Russia-West relations.
  • Engage with allies in debates about narratives and assessments of foreign policy-making. Allies, for example both at an EU and NATO level, already engage on the formulation of collective policy and consult to a degree on independent actions, but this should be expanded to include a discussion of narratives. Allies should institutionalise review processes to establish effectiveness, reasons for failed assumptions and ways to multilaterally reduce the role of stereotypes.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.