If you read Vladimir Putin’s Valdai speech carefully, it becomes clear that he’s offering a new philosophy of development.
The world is not complete without Russia. This play on a popular quote from Andrei Platonov neatly sums up what President Putin said at the Valdai forum. His remarks came at the end of a four-day intellectual marathon featuring an unprecedented abundance of events compared even with the Valdai Club’s nine previous forums, which were already quite busy.
President Putin argued that a stable world order was established each time Russia was involved in addressing major international problems, such as the Congress of Vienna in 1815 or the Yalta Conference in 1945. Conversely, the Treaty of Versailles, signed without Russia’s participation, led to instability and another world war. Clearly, he didn’t mention these historical events in the abstract, but in relation to the current state of affairs.
Attempts to settle conflicts without consulting all parties, and especially in circumvention of the UN Security Council, where Russia has a veto, paves the way for military action and unknown outcomes, whereas Moscow’s initiative on Syria provided a great deal of flexibility to almost all parties involved.
In US parlance, Vladimir Putin declared Russia an “indispensable nation,” as US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the United States 15 years ago to emphasize its unique role in the world.
Moscow does not claim to be an exceptional nation – another American trademark – as the days of exceptionalism are likely a thing of the past now. However, Russia once and for all wants to reserve a seat at the table where the future of the world is decided.
What does a seat at the table require other than the ability to put forward an interesting proposal at the right time? This was actually the crux of the discussion at almost all the forum’s events, from the excellent panels on the situation in key parts of the world (the EU, Eurasia, and East Asia) to the discussion of inter-religious and inter-cultural relations at Iversky Monastery, and the meetings on Russian domestic politics in both applied and value-based terms.
About three times more guests than in previous years shared diverse views and ideas on how to resolve the most pressing challenges of development. This Valdai Club conference provided its members and guests with plenty of food for thought. Personally, I came away from the multitude of opinions voiced during the conference with a fairly clear picture.
Russia’s indispensability, its ability to play an important role in the world comes from within. No matter how significant Moscow’s diplomatic success in Syria is, so far it’s been just a fortunate and well-timed improvisation made possible primarily by the fact that the major powers and other countries involved had reached a hopeless dead-end.
In order to continue to be an active player capable of offering creative approaches in foreign policy, Russia needs to foster an environment that promotes intellectual, social and, broadly speaking, human potential.
The multi-polar world that was discussed at length in years past – with hope or fear – has arrived. It came about by itself for objective reasons. One dominant nation, even the most powerful one, is no longer capable of controlling all global processes. The role of other centers of power is increasing, but they are not strong enough to take over leadership. They don’t see eye to eye on all issues.
The world has become much more complex than we could have imagined just ten or twenty years ago. Countries feel insecure in this unpredictable environment. Competition exists in many areas and at many levels. Most importantly, the focus of competition is shifting. Military force remains – at least in relations between major countries – a guarantor of inviolability rather than a means of sorting out relations or establishing a hierarchy.
The United States has shown that even overwhelming military superiority does not always guarantee the desired outcome. Instead, intellectual and technological competition is becoming the main proving ground on the way to success and influence.
Accordingly, people are now the main object of competition – the battle for minds, not only in the figurative sense of dueling images and soft power, but in the literal sense of taking care of people who are creating innovative products, putting them to work, and providing opportunities for self-realization.
This was the focus of all the discussions at the forum. Here’s what Vladimir Putin said: “Educated, creative, physically and spiritually healthy people, rather than natural resources or nuclear weapons, will be Russia’s main strength in this and coming centuries.” And here’s another important statement in view of the ongoing debates about Russian history: “Unfortunately, little value was placed in an individual human life in much of Russian history. All too often, people were treated as just a means to an end rather than the objective and the mission of development. We no longer have the right or even the ability to throw millions of people into the furnace of development. We need to take care of everyone.”
If you read Putin’s Valdai speech carefully, it becomes clear that what he’s offering is a new philosophy of development. It is a conservative approach (it’s no accident that Putin cites Russia’s two most prominent conservative thinkers, Konstantin Leontiev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn), but also revolutionary and even liberal – one that shifts the focus from the state to the individual.
The actual quote from Andrei Platonov, the great writer and humanist who burned in Stalin’s furnace of development, is “without me the nation is incomplete.” In other words, we need to take care of everyone. So this is also a Russian tradition. We just need to remember it.