Logic of Transformation vs. Logic of Expansion: What Awaits the World Order?
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall
List of speakers

On November 17, 2017, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an expert discussion titled “Clash of New World Orders: Path to Confrontation” coupled with the presentation of the book “Russia Against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order” by Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, Associate Fellow of Chatham House.

The situation in the world over the past ten years, and especially after 2014 is often characterized as a “new cold war.” Obviously, the world order that was shaped in the early 1990s is in crisis. The causes of this crisis and ways to resolve it are seen differently from different world centers of power. The West, led by the United States, is trying to deal with the rest of the world within the framework of the triumphalist liberal paradigm envisaging that its development model is universal. Russia, faced with very difficult internal and external challenges, seeks to establish itself as a great power and build a world order on the basis of interaction with the powers of the same rank. China, which was for a long time focused on its development, begins to put forward its own ideas about how the world order should be built, to the apparent displeasure of the West.

The current unstable world order is the result of the unresolved contradictions of the post-Cold War era, which have resulted in recent years in direct or indirect confrontation between the centers of power. According to Richard Sakwa, the conceptual contradictions took shape in the late 1980s, when, in response to Mikhail Gorbachev’s calls for the creation of a “new world order,” the West formulated a vision incompatible with Gorbachev’s idealism.

Gorbachev’s vision presupposed a transformation agenda, putting an end to the logic which generated the Cold War. His dream was that the Soviet Union, together with the West, would create a new political community, the Greater West. According to Sakwa, such thinking had deep roots in the West as well: it is enough to look at the peace movement which had long-standing traditions.

Meanwhile, the West, having recovered from the shock caused by Gorbachev’s revolutionary proposals, put forward its own vision: not transformation, but the maximum expansion of existing Western structures. This logic did not imply equality, interaction, dialogue. “In dialogue, both parties change,” Sakwa said. But the West did not intend to change. A good example is the EU, which, according to the scholar, does not do diplomacy: it already has all the solutions, which can either be accepted, and joining the club, if the relevant conditions are met, follows, or not – and that means being left out in the cold.

In general, the West sticks to its paradigm, despite the fact that its inconsistency with the modern-day reality is becoming increasingly evident. According to Dmitry Suslov, Programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club, who also participated in the discussion, with Donald Trump’s coming to power the Western world order began to “creak at the seams.” For the first time, the threat to the West arose from within, because Trump began to question one of the two fundamental principles of US foreign policy: leadership, which assumes universality of the American vision of the world order. This is evidenced by the growth of mercantilism and the rejection of non-military obligations, be it the Paris Agreement on Climate or the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

However, the second principle, primacy, remains unchanged. It means that the US must remain the most powerful state. Since America’s greatest fear is China’s growing strength, it will continue its policy of containment, Suslov said, which means deepening conflict between the great powers.

Can the US go beyond the current paradigm? According to Suslov, a new vision of the world order will only become possible when the US agrees with the possibility of the existence of new modalities of relations with the world. The problem is that there are simply no similar situations in the history of the United States, which leaped from isolationism to globalism. Therefore, for an indefinitely long time the weakening hegemon will remain the main threat to the world order.

Perhaps, the most intriguing question in the context of visions of the world order are the views of China. For a long time, China lived in Deng Xiaoping’s paradigm: to pursue its own development, to keep restraint in the international arena. According to another discussion participant, Alexander Lomanov, chief researcher of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, everything has changed in the last five years, after Xi Jinping came to power. The transformation of Chinese foreign policy since 2013-2014 has been so dramatic that it is impossible to understand its fundamentals by reading books written before 2013, he said.

The new Constitution of the Chinese Communist party, which was recently adopted, has absorbed and canonized everything formulated in these five years, Lomanov said. Today, China offers humanity its own model of the world order: the concept of “community of common human destiny.” One of the origins of this model is the Confucian idea of the “noble man” who thinks about the duty, and the “petty man” who only seeks his own benefit. According to Lomanov, Xi Jinping’s vision is that China will behave in international relations as a noble man, willing to sacrifice the benefits for the sake of the triumph of justice. In this paradigm, the Chinese Belt and Road initiative is not just about trade and infrastructure, but also about creating a community of values and transformation of Eurasia.

The Chinese model of the world order is fundamentally different from others in that it is not being presented as universal, Lomanov said. In fact, the word “model” is not used in the official Chinese discourse. Chinese officials mention only the “Chinese way,” which is valuable for those who want to develop without losing sovereignty. One can look at it and take lessons, but it is not imposed on anyone.

In fact, the West still does not understand the processes taking place in the Chinese political thinking. It thought that a transforming China would become ever closer to the Western system, and was ready to give it the role of a “responsible stakeholder” in the existing world order under its own leadership. But it did not realize that for China, the concept of the “western world order” is not identical with order at all, and sometimes even contradicts it.

In a certain sense, we have returned to the opposition of transformational and expansionist logics of the world order. But this time, China, unlike the Gorbachevian Soviet Union, does not consider itself part of the Western world, and has sufficient economic power and growing political clout to ensure that its vision is convincing enough for the world.

The contours of this new world order proposed by China are only emerging. There are many questions to it, not least because of the fears of Chinese dominance. But, apparently, a viable model of the world order, alternative to the Western one, is becoming reality and everyone will have to reckon with it in the next few decades.