Released in the run-up to the Valdai Discussion Club’s major autumn session in Sochi, our annual reports are usually inspired by major anniversaries in international politics, such as the centenary of the First World War, 500 years since the beginning of the Reformation or 400 years since the start of the Thirty Years’ War. It is through history that we can better understand the present. A retrospective view reaching far back into the depths of history helps us to separate the developments that actually matter from those that don’t, to identify the fundamental shifts and the ones that will soon be forgotten. History never repeats itself exactly, but the fact that some processes and developments keep reappearing in new iterations has to be taken into consideration when trying to get a glimpse of the future. The reverse is also true, proving that this knowledge is not of much use when trying to decipher the future in a period of radical change. We decided to remain true to this tradition in this year’s report.
The foundations of the so-called Versailles-Washington system of international relations were laid 100 years ago, in the summer of 1919. It created one of the most unfair world orders, which was driven by the desire of the victorious nations to take maximum revenge over the defeated enemy. It was at the same time that the Covenant of the League of Nations was signed in the first deliberate attempt to establish a system of global governance. The very concept of the League of Nations was based on the proposals articulated by US President Woodrow Wilson, who is regarded as the founding father of the doctrine that came to be known as the liberal world order. (There is some irony in the fact that the United States did not join the League of Nations, although the US President inspired its creation). Both the principles that underpinned the Versailles-Washington system and the League of Nations failed, but this bitter experience helped bring about a more resilient framework in the aftermath of the Second World War. It proved so durable that, at times, it seemed to be a natural form of human communication. Whether this idea was consistent with reality is another question.