To Govern, Not to Act

20 december 2012

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: Political power was the focus of 2012. Three of the world’s most powerful countries underwent a change in government.

Political power was the focus of 2012. Three of the world’s most powerful countries underwent a change in government. Vladimir Putin returned to power in Russia, Barack Obama was reelected in the United States, and Xi Jinping was chosen as China’s next leader. Mohammed Morsi became the first democratically elected president of Egypt, but it is still unclear whether he has acquired real power. Hopes for regime change in Syria have not been borne out by events – as of December 2012, Bashar al-Assad remains in power, though many have long predicted that his days are numbered.

Events taking place around the world have one thing in common – the key players’ emotions are running high. The election campaign in America revealed unprecedented polarization in society. Debates on matters of war have arguably become routine in the United States. Should there be an invasion of Syria? Does it make sense to bomb Iran? What sized force should stay behind in Afghanistan after the troop drawdown? What scale should the military presence in the Pacific be?

For all its incredible might, the United States is still trying to adapt to the chaotic developments underway in the world, just like countries that have never had the tools of global power at their disposal.

The overarching theme in President Putin’s rhetoric and actions is how to protect Russia from the threats mounting on all sides. Attempts to shore up domestic stability are increasingly running up against the realization that this is almost impossible without external stability. Meanwhile, this latter depends on a host of factors beyond Moscow’s control. The Russian government can only try to minimize risk, which it is doing to the best of its abilities.

China has always seemed to be making consistent progress on its chosen course, despite the various storms raging around it. But this year the first cracks appeared in the monolith. The run-up to the transfer of power to the next generation of Communist Party leaders was accompanied by a tense ideological struggle, enhanced state control, and managed outbursts of nationalism (against Japan).

As China continues its rapid ascent and takes on a larger role in global affairs, the less it is able to keep a low profile. The attention China is attracting from all sides is growing, and so too is the desire to restrain it and guard against it as a potential rival.

Cairo is a political center of the Arab world, and the trajectory of the entire region depends on what kind of government takes root there. Morsi’s victory is the logical continuation of the revolution that began on Tahrir Square. The military’s swift, peaceful exit from the political arena came as a pleasant surprise. Everyone expected them to try to remain the real source of power in Egypt.

That said, by December, apprehensions were already growing that the generals were simply waiting for the new government to provoke popular discontent and accusations of “trampled ideals.”

Egypt could be a model for Islamist movements across the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood will either prove that they can be a responsible force promoting national development and meeting the nation’s needs, or it will become apparent that their ideological and religious values do not necessarily translate into effective governance.

Syria has become the main seat of tension in international affairs, where many of the world’s starkest dividing lines intersect. There is the religious clash between Shiites and Sunnis, as well as geopolitical struggles at the regional level (Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran) and at the global level (Russia and China against the West).

There is also a clash of ideologies, democratization versus authoritarian stability, and the conceptual contradiction between sides that both believe they are on “the right side of history.”

Finally, there is a strange and unusually strong mixture of ideals, a sincere desire for change, fanaticism, malice and hypocrisy.

The web of contradictions in Syria is emblematic of the chaos plaguing global political consciousness. The more complex the processes at work – the greater the desire to squeeze them into a simple frame. Moscow’s position on Syria may be subject to different interpretations, and some may chalk it up to commercial interests. But what is happening in Syria has its own, deeper, underlying causes that will not go away if Russia gives up on Assad and he loses power.

Many believe it is absurd that the West has sided with the very same groups that are the target of its anti-terror crusade, but tunnel vision is leading it further down this road.

Since time immemorial, it has been the duty of government to make decisions, especially difficult ones. This has not changed in the 21st century, but the circumstances in which governments exercise their power have deteriorated.

In the past, political processes followed some kind of rationale; there was a mode of conduct based on clear criteria that could be evaluated. In this permeable and interconnected globalized world, different aspects of power – military, political, economic and cultural – are acting simultaneously but they are not all moving in the same direction. The resulting force originates via a complex process, and has an impact that it is practically impossible to predict.

It is not surprising that politics is increasingly reduced to merely reacting to situations as they arise. Action is fraught with more risk than inaction. The sign of our times is the phenomenon of governments that want to abstain from any big moves as a matter of principle, preferring instead to patch up what it can and maintain the status quo.

Today’s Russia is gradually turning from a country without an ideology into the global harbinger of conservatism, with its principle of non-interference being one of the clearest examples of this. That said, Europe, where politicians dare not mention the need for structural changes to the EU, instead preferring to patch holes, has also lost its capacity for innovation and will have to change.

What we are witnessing is the will to power toward no particular end. This is something new in global politics.

| RIA Novosti

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