Nothing Is Alien

25 july 2019

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: The 2018/2019 world political season ended in an atmosphere of some fated madness, with tragedies degrading into a farce in line with Hegel’s trite aphorism. But the atmosphere of farce makes everyone fear that the situation may spiral out of control for the most trivial of reasons.

“The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy…  I don’t know the Ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool…” This is not an exchange of courtesies at a marketplace but an official remark made by the president of one country about the ambassador of another country, a close ally. Donald Trump was badly hurt by a secret cable leak from U.K. Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch, who described the American administration as “inept“ and “incompetent” and warned London that President Trump’s career could end in “disgrace.”

The diplomatic row broke out on the same day a Georgian TV channel Rustavi-2 announcer brought national television to a qualitatively new level, by making offensive comments about the Russian president and his family. It is not quite clear what exactly this impertinent son of the mountains was guided by, but the incident in no time turned into a political uproar and strained Russian-Georgian relations so much that one careless touch would be enough to wreck bilateral ties, shaky as they are.   

These are just two coincidences which, however, illustrate the current international environment. Sometimes it looks like mass insanity. The 2018/2019 world political season ended in an atmosphere of some fated madness, with tragedies degrading into a farce in line with Hegel’s trite aphorism. But the atmosphere of farce makes everyone fear that the situation may spiral out of control for the most trivial of reasons.

Here are some of the landmark events of the past months.

The INF Treaty went belly up, paving the way for short to medium-range arms race. The Iran nuclear deal is in limbo. Great Britain gets stuck in the European Union, having raised the degree of absurdity immensely. Residents of the country which was supposed to leave the EU in March voted in the European parliament elections in May. In the European Union itself, which for years has been trying to persuade itself and all those around that it is entering an era of democratism and openness to the needs and aspirations of people, key countries have conspired to distribute positions and powers in European institutions in a manner looking so much like a backroom crony deal that it dwarfed all the previous ones.      

The United States has wrapped up the electrifying “Robert Muller Probe” sitcom, but its outcome is just as disappointing as that of the Game of Thrones. Muller failed to find any collusion between Trump and Russia but could not help alluding to the American leader’s censurable actions to obstruct justice. And of course, he once again spoke of Russia’s interference but did not say it had affected voting results. Now both sides are trying to make the most of Muller’s evasiveness. The show is going on. 

China has been astounded by the U.S. pressure in trade and technological confrontation. Attempts to find a rational solution have been unsuccessful so far.

Ukraine has elected a trained comic actor its new president—a sign of people’s utter despair, total mistrust towards the political elite and complete lack of understanding as to what is to be done next.

Practically all international institutions are degrading—all together but every one for its own reasons. When institutions become weaker, persons come to the fore. And if persons and leaders get in the limelight, their manners and habits begin to prevail in international processes much more than they ever did when institutions were capable and efficient. A vivid example is the spontaneous Trump-Kim meeting in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas and the U.S. president’s historical decision to set foot in North Korea. Has that brought about any significant change in the Korean settlement? Clearly, not. But even Trump’s opponents have grudgingly admitted that it was a spectacular show that has helped reduce tensions which started to mount after the Hanoi summit failure. This is a result in itself. 

And what do G20 leaders focus on? Their general discussions on prepared topics are nothing new. This is exactly what they did five or six years ago and certainly got much more attention back then. Now they are engaged mostly in bilateral meetings and one-on-one talks, sometimes in private.

When individuals replace institutions, international communication drifts into the “nothing human is alien” category. A non-institutional world is impulsive, emotionally unsteady and definitely unstable. Donald Trump is its embodiment both in personality and outlook. And this state of the international system is likely to keep deteriorating.

Another characteristic of the modern period, which manifested itself quite vividly in the past season, is that the domestic agenda steamrollers the foreign one everywhere. As people want the authorities to solve their daily problems, no leader, no matter what political system he heads, can afford to ignore public sentiments.  

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