The Valdai Club Report deserves a read, and its authors deserve gratitude for their intellectual courage. It would not be an exaggeration to say that their work is a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of contemporary Russian discourse on world politics, writes Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).
The diverse-minded community of Russian international relations experts can roughly be divided into three categories. The first category is prophets, who indicate the only true path to the future for foreign policy for Russia, and even for humanity as a whole. The second category consists of artists, each of them painting in his own manner a picture of the current and future world order (or disorder). Finally, the third category is plumbers: those focused on whether its time to change an old gasket, tighten or loosen a rusty nut, or clean pipes in worn-out units called foreign policy and the international system.
The authors of the most recent annual report of the Valdai Club, without any doubt, belong to the second category. In the report, the reader gets the presentation of a close-knit team of talented artists who have been closely cooperating with each other for several years. Each successive work of this striking collective is an epic artistic canvas, invariably accompanied by the delight of admirers, controversy of critics and imitations of copycats. Let us recall that it is to this group that we owe the enrichment of the expert discourse, with such wonderful metaphors as strategic frivolity and crumbling world.
The most recent annual Valdai report, published under the promising title History, To Be Continued: The Utopia of a Diverse World,
marked a somewhat unexpected, but, in essence, natural creative shift. Continuing the parallel with painting, let us note that the critical realism of our artists was replaced by surrealism or even post-impressionism. The usual gloomy, pessimistic motifs, the feeling of hopelessness of an unsightly present and an alarming future disappear from their work. They are being replaced by light and airy colours, which lie on the canvas with wide, bold and even careless strokes.
The aspiration of artists is not to capture their momentary impressions on canvas, as the early impressionists tried to do. No, we are talking here about post-impressionism that is, about the reflection of international life through its basic, regular elements and trends, about the embodiment of long-term, essential states of world politics using recognisable techniques of decorative stylisation. This, of course, is not Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dali, but rather Van Gogh or Cezanne.
The radical change in style alone makes the report worthy of attention. Equally important is the fact that the authors are moving away from their previous attempts to portray a probable future, and try instead to paint a picture of the desired international perspective. In Russia, the future is often interpreted as an endless repetition of the present, like in the film Groundhog Day; an extrapolation of the present going beyond the horizon (remember after Putin there will be Putin!). However, such an endeavour is of particular value. The authors, with commendable foresight, left out of the scope of their report all local topics Russia does not appear specifically in the report at all. But, as they say, sapienti sat.
The report is easy to read, although the text is very dense, oversaturated with fresh ideas, graceful paradoxes and simply beautiful formulations. We will not list all the other advantages of the document. We will limit ourselves only to the conclusion that the report, in our opinion, is a must-read for everyone interested in the evolution of Russian foreign policy at the outset of the third decade of the 21st century.
The authors designated the genre of their work as utopian. This is a bold decision: any utopian constructions always remain fragile, vulnerable, or even completely unprotected against unfair criticism. Criticising a utopia is like hitting a child. Not feeling any desire to engage in this disrespectful business, let us note several issues that need further clarification.
It is somewhat embarrassing how the authors interpret the moral and ethical dimension of world politics. That is, of course, it is very good that they recognise the importance of this dimension, moving away from the long-obsolete paradigms of political realism from the last century. But ethics is a very demanding lady. The authors put in the mouth of the future UN Secretary General a completely unambiguous judgment: ... the focus must be on a clear distinction between good and evil. The same Secretary-General, as if suddenly realising, declares that the fragmentation of the world forced us to admit that value and ethical pluralism is not just a fact of life but also a good thing.
However, ethical pluralism just means a lack of general agreement on what is good and evil, justice and injustice, what can and cannot be done. Will a family be strong, if husband and wife, and parents and children turn to ethical pluralism to deal with one another? Where is the line that separates ethical/value pluralism from moral relativism, or rather, from the willingness to take for granted immorality in domestic and permissiveness in foreign policy?
Curiously, as a result of their analysis, the authors come to the conclusion that the new world order should be based on individualism and rationalism, which are the foundations of European political philosophy. Does this mean that with all the pluralism of values, the West is once again triumphant, and the East is once again defeated? This implicit statement ends the conversation about pluralism as ranking among the values of the future world.
By the way, about rationality. The authors, as respectable utopians, rely on individuals and states to rationally evaluate their own interests. If hegemony is no longer possible (as we believe modern events have convincingly demonstrated), then seeking it ceases to be a rational pursuit.
It sounds pretty, but not especially convincing. Are human actions always rational? Blood rushed to his head, his thoughts got confused, and without hesitating more than a second, d'Artagnan drew his sword ... Or do the authors believe that states behave more rationally than individual, impulsive citizens? Alas, this is not the case. Even the most democratic societies, employing complex decision-making mechanisms and featuring a well-developed system of checks and balances, which can tout an influential independent media, go crazy from time to time. Lets not bore the reader with examples there are plenty of such examples both in the past and in the present. What can we say about authoritarian countries, where the only interpreter of rationality is the supreme ruler, who often lives for a long time within his own, custom-made universe?
The authors also courageously challenge traditional ideas about the key role of multilateral institutions in world politics. It is quite possible to do without the straitjackets of international institutions that constrain the movement, by replacing these archaic forms of organising world politics with situational alliances and coalitions. The fragmentation we are seeing now, they conclude, is a boon, not a bane. To the madness of the brave this song we sing!
Perhaps Jean Monnets classic formula that nothing is possible without men, but nothing is lasting without institutions is already hopelessly out-dated. Although it seems extremely doubtful that given momentary tactical coalitions, constantly forming and disintegrating alliances, international alliances to solve specific problems would replace traditional alliances. With about the same degree of probability, we can assume that in the near future promiscuity will be able to finally replace the traditional family as a social institution.
But let us assume that international institutions, like the institution of the family, are indeed hopelessly out-dated. However, the state is also merely one of these institutions. Do the authors have confidence that the chain reaction of institutional disintegration will stop at the state level, and will not go further right up to the collapse of society as such? Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin and even Karl Marx themselves would not mind such a denationalisation of modern society, but are the risks inevitably associated with this process of deconstruction of the global society too high?
It has long been known that the main weakness of most utopias is that they are designed for ideal people. People, on the other hand, have never been perfect and, most likely, never will be. Whether it is good or bad is a philosophical question, but such is the reality. The main weakness of this utopia is that it is designed for ideal states. But states as a whole differ little from people, and if they differ, then, most often, its not for the better. And this feature of states calls into question the implementation of many of the great ideas contained in the report.
In conclusion, let us emphasise once again it is easy to criticise utopians, but it is not noble. The Valdai Club Report deserves a read, and its authors deserve gratitude for their intellectual courage. It would not be an exaggeration to say that their work is a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of contemporary Russian discourse on world politics. I would like to wish the group of talented artists further creative success. They are on the right track, but their best work, hopefully, is yet to come.