Convergence the Other Way Round

7 may 2012

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: Everything in the world is changing. The fantastically fast – by historical standards – redistribution of forces is especially evident.

Everything in the world is changing. The fantastically fast – by historical standards – redistribution of forces is especially evident.

The old geopolitics is coming back surprisingly quickly. This is coupled with the rejection of centuries-old rules and political morality which made international relations predictable at least to some extent. Sovereignty and territorial integrity are no longer respected, along with loyalty to one’s word and allies.

All this is happening amidst a deepening intellectual vacuum. The ruling circles even in very developed and seemingly enlightened countries are doing God knows what! Suffice it to mention the behavior of the West which welcomes and connives at the overthrow of semi-democratic but secular Arab regimes and, at the same time, plays up to super-reactionary Sunni monarchies in the Gulf. However, the victory of Sunni regimes would take the Middle East back to Sharia law, and women would be forced to wear hijab and veil again. Further islamisation would lead to further social and economic degradation and growing instability in the region, which is the largest energy supplier in the world.

The West is pursuing its policy under the slogan of supporting democracy. Whereas earlier one might believe that behind these slogans there was an ideology, plans to extend one’s sphere of influence or a trivial desire to weaken one’s rival by limiting his ability to concentrate resources through democratic mechanisms, now there is devil knows what behind them. The West is acting in the Middle East contrary to its own interests.

The present Western policy towards Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria could be explained by a temporary frame of mind. But before this, there was the war in Iraq and the ground operation in Afghanistan, in which the West is still bogged down. If anyone has benefited from the march of Americans and their friends to Baghdad, then it is definitely Tehran, which the West is now trying to curb before it is too late.

There are practically no calls in Europe for a departure from the unreasonable policy. Rational Obama has announced changes in the U.S. strategy, ranging from direct involvement in conflicts to a redistribution of resources in favor of America’s economic recovery. But America is so divided that even he is being prevented from being rational. It is only Moscow that is acting rationally. But it cannot explain what is going on, either. And, perhaps, this is why – and partly for domestic political reasons – it has begun to inflate the external threat, in a bid to discredit the discontented and justify the really necessary high expenditure on armaments.

But it seems that the situation is worse than if the threat really existed. The majority of traditional partners in the West are entering such a severe and protracted political and economic crisis that they are losing the ability to act rationally. The coming of real multipolarity, advocated by so many people in Russia before, and the disappearance of bloc discipline, hegemons or simply recognized leaders has untied the hands of regional players, who have started to promote their own agendas, for the most part those inherited from the past.

The leaders of Gulf countries have begun to almost openly recreate the semi-mythical Arab Caliphate, Iranians the Persian Empire, and Turks the Ottoman Empire.

But why is the West so helpless and irrational? There can be many explanations for that. One of them is the unexpected collapse of its geopolitical positions, which is especially painful after what seemed to be a triumph. The United States has had two consecutive defeats: in Iraq and Afghanistan. Europe is torn by internal problems and has failed to adopt a unified foreign policy, which has turned the group of great geopolitical players into foreign-policy dwarfs. But the main and most profound explanation is that the economic and political system of the Old West has been hit by a systemic crisis. This system is still attractive and humane, but it is proving to be inefficient in the new international economic and political environment. And this has happened after a seemingly triumphal victory in the Cold War and after the world saw a surge of a new round of globalization through the liberalization of trade and financial markets. At first, it blew into the sails of the Old West, but then newly industrialized countries – and even energy exporters like Russia – caught the wind.

To make things clear, the crisis in the West is not something to rejoice over. The modernizing and humanizing impulses, which have always been coming to Russia from where the sun sets, rather than rises, are rapidly waning – although the West has almost always been Russia’s geopolitical rival. So I understand, although I do not share, the Schadenfreude that many Russian writers and commentators now have. But when the Schadenfreude over the “decline of the West” goes along with hysteria over subversive moves by the same West, it sounds like a clinical case.

But let me return to the crisis. Its main reason is that the political system that was established in the Old West by the beginning of the 21st century does not ensure competitiveness in the new world.

Several years ago, it was fashionable among the international political and economic elite to speak of challenges posed by authoritarian capitalism. Now it turns out that the problem lies deeper than challenges from “newcomers.”
The problem is partly in old-timers, as well. The surge in prosperity in the 1980s-1990s, which was not only and not so much due to the information and technological revolution as to the vast expansion of the world (i.e. capitalist) market as a result of reforms in China and the flight of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from socialism, prevented the West from carrying out long-overdue structural reforms. (Germany and Sweden were among rare exceptions.) The West began to lose economic competition. Europe experienced an additional burden of a too-rapid expansion of the EU and the euro zone, which was not accompanied by the introduction of single economic governance. Europe took no notice of the problem and began to live on credit. Now it is time for it to pay its debts.

Rescue plans offered by governments during the crisis benefited mostly the rich. Inequality had been tolerable while the pie had been growing for all. After the crisis, which began in 2008, it became obvious to the bulk of the population in Western countries that they and their children will live in the future not habitually better but worse than before.

The foundation of modern advanced democracy, a prosperous middle class, has begun to erode. Hence the rise of far-right sentiment – nationalists and the U.S. Tea Party movement – and, at the same time, new ultra-left moods – riots in European streets, the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City and other Occupy protests around the world.

As a result, center-leftists have been simply washed overboard, while center-rightists are in confusion (which explains President Sarkozy’s promise, however demagogic it may seem, to withdraw from the Schengen area). In Europe, such a statement is tantamount to political sacrilege.

It will be difficult to overcome this situation. Democracy is good for good times. But it is not good for carrying out painful reforms that lead to a sharp drop in standards of living for the voting majority.

In addition, the winning minority is not going to give up its positions, despite promises by its more enlightened members to “share.”

So, the Old World is in for a long period of social and political instability and reconstruction. I am almost sure that its policy will increasingly have elements of authoritarianism. Hopefully, it will not renounce the basic principles of democracy.

After all, the political systems under Churchill, Eisenhower and de Gaulle were very authoritarian by the present U.S.-European standards. One could already see elements of this future when commercial banks were forced to write off (restructure) tens of billions of U.S. dollars in Greek debt. Their opinion was simply ignored, just as the opinion of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens who kept their savings in Greek debt securities.

Relatively poor authoritarian developing countries, including Russia, will most likely move in the opposite direction. The middle class growing in these countries will demand more democracy and more respect for its interests. The increasing international competition will require fighting corruption, which stands in the way of economic development. However, fighting corruption is impossible without greater political pluralism.

More than 40 years ago, the great Russian physicist and humanist Andrei Sakharov put forward the idea of convergence, according to which socialism would move towards greater democracy, while capitalism would move towards greater social justice. The idea never materialized. Soviet socialism would not reform itself and collapsed. At the same time, capitalist countries did not have incentives to move towards greater social justice and foreign-policy restraint. As a result, they got caught in a systemic crisis.

But it seems that the world of new open competition will make Sakharov’s idea of convergence relevant again, and mankind will move towards a single social and political model – be it authoritarian democracy or democratic authoritarianism.

P.S. This article does not aim to defend the current political and economic model in Russia. Your author considers it relatively inefficient and unpleasant both ethically and aesthetically. But he is confident that countries cannot skip certain stages in development. Russia tried to do that in the 1990s – and miraculously did not collapse completely. Europe tried, too. Now, it will have to go back a bit.

| Vedomosti

} Page 1 of 5