Timofei Bordachev

The passing into oblivion of international institutions, the most important achievement of the 20th century, leaves a huge field of opportunities for the great powers, and we cannot say now which of them will be in demand in order to avoid general destruction, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.

In the outgoing year, international politics finally got rid of all remnants of controllability, understood as the ability of states to solve the most fundamental problems within the framework of formal or informal institutions, as well as of democracy — the possibility of fair treatment of the interests of countries regardless of their power capabilities. In principle, the global changes in the balance of power, provoked by the growth of China and the West’s reaction to this, initially did not leave much room for the leading powers to consider the interests of others as among their own.

However, until recently, one could expect that the most important consequence of the destruction of the United States’ monopoly together with its closest allies on playing the role of a global distributor of benefits, would be the democratisation of international politics: the need to create broad coalitions capable of solving the most important tasks on the basis of comparatively equal benefits. This, in turn, could increase the controllability of world affairs, which was considerably shaken in the decades since the Cold War.

As we can see, these expectations turned out not to be sufficiently connected with reality, and now the states are faced, not with the task of how to improve human civilization and cooperation with each other, but how to manage the relative general savagery.

What until recently looked like a dangerous deviation within the framework of the most widespread perceptions, has become the new normal of international interaction. The degree of responsibility for what is happening among the leading Western countries is higher solely because the West has the greatest aggregate power capabilities so far.

The coronavirus pandemic that emerged in December 2019 in China has exacerbated the problem of convincing the citizens of the fairness of the existing order so much that it did not leave a noticeable opportunity for them to strive for justice in international affairs. If the year 2020 was more a period of time when national systems were in shock due to a sudden threat, then 2021 was a period of adaptation to new conditions. So, here the selfish behaviour appropriate to states has become the most important resource for the preservation of these higher forms of social organisation.

Rare manifestations of humanism, such as Russia’s proposal to suspend sanctions against Iran and a number of other states during the pandemic, have become exceptions that only confirm the rule. The last and most striking example is the humanitarian catastrophe that threatens Afghanistan alongside the freezing of its foreign assets following the return to power of the Taliban in Kabul. Western countries, Russia, China and others provide humanitarian assistance to that country, but there is no need to talk about solving the systemic problems facing Afghanistan, even in the short term. As a matter of fact, the West has absolutely no reason to wish for the stabilisation of Afghanistan, since its transformation into a source of instability for neighbouring powers benefits the United States and its allies.

Geopolitics and related considerations generally came to the fore. The inevitable tendency of states to concentrate on internal affairs in the face of such a challenge as the pandemic forces them to view any international problems, at best, through the prism of their diplomatic relations with other powers. China is showing the whole world an example of how a state can close itself off to the world, although two years ago it was considered an alternative centre of gravity. Russia is increasingly concentrating on its own domestic development, although it continues to fulfil obligations regarding its neighbours. Europe in 2021 disappeared from the international arena as a positive factor and now manifests itself exclusively as a source of concern for developing countries. The “summit of democracies” led by the United States was clearly not an institution for the global coordination of policies which promote an alternative to China, and not even a farce, but simply a formal event. Moreover, it took place in video conference mode.

Amid these conditions, it is difficult to determine which states will be the worst affected and forced to respond to the most difficult challenges. The new state of affairs is likely to put an end to the desire of individual economies to develop production or integrate trade chains promoted by the leaders of globalisation. Globalisation as we know it is dying in general and it does not make sense to count on its revival. This, of course, is the most unpleasant news for most states that do not have accumulated wealth, like the West, or a colossal domestic market, like China or, potentially, India.

Moreover, the course of the pandemic indicates that, due to objective or subjective reasons, Russia and other “transitional” countries have missed the opportunity to create sustainable national economies and social systems. First and foremost, this is healthcare, which has found itself under the greatest blow. However, among all such states, only Russia has an impressive ability to ensure its sovereignty and natural resources. For everyone else, primarily Russia’s neighbours in the former USSR, the new quality of international politics and the world economy does not promise anything good.

The confidence that the West will regain its strength and be able to play the role of a “good hegemon” is diminishing, but hopes for the emergence of China in this capacity are not growing either.

For China and Russia themselves, the global arena has also failed to deliver good news. First, the West has proved to be far more determined than expected in destroying the basis of the departed international order. The remnants of the Liberal Order are being destroyed by its founders much faster and more energetically than Moscow and Beijing would like. The very policy of unilateral economic pressure means that the United States and its allies no longer see the possibility of restoring global governance under their leadership.

Second, China and Russia never made plans to destroy the post-Cold War order and did not display revolutionary behaviour. Now they have to readjust “on the fly” to the world in which the former set of coordinates has disappeared. Both powers respond to this challenge in different ways. China shrinks into itself, citing the universal justification of the pandemic threat. Russia is trying to build a more stable system of international interaction in Europe, reducing its presence in Asia and pursuing a more flexible policy in neighbouring countries.

The West, as the most powerful player, still retains the ability to act collectively, although it also has serious challenges. The United States can no longer give much to its allies, and Europe’s loyalty is increasingly based on the understanding that one by one the European states will completely lose their ability to maintain influence in the world. In 2021, the sovereignty of the European Union finally became a product, not even of strategic interest, but of the goodwill of the United States. The leadership crisis — a natural result of the overall satisfaction with their post-Cold War situation — has hit the Western countries the hardest. So far, it is compensated by democratic systems and the competitive advantages accumulated over 500 years in comparison with the rest of humanity. But it is impossible to say for sure how long the effect of this benefit will continue. The defensive position now taken by China and Russia allows us to say that these powers are aware that time is working for them, but they assess their own resources quite sensibly.

The new era of international politics and the world economy that has come in 2021 does not need historical analogies. Only because the number of formally independent states has never been so significant, and their aptitude for comparatively moral behaviour has never been subjected to such tests. The passing into oblivion of international institutions, the most important achievement of the 20th century, leaves a huge field of opportunities for the great powers, and we cannot say now which of them will be in demand in order to avoid general destruction.

Valdai Club