A Superpower on Autopilot and a Haunting Specter

6 june 2017

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: A specter is haunting the world, a specter of something new which no one can comprehend at this point. It has been a long time since the world faced a situation of such all-pervading uncertainty, when no one can clearly determine even the nature of ongoing changes.

A specter is haunting the world, a specter of something new which no one can comprehend at this point. It has been a long time since the world faced a situation of such all-pervading uncertainty, when no one can clearly determine even the nature of ongoing changes. The terms used to describe them, such as ‘populism,’ ‘new mercantilism’ or ‘a crisis of the liberal order’ are of little help.

But one thing is clear: the domestic agenda is coming out on top of external ambitions and aspirations in leading countries. Whatever one may think about Donald Trump’s “America first” motto, if the U.S. has chosen to go this way, the rest of the world will soon follow suit. The United States sets the tone in global affairs, and this trend will not change within the next ten or maybe twenty years. Much has already been said about the political elites that have lost touch with grassroots and are losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public, so their return to reality should happen if they find a course that will be clear to their citizens. The search for such a line will be the centerpiece of world development in the coming period.   

Trump’s America currently represents an incredible thing: a superpower going on autopilot. The billionaire developer has failed to change the country’s course on the spur of the moment as he promised. It appears that running a large country is something quite different from running a large corporation. The war within the ruling elite persists. Several months after the inauguration, foreign policy priorities remain largely unclear, but the power of inertia has made itself felt quite palpably: when a ship is not steered to obey the helm, it keeps sailing along the course set by the previous crew. More importantly, Trump has so far not made much success in addressing domestic priority issues either. This means that he will keep boning up on the healthcare system and other issues (migration, jobs, etc.) he declared he would change, using foreign affairs for merely instrumental purposes and probably acting quite inconsistently. 

There is a paradox. Voters in major countries influence foreign policy not because it worries them, but because it does not. Indifference and the lack of interest in international issues, irritation at the ruling class’ neglect of “home tasks” make the authorities focus on internal issues. This is what the notorious and much talked-about deglobalization is all about.

It is important to understand that this process has become universal. We have once again found ourselves in a situation of “synchronous time” as occasionally did before. The current “revolt against globalism” in the West has been compared with the events of the late 1960s when Europe and the United States were swept by riots organized by young people and other dissenters who were dissatisfied with the sociopolitical situation in their countries. But civil activity was also on the rise on the other side of the Iron Curtin, in the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc. Naturally, the context, the causes and the nature of the “Prague Spring,” Polish rallies or Soviet dissidents’ protests differed greatly from those in Sorbonne or Berkeley, but they were parts of the same process. True, the West’s response (to absorb the protests and expand the social contract) proved to be more viable than the one prioritized by the Soviet bloc (pressure and the use of force), as was borne out by subsequent events twenty years later.

Today, Russia, just like other non-Western countries, is embroiled in global ideological and political trends even deeper than before. Although the road it has traveled over the past thirty years is very much different from that in the West (and, in fact, has often been its opposite), global winds are sweeping across Russia, too. Russia is not immune to what the West terms ‘populism,’ that is, rejection of the establishment and its policy. Likewise, the place of foreign policy in the national agenda may become a much more sensitive issue in the years to come. 

It would be challenging to see a world where all actors have turned in on themselves, leaving the space around them to those who bear no responsibility and only want to mess things up.

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