The presidential election will launch a new political cycle in Russia on March 18, 2018. Recent polls show the incumbent president has a significant lead and leave few doubts as to the outcome of the vote. It would be reasonable to think in this situation that the country’s foreign policy will not change after the election. However, Russia will approach a cluster of junctions on the international stage, and the choice will be very difficult each time. The next six-year term can become a period of transition in Russian and global politics.
The main global junction point will be a choice between preserving the liberal world order and allowing it to change. I am tempted to describe this change as a transition from a unipolar world to a more flexible, fair and democratic multipolar world based on the central role of the UN. This model is the official diplomatic choice in Russia, China, India and many other countries. However, the situation is much more complicated than the choice between a presumably “bad” unipolar world and a “good” multipolar system.
The liberal world order has fallen on hard times. It is straining under a multitude of problems such as the internal political fever in the US and its inability to make a choice between national interests and global leadership; the difficulties of Euro-integration; the collapse of the European security system, the open marginalization of Russia and a quiet but very dangerous dissociation of Turkey; as well as the vulnerability of liberalism and secular ideologies against the rising radical religious doctrines. There are many other problems plaguing the West as the core of the modern world, but none of them are critical to the survival of the liberal world order. Its stability rests on other pillars.
The effectiveness of the liberal world order depends on its ability to remain an attractive model of international relations for all major actors. International relations are the key words. Contrary to the widespread view, the liberal world is nothing like a club of democracies and liberal confederates from the “golden billion” countries. Yes, the West is an important and possibly central element. But not only Western countries or bona fide democracies can be part of this world order. The essence of the liberal world order is a system of interaction between states. The nature of their political government is of secondary importance, even if this sounds offensive to the proponents of the liberal theory of international relations and democracy.
Following the end of the Cold War, the liberal world order was transformed into a model of international relations that was attractive and advantageous to all the big actors. This model is based on relatively simple rules for the free movement of goods, labor and capital. Of course, the US was located at the center of this system, if only because of its dominant positions in finance, modern technology and economic competitiveness. But other players benefited from this system as well, including the expanding EU, Japan, South Korea, and, most importantly, India and China. The latter two countries can be considered the beneficiaries of the liberal world order. Their involvement in the global economy has helped them to make a huge development leap and at the same time to preserve their political autonomy, unlike America’s old allies. India and (until recently) China tended to avoid direct political disputes with the West. Washington continued to enjoy its global dominance, reaffirming it from time to time with the bombing of a developing country. Meanwhile, India and China grew richer and economically stronger and built up their might unhindered. Indian and Chinese diplomats are completely honest when they describe the multipolar world as a bright future, and the same is true of Brazilian, South African and other diplomats. However, they are perfectly comfortable with the current system, which is making them richer and stronger while giving them discretion in foreign policy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia joined the liberal world order and became integrated into the global economy and trade relatively quickly. It has not attained the dynamic growth of India or China, but it learned to benefit from its role as a supplier of raw materials while keeping a free hand. Debates on democracy and compliance with Western standards were especially heated in Russia due to its vicinity to Europe and its long-standing ties with the West. The EU and the US now blame nearly all their problems on Russia. No politician in his or her right mind will ever recognize Russia as one of “us,” but this has not prevented it from remaining part of the liberal world order even after the Ukrainian crisis and the economic sanctions. Russia’s very integration into the liberal world order is what allowed the prompt use of sanctions against it. But it is also what restricts the freedom of action for those who have initiated the sanctions. A case in point is the recent recommendation by the US Treasury Department not to expand the sanctions against Russia’s sovereign bonds, because this would backfire on the United States. Strange as it may sound, closer integration in the global affairs is better protection against sanctions than autarchy.
However, Russia views the world order as a balance of forces of individual countries and alliances and connects its transformation with the potential demise of the US might and the rise of other centers of power such as China. This realism of the Russian diplomacy looked old-fashioned in a globalizing world. Indeed, the liberal world order allowed the coexistence of various poles of power, preventing anarchy and creating the impression of stable unipolarity. However, the world has long ceased to be unipolar in terms of the balance of forces, and political differences are breaking the shell of the liberal world order like an emerging chick that is breaking free of its shell.
An alarming recent signal is the Western view of China as a challenge and a threat. Official rhetoric and unofficial views in the US, Japan and the EU express alarm over China’s growing might and influence. This is happening against the contrasting backdrop of China’s ideas of a soft transformation of the world order into a “community of common destiny.” China feels quite comfortable about its status quo, but Washington and other Western capitals feel uneasy. It would be premature to speak about a serious confrontation between the West and China. But more and more people wonder what would happen to the liberal world order if China were excluded from it due to political differences.
If this happens, the liberal world order will cease to be the glue that is keeping up the relative stability of major actors. A probable alternative is a more chaotic and hostile bipolar or multipolar world where political competition overshadows the benefits of globalization. This new world will be neither democratic nor safe. The junction between the liberal world order with all its shortcomings and a new conflict-based structure with its challenges will become increasingly visible in the next few years.
This junction will offer several alternatives to Russia. There is a temptation to accelerate the emergence of the new world order. This approach would seem logical, considering that Russia has nearly become an outlaw in the current world order, at least in the West. The destruction of the world where Russia is assigned the role of a raw materials appendage and is considered an outcast despite its military might could give Russia an opportunity to become a co-creator of a new world order with a larger role. But will Russia feel more successful and better protected in a more chaotic world, especially compared to aggressive and more powerful counteragents? On the other hand, Russia will hardly be the only or decisive force in the future transformation of the world. Therefore, it should prepare for any turn of events.