Conflict of Ideas and Identities in World Politics: Results of the Valdai Club Expert Program

2019 was the year of the emergence of a significant number of new conflicts. In many countries of the world (in Latin America, Asia, and in other regions),  civil conflicts have become especially acute and in some cases violent, kindled by uneasy contradictions between societies and elites. Andrey Bystritskiy rightly called this year “the revolt of the masses”. In a number of cases (Hong Kong, Bolivia, Iran, etc.), these conflicts have acquired a clear international dimension. The severity of many international conflicts also did not subside this year.

At the heart of a significant number of these conflicts are not just political, military or socio-economic contradictions. The “successful”, so to speak, initiation and implementation of one or another conflict is largely connected with the public’s readiness to accept it, with the conflict-generating potential of public opinion and the wider civil/national environment. That is why the ideological and identity dimension of conflicts seems to be extremely important, both with respect to a correct understanding of their causes and regarding the search for effective ways to resolve them.

As a result, contemporary international conflicts are often not only conflicts of interests, but also conflicts of values. Clashes and wars between different states and groups are based from the outset on the rigid interpretation of an “us vs. them” narrative. Ideological, values-based, religious, ethnic and historical splits have become the focus of many conflicts. In any case, these issues are properly presented as key ones in the media support of these conflicts in information wars. As a result, ideology in its various forms becomes an important factor in social mobilisation and manipulation during conflicts. The desire to protect one’s own identity by all means from “strangers” or “enemies” hardens these clashes and makes compromise extremely difficult.

The contradictions between the main centres of power in the world that obviously increased in 2019 made this conflict of values ​​even more acute. The fragmentation of the crumbling world order and the destruction of the never-formed (but seemingly so close) united global polity led not only to a new multi-polarity, but also to the loss of a single semantic field of world politics. Old and new centres of power are not only divided by geopolitical contradictions or trade wars. The shared values between them ​​are increasingly disappearing. The new centres formulate alternative values ​​and meanings more distinctly, and offer other countries the opportunity to join them not only in the military or economic field, but in their perception and vision of the world. Thus, the global political competition has begun to intertwine with a global competition of values.

Mutual misunderstandings with respect to semantics and values between different centres of power have also led to the need to search for a kind of conceptual, semiotic translation between them as, perhaps, the only guarantee of a successful resolution and prevention of conflicts. It is no coincidence that the annual report of the Valdai Club in 2019 was devoted precisely to these“translation losses” in the age of value pluralism.

One of the sources of conflicts is often history or historical myths. A significant number of conflicts and misunderstandings are related to identity concerns among various national interpretations of the problems of historical memory. A kind of “battle for history” is now understood, but not at all in the sense of the French thinker Lucien Febvre, who coined the term. On the contrary, these “battles for history” in modern conflicts represent the desire to put a self-regarding national (or self-regarding social) interpretation of history over real facts and reject any alternative interpretations. Therefore, “battles for history” have now become an extremely important element of the ideological struggle both between national governments and between different social and ethnic groups within one state. Often the opposite interpretation of history adds additional acuteness and bitterness to real armed conflicts that occur in the modern world. Demonising the adversary with the help of historical or quasi-historical clichés and stereotypes has become very convenient for conflict organisers. It creates a solid image of the “original” enemy, which is then very difficult to get rid of and which will become a real obstacle to the search for a settlement and post-conflict peace-building.

That is why, no matter how paradoxical it may seem at first glance, the resolution of armed conflicts should begin with the resolution of conflicts between different historical narratives, or at least with their total de-politicisation. Only such a path can reduce the conflict-generating potential of public opinion, which is easily ignited against a demonised enemy, but very time-consuming and difficult to “cool down” afterwards.

An example of this approach to preventing old conflicts from igniting modern bilateral relations was one of the research projects of the Valdai Discussion Club in 2019. It was associated with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. The famous Russian orientalists Sergei Luzyanin and Dmitry Streltsov examined in detail both the historical outline of this conflict and its influence on the formation of public opinion and the activity of political elites in the modern period. As a result,the analysis of Russia's bilateral relations with Mongolia and Japan received additional and important aspects.

Another important example where the conflict of historical memory has become one of the causes of armed clashes is the former Yugoslavia. The Valdai Club helda special expert discussion on the historical significance of the collapse of Yugoslaviawith the participation of Borisav Jovic, President of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1990-1991).

As for the analysis of identity problems in current conflicts, the focus of attention of the Valdai Club this year was conflicts in Libya, in Latin America, US-North Korea conflict et al.

The problems of identity and the clash of different value narratives involve Europe as well. In 2019, this manifested itself in the context of Russia's return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and in sharp polar discussions on this topic. Within the EU, serious questions about the nature and extent of European identity accompanied the European Parliamentary elections, and also in the context of Brexit.

Identity issues play a role in seemingly unrelated military issues, such as the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategies. Another Valdai Club project this year was an analysis of the nuclear strategies of India and Pakistan. This topic again came to the fore during the escalation of the conflict between the two countries at the beginning of 2019. But here, too, issues of national pride and the strengthening of civil cohesion played an important role both in the development of nuclear weapons and in the internal political understanding of the fact of their presence in these countries (as in other nations). This influence of the nuclear factor on the formation of identity is extremely interesting and important. The results of this Club’s project are slated to be published in the near future.

Indo-Pakistani Confrontation and Possible Consequences
Alexei Kupriyanov
The sources of the current Indo-Pakistani crisis are purely internal. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad has appealed to other countries for mediation. In this situation, the only thing left for Russia, the United States, the People's Republic of China and other external players to do is to call for restraint and the de-escalation of the conflict, and try not to aggravate the situation with thoughtless interventions.
Expert Opinions

Another important factor influencing identity and social self-awareness is the restoration of lost geopolitical positions. In the Russian context in 2019, this was primarily due to the Russia-Africa Summit in October. The return of Russia to Africa served as the basis of another Valdai Discussion Club project. Several expert discussions were held on this topic, and a special report was published. A significant portion of this was devoted to the analysis of the shared values ​​of Russia and African countries, which served as the key to a new rapprochement and enhanced cooperation. Among them, the Club experts highlighted the values ​​of the decolonisation commitment, Afro-optimism, Afro-intellectualism and several others.

In general, 2019 has shown that conflicts of ideas, values and identities, like it or not, occupy an extremely important place in modern world politics. Therefore, the work of the Valdai Club on these topics will be in the focus of our attention further.
Democracy in the 21st Century: Can the Electorate Become the People Again?
Boris Kapustin
It is essential to remember that democracy is not just a technique of governance with certain attributes whose existence and quality is often used to gauge the extent of democratism as well as the capacity to act in the interests of the majority of the people, believes Russian philosopher and expert of the Valdai Club Boris Kapustin.
Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.