The Transition From Bipolar to Multipolar
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

The U.S. presidential election campaign has attracted the
world’s attention, but it has been a long time since we have seen
one so straightforward. The careers of individual politicians and
the prestige of their parties are riding in the balance now. At
stake is the question of who will become the country’s next leader
as the world enters perhaps the most critical period in the past 25

Such an assertion might at first seem unfounded.
After all, starting in the early 1980s, international relations
went through revolutionary changes that altered the political
landscape beyond recognition. Could it be possible that we are in
for something even more earthshaking than the spasms of the Cold
War, the collapse of communism, the disintegration of the Soviet
Union and terrorist attacks against the United States?

U.S. foreign policy over recent decades has been
guided by the same logic that defined international relations
during the Cold War. Efforts were initially directed at deploying
forces to counter those of its chief opponent — the Soviet Union.
The triumph of the West appeared to create a clear geopolitical and
ideological paradigm that defined global relations further. Despite
the differences between former U.S. Presidents George Bush and Bill
Clinton, both pursued policies aimed at strengthening and expanding
the United States’ position as the unqualified victor in the global
conflict — not only in the military and political sense, but in
moral and intellectual terms as well.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S.
President George W. Bush had to hastily adapt to the unexpected
turn of events. But rather than signal a change in the overall
paradigm, the attack only fueled perceptions held in the 1990s.
From that point on, Washington’s efforts to reorganize the world
were governed by its pledge to provide national security for the
United States in its most literal sense — that is, by ensuring the
physical safety of its citizens.

In truth, the two-sided nature of the fight
against terror was immediately evident. On the one hand, the Sept.
11 attacks made opposition to terrorism the dominant feature of
U.S. foreign policy. On the other hand, it led to Bush’s war in
Iraq — the main foreign policy act of his administration. But this
war had no connection to counterterrorism efforts; it was motivated
by other factors entirely. The U.S. «war on terror» was an attempt
to overcome the growing chaos in world politics and to restructure
it according to the familiar model of ideological confrontation.
«International terrorism» became the United States’ main enemy, but
transforming it into a predictable element of the new world order
proved futile.

It quickly became evident that this phantom enemy
could not serve to unite other nations in a strong alliance.
Terrorism, in general, is not an independent force designed to
promote political change. It is the consequence of flawed strategic
and economic policies that have been implemented on a global

Besides global terrorism, there is another
candidate for the role of nemesis. Much is written in the United
States about «authoritarian capitalism» as exemplified by China and
Russia. By definition, it is a better candidate than terrorism to
replace communism as the main «negative force» to be combatted. The
problem is that the whole debate over «authoritarian capitalism vs.
liberal capitalism» is very much contrived. Though it might seem at
times to be rooted in a sincere desire to provoke ideological
confrontation, it probably stems more from a fundamental inability
to explain international relations.

The global transformation that began with the
collapse of the bipolar system is continuing at full speed. And
though no one knows when it will end, it clearly won’t be soon. The
West’s ideological and political triumph proved not to be the
culmination, but only an intermediate stage. Nor does the notorious
multipolar world, discussed with such enthusiasm in many capitals
today, represent the climax of these changes. Instead, it indicates
that the process is continuing. Incidentally, since the world has
grown accustomed over many decades of living in a bipolar system,
it will be very difficult to adapt to the new, complex and unstable
multipolar system.

It is pointless to label current events as a «new
Cold War,» as politicians frequently do, because the global state
of affairs has changed fundamentally since then. And not
surprisingly, the current pace of change is even faster than it
was, for example, in the 1990s. At least then, U.S. policy followed
a definite ideological framework. True, those policies were not
very successful, but they are even worse today.

In addition to cleaning up the mess left behind
by the current occupant of the Oval Office, the next U.S. president
will have to develop a new strategic course that is not guided by
Cold War thinking. Jingoistic approaches used over the last 15
years — from «promoting democracy» to «fighting international
terrorism» — will not help find a conceptual framework for
resolving the multiplying problems affecting the United States and
most other nations.

The new leadership team will need to take a fresh
and unbiased view of existing realities. By this measure, neither
Hillary Clinton nor John McCain — two of the current front-runners
— inspires much optimism.

The «Russia question» was an issue in recent U.S.
presidential election campaigns. If the Republicans accused Bill
Clinton of «losing» Russia, the Democrats are now leveling the same
charge at Bush. We constantly hear the question, «Where did the
Bush administration go wrong in its relations with Moscow?» But the
questions that should be asked are: «Where did it go wrong
everywhere?» and «Why is the U.S. position as global leader
increasingly being questioned when it seemed so rock-solid just 10
years ago?»

To a large extent, Moscow’s current
self-confidence and its expanded global capabilities owe their
origin less to any particular merits of Kremlin policy than to
blunders and stupid mistakes Washington has made in trying to
establish global hegemony. Developing an effective approach to
Russia will be impossible without a sober recognition of the global
situation and a general understanding of how Washington will work
to solve common problems.

Given that we are in the midst of an ongoing
transition from one world order to another, it is unlikely any
permanent solutions will be found now. But maintaining a sober view
of events will at least minimize the costs of the transition.

// The Moscow Times