The overwhelming majority of the governing, speaking and writing class in Russia is busy discussing who will become the next president.
This occupation allows the ruling class to resort to ostrich tactics and ignore problems piling up both in and outside of Russia. The ever-growing snowball of extremely difficult challenges coming from abroad are even more complicated than domestic ones. The world is plunging into uncontrolled and incomprehensible changes, and some key players seem to have lost their heads.
Two years ago, alarmist analysts like me warned that the world was changing so fundamentally and so quickly that it felt like a prewar situation. I tried to reassure my reading and listening audiences that the situation was not really prewar because there were nuclear weapons inspiring mystic awe, which would prevent large countries from trying to stop or correct the changes with a big war.
Here are some of these changes: an unprecedentedly fast shift in the balance of power in the economy in favor of new Asia; the start of a new round in the struggle for resources and territories where they are located and where they can be produced; the collapse of the old system of international governance and the globalization of almost all economic, social and environmental processes; and, most importantly, the growth of intellectual vacuum – that is, the inability of elites, primarily Western ones, which have been in the lead in this sphere throughout contemporary history, to explain the ongoing changes within the frameworks of old theories or invent new ones. The rising centers are unable to fill this vacuum, either.
Ten to twenty years ago, it was believed that nation-states were going down, giving way to supranational governance bodies, transnational corporations (TNCs) and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Now all the three foundations of what seemed to be a new world order have begun to fall down. Most international organizations (the UN, NATO, the IMF and the World Bank) are obviously growing weaker, while others (the G8 and the G20) only pretend that they have influence. TNCs are the driving force of economic globalization, but their political influence has dwindled from what it used to be 20 or 30 years ago. Most NGOs have never become global players, and those that have remained afloat increasingly serve as agents of states or their groups. Only the most miserable of conspiracy theorists still believe in the omnipotence of a world government, NGOs or TNCs, although their number seems to be growing.
In recent years, there appeared a glimpse of hope for a renationalization of world politics, which many believed would be a salutary development. In keeping with the renationalization theory, societies, having sensed the challenges of the global world and the inefficiency of supranational governance bodies, hurried to hide under the cover of the old but true defender of their interests – namely, the nation-state, which became stronger. The theory was corroborated by the obvious shift of the world economy and politics towards Asia, a region of traditional nation-states.
This theory is pleasant to my Russian ear. Russia is a very traditional state seeking – and successfully – to play by the rules of the good (or not so good) old balance-of-power diplomacy – with modernist amendments, of course. It seemed Russia was lucky again, as it was lucky with the long-term growth of prices for raw materials and energy. The wind was again blowing into its sails. The world was returning to the good old politics, which Russia had not left and where it has always been strong.
However, the last year has shown that neither the nation-state nor the world of traditional diplomacy can save.
States, above all the most developed ones, sometimes make mistakes that cause Russia to think about who can be trusted and who can be relied on in its diplomacy, even though not quite modern.
Let us start with Europe, Russia’s main partner. The situation there is increasingly alarming. In the past two decades, under the influence of the inertia of integration, coupled with the euphoria from the victory over Communism, the Europe united in the EU made three mistakes. First, it announced its desire for a common foreign policy, for which the Europeans proved to be not ready. As a result, the EU conducts its policy at the lowest common denominator, which deprives the great European capitals of influence but does not transfer it to Brussels, either. The influence has evaporated. The second mistake was the hasty enlargement, which made the EU an even more loose organization. And the third mistake was the introduction of a common currency without adopting common economic and financial policies. This factor allowed countries like Greece to live beyond their means for decades. Now all EU members have to pay for that.
A situation is developing where the island of stability, Europe, is almost becoming a factor of unpredictability. What if the very system of European integration starts breaking apart? I’d rather not think about it. For all the problems we have with EU, it is easy and pleasant to live with a united and peaceful Europe.
It was only in August, after a year of fruitless maneuvering, that there appeared a glimmer of hope. N. Sarkozy and A. Merkel proposed a plan which, if adopted, will enable the EU, at least theoretically, to expel members from the eurozone or even the EU itself, or to establish a two-speed union. However, judging by the first reaction from other members and knowing how decisions are made in the EU, one should admit that the hope is faint so far.
The Europeans partly suffer from excessive supra-nationalism. Of much more concern is the situation in one of the most sovereign nations of the world. The extravagant (to put it mildly) foreign and financial policies of the U.S. in recent decades plunged the country into a systemic crisis, which threatened the whole world.
Three years ago, America found the strength to elect B. Obama, the President of Hope. In many respects, he has lived up to these hopes. America has begun to extricate itself from reckless military campaigns and it has not become involved in the military conflicts in Libya, despite its allies’ efforts.
But in the economy, the neo-Keynesian recipes proposed by classical economists have not worked. The United States has remained in the state of semi-stagnation and increased its debt by almost a trillion dollars.
But this is not the main thing. The world trusted not so much the U.S. economy, even though it was the strongest, as the U.S. political system and its the quality of its governance. America did not impose its debts on anyone. Other countries eagerly bought U.S. dollars as the most reliable investment.
But this has come to an end, too. The recent confrontation in the U.S. Congress over an increase in the U.S. debt ceiling has shown that the American political system has begun to fall apart.
The Republicans, resting on obviously inadequate ideological postulates and simply trying to wreck Obama’s presidency, emasculated his anti-crisis program but did not propose one of their own. It has turned out that there are no more reasonable, pragmatic internationalists in the Republican half of America – liberal imperialists, as they used to be called.
The U.S. state and society have proven unable to exercise efficient leadership in an era of great change and behave responsibly. Chances are growing that cavemen may come to power in the country.
What happened in the summer in America over the debt ceiling issue looked like a demonstrative suicide.
Advocates of the renationalization theory hoped that the state would fill the vacuum of governability. But the strongest of all states has proven unable to do so.
The U.S. is increasingly obviously vacating its position as the leader. Europe has simply surrendered its leadership positions, while international institutions are falling apart or simulating activity. The process of international regulation of climate change has been eliminated, although it is now obvious to all that climate change poses a terrible threat. Yet the world prefers to ignore it.
The new leaders are in no hurry to fill the voids and assume responsibility. Global governance is, not declining, but falling into an abyss, and the world is on the verge of chaos.
There are more and more signs that the financial system has gone out of control. The old West is entering a long-term economic crisis, which will almost certainly involve the rest of the world as well. Formerly, everyone was afraid of trade wars, but, considering the U.S. inability to solve its financial problems in the medium term, the world may soon see financial wars. A competitive devaluation of the dollar and then other currencies seems increasingly likely, if not inevitable. This will lead to mass impoverishment of people, with unpredictable social consequences. The riots in the streets of London, in Spain, Germany and other countries, which we witnessed this summer, might well have been presages of future events. The world may again become a scene of bitter geopolitical struggle. And then we will have to rely even more on safeguards against recklessness, given to us by the fear of nuclear weapons. But no one knows how reliable these safeguards are in the world where leaders are losing their bearings.
I would like my fears to never come true. But for now, the world – at least the world of the Old West – is not developing according to the best-case scenario.
In these circumstances, the question is not “Who will be the next president of Russia?” but rather “Will Russia overcome the inertia of stagnation, which is turning it into a country unable to maneuver and lead amid the chaos in the new, increasingly dangerous (although not directly threatening) world? It is stupid and a shame that we do not want to see new challenges and opportunities, or that we enthusiastically steal, or that we almost as enthusiastically discuss who the next Russian president will be – instead of deciding what to do and how. In the new world, we need a strong state, supported by a strong society and strong institutions, and not just President A or President B.