Entering 2019: Challenges and Opportunities
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Igor Ivanov

Former Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs (1998-2004) and former Secretary of the Russian Security Council (2004-2007), is currently President of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, and a member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs.

Reflecting on problems of 2018 and on challenges of 2019, it is tempting to point at the current US Administration as the greatest international problem of today. Indeed, over the outgoing year Washington has been very active in questioning the foundations of the contemporary world order. Pursuing its immediate goals, the United States does not seem to care much about international law or about multilateral institutions. It unilaterally withdraws from critically important agreements and tries to impose its unilateral decisions on other countries and on international organizations. In 2018, as well as in 2017, the White House did not hesitate to pressure its partners and opponents, which led to lower stability, higher risks and less predictability at the global and regional levels.

However, in my view, it would be a dangerous oversimplification to blame all the problems in the world of 2018 on Donald Trump and the United States. The reality is much more complicated. These days, the world is going through a profound technological, economic, social and cultural transformation, and our final destination is not clear. The increased pace of change calls for a new level of global governance, but old political habits still prevent us from moving to this level. I would venture to say that the greatest challenge of our times is a deficit of solidarity between nation states, including those of them, which are entrusted by the United Nations Charter with a special responsibility to maintain global peace and security. Until these states can put their disagreements on specific matters aside and stand up to the common challenge, the world will not be a safe place. 

It would be difficult to single out just one threat looming on the horizon. For instance, one can refer to growing tensions between US and China that might have many profound negative implications for the whole world, including a global recession. The situation in the Middle East region remains quite explosive and we cannot take any further progress in Syria and around it for granted. Neither should we underestimate the danger of a US-Iranian or a Saudi-Iranian clash. Regretfully, the Ukrainian crisis remains unresolved, and the limited progress in the Korean Peninsula is still very fragile and reversible.

Each of these conflicts, threats and challenges has its own roots, participants, trajectory and dynamics. They might look completely unrelated to each other. However, this is not the case. All of them feed each other, destroy trust among major international players, paralyze international organizations and complicate cooperation at various levels. I think that a ‘perfect storm’ — the cumulative impact of several crises taking place simultaneously — is the greatest challenge of 2019 and of years to come. We can fully destroy the old international system before we even start building a new one.

  Over the elapsing year of 2018, we witnessed a deep state crisis in the MENA region, in sub-Saharan Africa, in parts of the former Soviet Union. A number of states were losing their sovereignty; they could not provide law, order or basic social services to populations on their territories, turning into failed or semi-failed states. Failed states are becoming hotbeds of conflicts that last for years and even decades with no solutions in sight.

On the other hand, in 2018, the growing unpredictability and volatility of global and regional economic and financial markets created new risks; states, societies and individuals could no longer control their economic destinies or even to influence them in a significant way. We observe economic and social polarization among states and within them; polarization increases populism, radicalism and extremism of various kinds.

The rise of non-state actors challenges state sovereignty and questions the fundamentals of the modern international system. Irresponsible non-state players (from international terrorism and religious fundamentalism to transnational crime and multinational corporations) are accountable to nobody and often have goals and aspirations incompatible with international peace, stability and prosperity. Any attempts to manipulate these players are counterproductive and dangerous.

Uncontrolled and potentially disastrous environmental and climate changes, mounting challenges to biodiversity, environmental stability and resource sufficiency constitute another dimension to the crisis. We observe gross inequalities in resource distribution around the world, the looming resource crunch (food, energy, fresh water, etc.).

The explosion of regional, continental and global migrations increasingly affect the world, which is completely unprepared to confront this challenge. It leads to an unavoidable economic, political, security, social and cultural implications of the coming migration crisis with most countries ill equipped to handle these implications.

Another manifestation of the crisis is the ongoing decline of many international institutions — global and regional, security and economic alike; the growing inability of the UN based system to find effective solutions to mounting problems. In many cases, we witness a shift from legitimate institutions to illegitimate or semi-legitimate ad hoc coalitions.

So, how could we do better in 2019? First, we have to agree that the critical task of the day is the task to restore and to enhance the shattered global management. Without addressing this task, we are not going to succeed in any other undertakings. The central dividing line in the modern international system is not that between democracy and tyranny, but between order and chaos.

The prime building blocks of the international system are and will continue to be nation states. Therefore, the principle of sovereignty should be fully adhered to and considered to be of paramount importance. Interdependence and integration can be accepted as long as they do not contradict the principle of sovereignty.

Nevertheless, there are certain limits on what even the most powerful states can accomplish unilaterally. With globalization going on, these limits become more and more apparent — both in the area of social and economic development and in the area of international and even domestic security. Unfortunately, today we see many powerful countries creating more problems than offering solutions. The United States is arguably the most graphic example of explicitly unilateralist, shortsighted egotistic foreign policy decisions. Given the unique role of US in the modern international system, this obsession with unilateralism in Washington appears particularly dangerous.

However, let me underscore once again — this is not about the United States only. All states — big and small, rich and poor, in the West and in the East — have to master their abilities to working together in the very condensed, crowded and interdependent world of today and of tomorrow. So far, none of us can convincingly claim that his or her country has fully learnt the uneasy art of multilateralism. We now see that even in the European Union — the recognized leader of multilateral diplomacy — multilateralism faces serious and diverse challenges. It would be better for all of us to study the art of multilateralism jointly, not in separation from each other. This might sound unrealistic under the current dire political circumstances, but I see no other way — neither for Europe, nor for the world at large. In the world of today, security is indivisible, and so is prosperity.

The emerging international system should fully reflect the changing balance of powers in the world. The existing West-centered institutions should either undergo a profound transformation or be replaced by more universal, more inclusive and more representative organizations. We should fully reject the concept of Western (i.e. liberal) universalism of favor of developmental pluralism. The emerging concept of modernity should imply opportunities for preserving national traditions, culture, specific economic, social and cultural models distinctly different from the Western examples. At the same time, spontaneous market mechanisms, which set the rules for the global economic and financial systems today, should be complemented by appropriate regulatory frameworks.

Looking forward into 2019, one can observe that the glass is half-full or half-empty. In the end of the day, the difference is in the attitude: the glass looks half-empty if you are trying to drain it; it is half-full when you keep filling it.

The Moscow Times