For over a decade, most of the world’s international systems inherited from the past have been falling into decay. It will take several more decades to get the existing world order replaced with a new one. Russia has good chances to influence its formation. Another priority task is to prevent a new big war, which becomes highly probable. The pivot towards Asia must be continued and the Greater Eurasia comprehensive partnership concept should be filled with substance. No major improvement in relations with the European Union and especially the United States is in sight, mainly because of the situation inside the Western community itself. Russia’s policies should be tactically flexible, prepared for every contingency, but more strategic than ever in order to build a world order that would be stable, peaceful, and comfortable for Russia, not so much in the 2020s yet as in the 2030s-2040s.
Collapse of Orders
The main reason for the general confusion among the elites and tension in world politics and the international economy is the simultaneous decay of most global and regional systems, which had been brewing for a long time but became visible only during the last decade. Figuratively speaking, several tectonic platforms on which international system and its underlying concepts stood have begun moving.
The most dramatic of them is the end of the 500-year-long dominance of Europe and the West in politics, the economy and ideology. The main reason is the loss of military superiority they possessed approximately since the 16th-17th centuries. (Russia belonged to the Western world in this respect. Its rapid expansion towards the Pacific was driven not only by the Cossacks’ valor and their desire to escape oppression in mainland Russia, but also by the superiority of their firearms and military organization compared to those of the local tribes.) A crucial moment in the centuries-old history of Western military supremacy came in the middle of the 20th century when the West’s opponents―Russia and then China ―obtained nuclear weapons. It was after the U.S. failed to win the Korean War and subsequently lost the war in Vietnam. In both instances nuclear escalation was considered but not undertaken. The feeling of supremacy came back for a moment in 1991-2007 when the Soviet Union fell apart and stopped being a military-political balancer, and the West proclaimed “a liberal world order.” It is now falling apart too (after political losses in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria), irritating and angering their architects.
The crisis of 2008 showed that the Western economic model was unable to meet open competition which is not backed up by military power. The liberal trade and economic system benefited mainly those who had created its rules based on military and naval superiority. At first it was Great Britain and then the United States. Their best guns and warships, and an efficient military organization made it possible for them to conquer and plunder colonies or dictate their rules of trade. The most vivid example is a series of wars in the 19th century that forced China to engage in the opium trade from British India, which intoxicated a considerable part of Chinese society and accelerated its degradation.
World history, as we know it, was written by the victors―Europeans. Ferdinand von Richthofen of Germany called the region of economic and cultural interaction between China and the West “the Silk Road.” Nowadays China, seeking to gain new positions in the ideological world, has branded its new reincarnation “One Belt, One Road.” The terms ‘Middle East’ and ‘Far East’ were invented by the Brits and denoted how far away these regions were from them. But we still refer to the eastern regions of Siberia as the Far East. In the coming decades, the whole mankind, not just scholars, will learn a new history of civilization, not the one that was written by Europeans. In it, glorious Byzantium, which in the dark medieval times preserved and developed the best features in European culture and combined them with the Orient, will no longer be referred to disparagingly, but be hailed as one of the triumphs of human civilization. The struggle and change of Chinese dynasties will be viewed with just as much importance as the alternating rule of the Stuarts, the Bourbons, the Habsburgs, or the Romanovs. This will certainly be a new challenge to the prevailing European cultural and historical identity of Russians, too.
The economic order created by the West (primarily the U.S.) in Bretton Woods and expanded virtually to the entire world since the 1990s is being undermined by piled-up contradictions and the reluctance of the rising “new” to play solely by the rules of “the old.” But the main reason is the United States which is turning towards protectionism as it has realized that the liberal world order, which is not backed up by military and political supremacy, increasingly benefits the “new” that growingly refuse to yield to the competitors, including those in the West. Trump’s “America first” is a hyperbolized epitome of the prevailing sentiments among the American elite and people. The U.S. and Europe still hold leading positions in the international economic system and try to use them in their own interests through sanctions, undermining along the way both the liberal system and trust in themselves.
The bipolar confrontation is fading away even though the Americans and part of the docile “new Europeans” are eager to renew divisions in Europe. Western Europe would like to avoid confrontation, but it is holding on to the Atlantic bonds whereby their security was paid for by the Americans. The latter are now trying to distance themselves from Europe while wishing at the same time to keep it dependent. The U.S. is taking steps to “besiege” China from the south and the east in an attempt to weaken its positions by threatening to block trade and energy supply routes in the Indian Ocean and southern seas, while (in defiance of any reasonable foreign policy logic) pushing Russia and China into de facto alliance. However, attempts to restore the bygone bipolarity, relatively beneficial for the U.S. and the West in general, are doomed in the modern world, which is much more complex and less dependent on the will of major powers. And a new bipolarity, if it ever becomes a reality, will hardly benefit the United States.
Given Beijing’s pace of growth, the level of investment in science, education, and technological development, and its ability to maintain an authoritarian political system (more effective in terms of international competition if combined with a market economy), China is likely to become the world’s number one power in ten to fifteen years. The Thucydides Trap, meaning a high probability of war between a dominant power and a rising power, is one of the most discussed issues lately. Pressure from the east and the south and increased rivalry with the United States force Beijing to go westward and southwestward. This will have a dual effect. On the one hand, this will spur the emergence of new areas of development in central Eurasia and the formation of the Eurasian comprehensive partnership. But on the other hand, this will increase the opposite tendency, intensifying concerns among China’s neighbors about its growing power.
The West’s Position
Western countries, which only recently were regarded as an example of efficiency, are having a hard time. More and more people in Western countries feel the negative impact of globalization, with the middle class facing an increasingly tough future. Information revolution, primarily social networks, makes society less controllable by the elites, parties and traditional mass media. This is particularly evident in the United States where the traditional middle class, in defiance of the regular channels of influence, voted for the “non-standard” presidential candidate who expressed their views. This, rather than Donald Trump’s unconventional personality or his inexperience, explains the fury, bordering on insanity, which has swept the biggest part of the American elite. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama were also unconventional and inexperienced, but unlike Trump, they were part of the elite and were nominated by the elite in order to make necessary corrections after crises.
The U.S. establishment, the “deep state” as it is sometimes referred to, is struggling to restore the manageability of the political system. This struggle is only partly directed against Trump. Anti-Russian rhetoric looks more like cover for attempts to reformat the U.S. domestic policy and make it manageable again, primarily by tightening control over new mass media. In other words, they are trying to save democracy by authoritarian tendencies.
Naturally, irritation at Russia has geopolitical causes, too. Russia is a symbol and―to a large extent―the reason for the loss of the U.S. military supremacy. It intentionally opposed the “liberal world order.” So, the roots of the anti-Russian policy are deep, and one should hardly expect a “thaw” in bilateral relations any time soon. There will certainly be none if the American elite fails to take the internal situation in the country under control.
A return to the status quo ante of the 1990s and the early 2000s is impossible. The American economy is dynamic and is likely to be driven further by Trump, which will keep the U.S. strong enough now and in the next several years. The question is whether the U.S. will opt for partial isolationism and build “Fortress America” (which cannot give up global economic engagement, of course) or the world will once again face the policy of power revanchism in a bid to restore the positions of the sole global leader. The latter would be qualitatively more dangerous than in Reagan’s time, while the former is more probable; it will create many problems for Russia and the world but will also offer new opportunities.
The situation in Europe is somewhat similar. Many European countries are accusing Moscow of interference and finding “the Russian trail” even in Brexit and Catalonia’s separatism. “Populists,” a considerable part of the core electorate, dissatisfied with the current policy and their deteriorating positions, are edging out elites, imposing their own agenda and emasculating traditional parties. But no one knows who or what will replace the customary pro-Atlantic ruling class.
The European Union is facing four possible scenarios. The first one is an attempt to hold on to the alliance with the departing U.S. on worse terms than before, possibly in an effort to make up for the humiliation by slightly improving relations with Russia. The second scenario implies attempts to gain strategic independence by pursuing its own effective security policy, but this will require enormous financial and political commitments and a revision of the basic principles of the European project. This may lead to closer relations with the East in order to respond to real challenges or to a continued anti-Russian policy. (For the time being the EU is trying to keep the faltering European project together with the help of sanctions.) The third scenario would allow the European Union to join the Greater Eurasia partnership without breaking up with America. But this partnership will be based on other value and political principles than those in the EU. The fourth scenario would mean continuing to patch up holes, while facing the risk of getting the European project eroded deeper.
The majority of the elites favor the second scenario, want the first one but head for the fourth option. The third one may materialize in several years. All of the above scenarios will require Russia to pursue a new and more active policy towards Europe.
Structurally, the situation in the West is so strained that it becomes a serious challenge to international security. While some ten to fifteen years ago the purpose of the international system was to manage the rise of “the new,” now it would be appropriate to speak about managing the decline of “the old.” The current state of international relations cannot be described as a new Cold War, but it is even more dangerous: more structural tensions, unresolved problems, and actors, and less regulation. On top of it all there is ideological confrontation, just as acute, but not between communism and capitalism, but within Western elites which are trying to stop the degradation of their ideological, political and economic positions.
Russia, China, India, and the other “new” are virtually not engaged in any ideological expansion and they are generally content with the direction in which the international system is evolving. They are powers of an emerging new status quo, which is repulsed by “the old.”
As structural tensions mount in international relations, regional crises become increasingly dangerous, too. Old conflicts in the Middle and Near East, previously suppressed by the old international system, are breaking out again. A greater part of Equatorial Africa is almost doomed to degradation. The rise of Asia, a subcontinent of independent states, is “unfreezing” old contradictions, which were kept down by the bipolar world order or by colonial powers, and creating new sources of tension.
Nuclear weapons are proliferating. It would be senseless to expect North Korea to give them up after Israel, India, and Pakistan, which faced no punishment for going nuclear, and especially after Iraq and Libya, which had abandoned their nuclear programs and then attacked. The incorporation of Crimea into Russia fits into the same logic. Geopolitically necessary and historically fair, it broke the pledge to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity stated in the Budapest Memorandum (designed to reward Kiev for abandoning Soviet nuclear weapons). The moral justification of the non-proliferation regime has been undermined.
If strong pressure on Iran continues, it will obtain nuclear weapons sooner or later, too. It will most likely be followed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. South Korea and Japan will most probably want to follow North Korea’s suit and get their own nuclear weapons. But even without such a gloomy scenario strategic stability is declining, while the risk of nuclear conflict is growing.
New types of weapon are emerging―nuclear, near-nuclear and conventional. Cyber weapons are acquiring a strategic nature as they can cause damage comparable to that from weapons of mass destruction. If they are not placed under control through joint efforts, they will become ideal weapons for terrorists as they are relatively cheap, hard to trace, and can deliver stealth attacks on vital facilities, thus provoking international conflicts and producing a multiplicative effect. Genetic weapons or more exotic means capable of causing heavy damage to countries may be in the making, too. All this is happening at a time when the old system of nuclear arms control and related dialogues is crumbling. There has been practically no serious discussion on new threats.
In part, the current situation is a result of strategic frivolity (courtesy of Timofei Bordachev who coined this term) or parasitism. States and societies have become used to a long period of relative peace and prefer to think that it will last forever or propose escapist plans to scrap all nuclear weapons, the fear of which is the main, if not the only, guarantee of relative peace. In this situation relations between Moscow and Washington appear to be particularly alarming. On the surface, they are characterized by disdain on one side and hatred on the other―a bad backdrop for strategic stability.
The growing number of actors and the lack of dialogue are compounded by the intellectual confusion of the majority of elites, who do not understand what is going on. But the pace of changes is increasing. The fourth technological revolution, just like the previous ones, will bring tremendous benefits, but it will also heighten social and political tensions in a way no one can foresee at the moment. In fact, just fifteen years ago the U.S., counting on supremacy in the cyber sphere, rejected the very idea of its international regulation. Now the Americans have realized their own vulnerability. Social networks and other new media were one of the factors that contributed to the current political turmoil in the U.S. So now the United States, which only recently advocated full freedom on the Internet, is seeking to limit it.
Fundamental geopolitical shifts, the confusion of elites, and new technologies not only increase the risk of war, but they also thrust international relations back to the basic level. The military-power skeleton on which they are based becomes increasingly visible under the once dominant economic, information and political factors.
Russia on the Threshold
I have already written before (see “A Year of Victories. What’s Next?” Russia in Global Affairs No. 1, 2017) that Russia’s foreign policy has been extremely successful lately. Russia has succeeded in harnessing the historical wave: renationalization, sovereignization, the negative reaction to globalization in many societies, and the growing role of the military-political factor. Sovereignty, the priority of security issues, and traditional values become in vougue again. The latter have included, almost at all times and everywhere, the prevalence of public interests over individual ones, which were to be realized through public service and recognition. Peace and prosperity in the second half of the 20th century spurred the emergence of new individualism in the West, but it has been overshadowed globally by the genetically inherent social essence of man (many thanks to Rein Mullerson for this thought).
Crimea stopped the expansion of Western bloc, which was fraught with a big war and had been changing the balance of power to the detriment of Russia; and Syria allowed Moscow to regain the status of top-level player. The feeling of victory, the regaining of great power confidence, and the West’s angry reaction have so far rallied society and the elite, spurring the “nationalization” of the latter and pushing out comprador sentiments. Russia has established essentially allied relations with China, which is destined to become the main world power in the near future. The leading part of the Russian elite has changed its geostrategic self-identity, turning from the marginal European one, prepared to pay for being allowed to get close to the “center,” into a central Eurasian one. In other words, it is modernizing itself to match the present and future state of affairs in the world. Having survived the wave of hostility and sanctions, Russia has won morally as well. Triumphant declarations could be continued, but let me get to strategic challenges.
The first and the main one, apart from the objectively growing threat of war, is the lack of a sound strategy of economic and social development and growth, or even the desire to advance it. The accumulated “fat” is running thin. Compensation in the form of foreign policy successes is an unreliable strategy. As is the attempt to get out of the fight, which fellow citizens, tired of it or unaware of the real world around them, urge for. So far, Russia has been acting intelligently and deftly, but failures are possible and even probable. The relative economic weakness already now limits our partners’ desire to be friends and encourages our opponents to feud with Russia. If the stagnation continues, any geopolitical mishap will ruin the aura of victors, exposing economic weakness.
Russia lacks not only an attractive strategy of its own development but (which is even more important in the context of this article) a positive picture of the future world order. Russia (just like China) is not filling in the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of almost all international systems. Multipolarity is not the desired state of the world but chaos. This concept is useful only as the antithesis to the bygone unipolarity. But what’s next?
Russia does not have a coherent strategy (apart from strengthening its own deterrence potential) for raising the level of international security, which is under severe stress now, if not under threat of total collapse. Relations with the West are the worst ever although not entirely through Russia’s fault. (But it is at fault too because of its weakness in the past, foolishness, concessions in hope to get some gratitude, and reluctance to foresee the inevitable Ukrainian problem for years on end). The space for economic and political maneuver has shrunk. Russia has expanded it by turning to the East, but further movement will be constantly impeded by the weakness of the “Western flank.” Concessions to “Western partners” are senseless as they will only encourage not arrogant and stupid expansion as before but the desire to “finish us off” and will strengthen “the party of war.” There is no way to expect lifting of most of the sanctions, especially American ones, in the foreseeable future. But the present state of relations is also counterproductive and harmful. Russia needs to change the system of coordinates, look at the situation from a different angle, and give up the obsession with the West in both pro- and anti-Western form.
One must clearly see the tendency towards militarization of international economic relations and choose external development partners accordingly. The collapse of the previous international systems requires active and creative participation in building a new balanced world order.
The cornerstone of Russia’s strategy should be conscious leadership in preventing a new big war and transformation into a leading exporter of world security. This should be achieved by developing deterrence forces and doctrine, and by offering, if not imposing, joint efforts to leading countries to strengthen international strategic stability. Importantly, not only through traditional arms control talks (even though they, too, can be useful and their previous results should be preserved) but also by offering and imposing a system of dialogues that will increase transparency and reduce the risk of accidental conflicts or their escalation. If the United States balks, Russia and China should start without it by inviting other states to join in. Another option would be a series of unofficial dialogues with American, Chinese, and specialists from other countries on how to strengthen strategic stability. The current situation is much more dangerous than it was in the last decades of the Cold War.
Naturally, new creative approaches are needed to preserve peace, including joint efforts not to overcome nuclear deterrence but strengthen it as the main instrument for preventing war in the foreseeable future (for more details see my article “Taking a New Look at Nuclear Peace,” Russia in Global Affairs No. 2, 2017). It is worth fighting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But there must be a forward-looking philosophy and practice of dialogue that would engage new and even threshold nuclear states in order to strengthen their security. This is the only way to control or even stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
As a rule, international systems emerge after wars, but nowadays a major war will become the real end of history. Russia should clearly declare its commitment to ensuring that history goes on. Russia is de facto a major supplier of security in the world as borne out by its policy in the Middle East the Central Asia, and its efforts to stop the spread of Western alliances in Europe which creates the risk of war, and to deter the United States and other major powers. It should seek to formalize this status politically and intellectually.
Once the foundation of the future world order is built through mutual deterrence and dialogue between leading powers, they can start discussing its principles: cooperation, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the freedom of political, cultural and value choice. The universalism of communism and liberal democracy should be left behind in the past.
Russia should revive the legalist tradition―commitment to international law―which has been pushed to the sidelines by the reaction to law of the jungle during the era of the “liberal world order.” Conditions and balances necessary for that are reemerging. In geopolitical terms, the most promising option in the years to come would be further pivot to the East to create a comprehensive partnership of Greater Eurasia. The U.S. and certain European states will most probably create their own center of the future world. A “deal” between Washington and Beijing is highly unlikely. It would create additional problems for Russia’s positioning but would benefit all others.
Russia and China have reiterated their readiness to join forces with other countries in order to build a comprehensive partnership in Eurasia. Russia has supported China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative which can, together with other projects, provide the economic foundation for the future partnership. But then Moscow lost initiative, apparently due to the Russian character: we make a breakthrough and then relax. The idea of partnership requires systemic work through active interaction, primarily with China, India, Japan, South Korea, and EAEU, SCO, and ASEAN member countries. The Greater Eurasian partnership is not only a conceptual framework for building a key element of the future world order, but also a way to merge China’s growing power into the system of institutions, ties, dialogues and balances. Beijing, which largely continues the Middle Kingdom tradition of keeping dependent states around it, is facing a tough task of overcoming this tradition. It will not work in the global world and will only prompt the majority of other countries to pool their efforts against China. There can be no relatively peaceful and manageable world order of two centers and free of conflicts. (More on some possible contours and key projects that could serve as the basis for the comprehensive partnership of Greater Eurasia can be found in my article “From the Pivot to the East to Greater Eurasia,” Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn, No. 5, 2017.)
At the next stage, in three to four years, the new policy should be supplemented with improved relations with leading European countries and the EU, with efforts to engage them in the ambitious Eurasian project, including through the EAEU-EU dialogue, the creation of the China-Russia-Europe triangle of peace and development where Russia would act as a link and a balancer. Russia must not repeat the mistake of the 1990s-2000s and try to strengthen relations with Europe through the Cold War-era institutions (which keep reproducing it), such as the OSCE or NATO. They must be used instrumentally, wherever they can be useful (to regulate crises, prevent conflicts), but otherwise pushed aside. It would also be highly desirable to improve relations with the United States, but this will depend on the internal political situation in America and will take time, but the degree of tension should be lowered wherever possible and Russia should seek to get out of current conflicts and stay away from new ones. It has achieved everything it possibly could in Syria and Ukraine and even greatly outdid it in the latter case.
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Not only history but also Russia’s own efforts in the past several years have made it possible for it to play an active role in building a new world order. Some seventy-five years ago Russia paid for this right with millions of lives, but the system was not beneficial to it. Today we should try to do it again but at a lower cost and with more benefits. There is no way we can avoid the challenge. Otherwise, a new world order will be created without us or even against us. Russia should continue to exploit its deftness supplemented with a systemic approach, persistency, and readiness to cooperate and building balances, characteristics that are not quite inherent in the Russian tradition. Needless to say, it should also strengthen its economy. Otherwise, neither good luck nor bravery will help, and Russia will become not a subject but an object of world history.
The article will be published in 'Russia in global affairs' (№2, 2018)