Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. He is also Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
Resume: The world is getting more troublesome and increasingly challenging right before our eyes.
An unscientific name for the current – and future – state of the world is “jolly dismay.” It is jolly for the people and countries that will prove capable of adjusting themselves to and taking the lead amidst swift changes, as well as making gains on the incessant transformation of the world. For those incapable of re-adjusting to this transformation, it is dismaying.
The majority of people cannot accommodate themselves to the swift change; that is why anxiety, fear and depression have become the predominant moods across the globe today – instead of creative uplift. These sentiments are particularly strong in Russia, a country where today’s structure of society and government does not suggest high competitiveness – even if the current Russian model has potentially – and only potentially – strong assets.
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I would like to start with a brief and rather incomplete overview of the signs of the growing chaos.
This is, above all, an unprecedentedly swift redistribution of power in the economy, accompanied by an increasing redistribution of power in politics. The Europeans, who would until quite recently preach in arrogant tone, have come to the brink of humbly asking financial assistance from the still communist and rather hard-up Chinese.
We are witnesses to an unfolding sharp competition for natural resources, foodstuffs and even territories that resembles that of the 19th century and three-fourths of the 20th century. The old geopolitical struggle is obviously making a comeback – on a markedly new footing.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons goes on unabated. The invasion of Iraq on deliberately falsified charges of the possession of weapons of mass destruction, including nukes, the attack on Gaddafi who surrendered his nuclear potential, and non-aggression against North Korea, which did create a nuclear potential and has maintained it, have made the use of moral and legal arguments against the proliferation of nuclear armaments simply indecent. Only geopolitical arguments remain. This means creating a balance of sticks and carrots: resorting to sanctions and threats, or providing plausible security guarantees and involving Iran in the systems of security and cooperation. Or else, delivering a desperate strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities in the hope that this will delay its then inevitable obtaining of the nuclear bomb. As no one is offering carrots to the Iranians, one has to wait until Teheran obtains the nukes, or to hope that it will stop at the doorstep, i.e. confines itself to creating a capability to produce them. After that, if no reliable systems and guarantees of security are devised for Iran’s neighbors, one will have to wait and see their reaction. Then the time will be ripe for Japan, which is losing the capability to effectively defend its interests in the situation of a briskly changing balance of power.
Here are some more signs indicating a return of history into the customary state of chaos. Practically all institutions of global governance that were established after World War II – the UN, the IMF and NATO – are getting enfeebled. The European Union has slid into a systemic – let us hope, not fatal – crisis.
The age-old rules of international coexistence – respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in foreign countries’ internal affairs, etc. – are collapsing, while there are no new rules to replace them. Instead, there is cold-blooded rationality or something that can be passed off for it. No one gives a damn about unneeded Yemen, although there signals suggesting that a civil war is well underway there. The oil-rich Bahrain regime is pardoned for the atrocities committed against the population, while Syria is given a big time – it is overly big and powerful.
The traditional moral principles in politics (however unpleasant they were, but they did exist) are falling apart, too.
There used to be a principle of never giving out your friends. Or, put differently, “he may be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch.” First it was the USSR that gave out its friends, although Moscow had a justification – it was going through a revolution itself. Now the West has given away Mubarak and the Tunisian leaders who, if measured by local standards, were the stronghold of relatively enlightened governance, stability and at least some semblance of democracy, even if authoritarian and corrupt. The regimes arriving in their place are no better – and they have a strong Islamist component. The friendly and genuinely democratic Israel is being betrayed in broad daylight. It gets support from Washington only, as the U.S. administration cannot ignore the still powerful Jewish lobby. And practically no one considers the fact that the regimes remaining afloat in the Arab world are, by and large, the most backward and repressive monarchies. Not the constitutional monarchies of some sort, but genuine absolute monarchies. But, of course, they are diligent exporters of crude oil.
The old morality, whatever its imperfections, is vanishing from politics and has certainly abandoned the economy. The current crisis partly arose from the rampancy of filthy lucre. The Puritan capitalism rooted in frugality and high ethics of labor has been drowned in oblivion in practically all countries, except for Germany and the Scandinavian states. Meanwhile, it was these ethics that made capitalism successful. The lust for enrichment has washed away all the dams as soon as the threat of Communists coming to power, which had kept it in check, was gone. Communism collapsed and the fall of liberalism followed in a matter of fifteen years.
An intellectual vacuum is one more sign of the world chaos. The old recipes and considerations do not work anymore. Yet they are not abandoned, and politicians pretend they know what they are doing. This pattern of behavior is especially conspicuous in the struggle against the economic crisis, as directly opposite strategies are being used simultaneously in a bid to curb it: the Keynesian strategy of pouring in money in the hope that a growing demand will entail economic growth (in the U.S.), and a tough cost-saving regime (in Ireland and, to a smaller degree, in the rest of Europe). Yet neither strategy has yielded fruit.
In international affairs, the old geopolitics and Realpolitik based on sheer interest and a balance of power are verbally rejected. The supremacy of human rights and human values and a renunciation of the spheres of influence are proclaimed. But practical policymaking appears in sharp contrast to what is being said. A fight for the spheres of influence, slightly disguised in the parables about democracy, is clearly underway. Ukraine offers a glaring example in this respect. EU officials have stopped concealing their main goal in what regards Ukraine – to prevent Kiev’s falling into the sphere of Russia’s influence and force it to make the right “European choice” instead. That is, to bring it into the zone of EU influence. The Eurocrats are unscrupulously lying when they say Ukraine may join the EU someday – if it displays obedience.
The same kind of disarray is evidenced in the military-political sphere. At a certain point, Washington, acting with typically American mix of idealism and cold-blooded reckoning, proposed to free the world from nuclear weapons. It sincerely considered the nukes to be immoral and hoped that the movement towards nuclear disarmament would stop the potential proliferators. The problem is these hopes, borne out of the long outdated theory of the 1960s and the 1970s advocating limitations on nuclear arms, have proven to be bankrupt. Another part of Americans supported the “nuclear zero” idea hoping that the world without nuclear armaments or with their minimization will become a safer place for the U.S. conventional superiority.
The rest of the world, including Moscow, have supported the nuclear zero idea almost unanimously, although practically no one believes in its feasibility or even desirability. And no alternative ideas have been offered, as, to quote Mikhail Bulgakov, there is “devastation in the minds.” Or else, no one is willing to accept them.
After talking about the zero option for some time, the Americans realized that the current fiscal constraints will make their conventional superiority fly away soon enough. So, they made a little-noticed somersault backwards last year, as they started consolidating their nuclear potential. Simultaneously, they heightened attention on the antiballistiс missile defense that can augment this potential. Although few people, except for especially diehard Republicans, believe in the feasibility of the strategic missile defense project, these plans add to the general uncertainty and chaos in people’s minds.
Globalization of all economic, ecological, and political processes calls for global governance. However, as global governance is falling apart (see above), societies have rushed for help to the traditional instrument – the state, and a “renationalization” of global politics has began. Yet today the states appear unable to control the informational, economic and financial processes the way they did before. So, along with abortive attempts to harness these processes, different countries begin – covertly or overtly – to rely on military force as an instrument they still control. I am afraid we are again heading for the old strong-arm policy or even for an arms race.
It looks like the operation in Libya was only 20 percent, at best, a means to defend the country’s population against dictatorship. For another 80 percent, it was a rearguard “small victorious war” called upon to demonstrate with the aid or armaments that the old great powers are still doing well and are not losing international competition in the new world. They did win the war, provided the future developments in Libya are viewed as victory. However, under the waves of economic shocks in Europe, everyone has already forgotten it.
The turmoil of social revolutions, or social upheavals as a minimum, adds to the geopolitical chaos. The Arab world has been swept by the Arab Spring that was too hastily labeled as a chain of “democratic revolutions.” This spring is rapidly turning into a chilly winter as the new regimes, which combine the old authoritarianism with Islamism, can offer but a far weaker stability.
Many predicted that the seeds of the Arab Spring will yield crops in Russia or China, yet they started sprouting in places where no one had expected them.
Here is where we come to grips with an especially remarkable phenomenon. Social protests and revolts have burst in the grassroots of affluent Western societies, and although the demonstrators calling for the occupation of Wall Street and other places refer to the example of the Arab Spring, the causes of protests in the West are certainly not rooted in tyranny combined with corruption, or in informational semi-openness and semi-famine evidenced in the Arab world.
The root-causes are many but there are two major ones.
First, social inequality has grown unabated across the Western world over the past two to three decades. It was fuelled in many ways by the disappearance of the Communist threat. Overwhelmed by own problems, we, Russians, would whine about inequality in this country and yet it was growing everywhere – and was tolerable until a certain moment, as the downfall of Communism and the consequent vast expansion of the capitalist market made the slices of the pie bigger for everyone.
Second, the situation started changing fast in the last decade, when dozens of millions of jobs shifted to Asia, which was inexpensive, increasingly better educated and ready to work hard. The traditionally consistent increase of wellbeing in Europe stalled and then recoiled.
The West, awash with the euphoria of victory over Communism and the seemingly endless economic growth, which was largely fed by external factors, failed to embark on the necessary structural reforms (Germany and Sweden are rare exceptions). Instead of reforms, the outward prosperity became more and more heavily reliant on borrowings.
Yet the economic crisis, which burst out in 2008 and is still flaring out, made further good life on borrowed money impossible. The Americans and the Europeans have developed an awareness that neither they nor their children will be able to enjoy the habit of living all the time better in the future. In most probability, their standard of living will deteriorate. The social state, which is so powerful in Europe and strong enough in the more liberal-capitalist U.S., is bulging at the seams. The U.S. political system is getting radicalized, the moderate part of its political spectrum is sagging.
The ultra-right and the ultra-left will be consolidating their positions in Europe, as the middle class, the traditional pillar of the left-off and right-off centrism, is beginning to rapidly dissolve.
I would like to be wrong but I have the misgiving that Western democracy, something we have been pining for, is sinking into a crisis. Its enfeebling cannot but undermine – and is already undermining – the impulses towards modernization and humanization of Russian social and political system.
Some four or three years ago, it was voguish to speak about a challenge that the authoritarian capitalism (this is to say, Chinese, Singaporean, Malaysian, or Russian) has thrown to the liberal democratic Western capitalism. Today, it looks like the problem is greater than this challenge alone. The existing model of Western capitalism based on a society of almost universal affluence and advanced democracy cannot withstand a new competition. Not only will the authoritarian regimes have to drift towards greater democracy in the medium term. Western democracies, too, will have to drift towards more authoritarianism. This will be a retreat, a post-modern theory of convergence. Measured against today’s standards, the democracies of the times of De Gaulle, Churchill or Eisenhower were quite authoritarian. Obviously, the West will have to revert to something of that kind.
The reforms that are essential for raising competitiveness are painful and difficult to implement, as the authorities have to seek electoral consent from the majority whom these reforms unavoidably hit the hardest. As for the minority that has made immeasurable gains over the past three decades of unabated growth, it is very unlikely to lay down arms without fighting. Recall the group of New York-based bankers and the guru of correct capitalism, U.S. multibillionaire Warren Buffett, who together started sagely calling for a rise of taxes on the rich, that is, on themselves. The majority of the rich will surely disagree with them. And this means that polarization will be inevitable. Similarly inevitable will be a temporary – let us hope – strengthening of authoritarian tendencies in the policies of even democratic countries. These policies may display non-linear development. Pullbacks are inescapable, as progress cannot last endlessly. It is important that a new historical downfall be averted. The likelihood of such a course of events increases when new challenges are met with the help of old slogans calling for more democracy and more integration (in Europe).
We should think of the ways to prevent the slide of this polarization into totalitarianism, something that happened in the 20th century. Fortunately, a possibility to avoid the worst exists. Both totalitarian systems of the past – the communist and the fascist one – were borne in societies demoralized by war. That is why all the possible steps should be made to avert the outbreaks of new world wars. The nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over everyone’s head will help ward them off, but great human effort will be needed, too.
This is becoming especially relevant as the smell of a major war is hanging over Iran. And not only because of possible actions on the part of Israel that has found itself in a desperate situation without the external support and in the wake of “democratization” of – and, consequently, a surge of anti-Israeli sentiments – among its Arab neighbors. A strike of despair at the nuclearizing Iran, to which Iranians will most likely respond in full blast, may serve as a trigger for such a war.
However, the newly emerging world brings not only problems but also huge opportunities. Billions of people in Asia have extricated themselves from half-famine. New markets and spheres for applying one’s intellect, education and labor are appearing every minute. The world has acquired a real multipolarity. True, it is reverting to the state of semi-chaos, which is so habitual for human history. But the centers of power begin to counterbalance each other, thereby heralding in a new creative instability. The nukes hinder the intentions of the former or the rising hegemons seeking to turn back the wheel of history or to speed up its course with the aid of a big war. Openness to information, the increased activity and self-consciousness of billions of people make such scenarios more and more dangerous for those who may begin to plot them. That is why the chances for an uninterrupted relatively peaceful and extremely interesting world development are good enough.
Victory in it will be won by those people and countries that are capable of readjusting themselves in advance. This means that to be the leaders in the permanently changing world, they must play against and even contrary to the old rules instead of complying with them.
This, in turn, requires an efficient and, alas, authoritarian government and an equally efficient elite.
And what does this world has in store for Russia? For the first time in history, this country has had a big enough luck with the geopolitical environment and with external markets. The restoration of governability played an important role, too. However, an efficient elite is needed as never before to go on with the course. Meanwhile, the Russian elite is being washed out by rampant corruption, which entails anti-meritocracy, that is, ousting the best.
If we succeed in reversing the process, most Russians will find the world a jolly place to live in; if not, it may turn on them as an abode of scare and depression.
Precisely one hundred years ago, Russian poet Alexander Blok characterized the then nascent 20th century in his poem Retribution:
And the black earthly blood//
That overfills our veins and destroys all barriers//
Is about to bring inordinate changes//
And unseen revolts to us…
His prophetic verse is fantastically relevant today. Much depends on us in terms of what the 21st century will bring to Russia – the hitherto unseen changes or devastating revolts.