Perhaps, in the run-up to the New Year, most of the Earth’s inhabitants would wish that the events of this challenging year are never repeated. However, seen from the point of view of expert analysis, it must be admitted that 2020 turned out to be surprisingly productive in terms of developing and testing a large number of radically new ideas, breaking old clichés and providing an opportunity to openly discuss many previously taboo topics, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The year 2020 has played havoc with the plans of most people in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn a sharp dividing line between what was “before” and what came “after.” Naturally, an event of this scope should end up in the focus of expert opinion, as should its social and political consequences. Therefore, no matter what our initial plans were, the pandemic has become central to our programme. As a result, morality and law in world politics have been quickly transformed into morality and law in the coronavirus era.
Opinion and expert evaluation followed the rapid developments. February marked the first stage, when the pandemic spilled over from China to Italy, and this became a turning point in the perception of what was happening. We will not conceal that the advanced countries (or those posing as such), the notorious “golden billion”, are long used to perceiving deadly epidemics as some abstract and faraway scare, a routine horror shown from time to time on television in reports about the poorest countries somewhere in Africa (AIDS doesn’t count because of the natural narrowness and stereotyped marginalisation of its target group). Exotic names like Ebola, Dengue, or West Nile fever only emphasised that it was remote from us and we would never be affected. Why not? Because we have an advanced healthcare system, because we follow hygiene rules, and, subconsciously, because we are “different.” The poorest countries should be given aid in these situations of course, and this has been done to one extent or another. But at the same time, let’s admit, the public not infrequently argued that these countries, why hide the truth, were “providentially fated” to suffer epidemics and disasters. The result was moral ambivalence.
Modern China can hardly be considered a poor country, but when the epidemic was confined to the PRC, it fit into this pattern. But COVID’s emergence in Italy changed everything. In late February, when a group of Italian tourists was denied entry to Mauritius, a female tourist, when back home, told journalists, in all innocence, that “we, Italians, were treated like some refugees.” This phrase clearly elucidated the moral ambivalence that, to our mind, has become a key social factor in the first stage in the pandemic. This raises the question of “COVID ethics.” Is mankind divided into first and second class citizens in the face of real global threats? The Valdai Club discussed this question at that time.
The next stage came in March, when the epidemic spread to other major European countries, and then later – to New York. The main mass-scale social feeling in that period was irrational and all-consuming fear. Often, however, it turned into the opposite – bravado and COVID-19 denial – as a psychological repression and substitution reaction. The socio-psychological nature of this fear at that stage was analysed by Kancho Stoychev in a Valdai article titled “The Latest Cult or the New ‘Normal’?”
Next came April with its lockdowns, quarantines and euphemisms like “enhanced emergency preparedness.” The public was getting used to the situation, even if under constraint. It was at that time that the ideas like “the world will never be the same again” were common, as were global risk society concepts. Formerly theoretical abstractions, these concepts became a reality which gave the sensation that this state of affairs was forever. Sergei Kravchenko analysed the risk society, as part of our programme, relative to the pandemic.
Dario Velo wrote that in the face of a global threat mankind must give up its geopolitical antagonisms and the closeness of protectionism.
In the same period, we thought it possible to speak, as part of the risk society paradigm, of the emergence of new global values, those of the COVID-19 era. From the much talked about freedom/security debate, most nations, with the exception of Sweden, chose safety (or what the authorities thought was safety). The result was an oxymoron: “the value of non-freedom.” Another value, the state, seemed like something dated and almost outmoded for 21st century discourse. But the pandemic and the lockdowns were destroying the private sector much faster than the state, with many people pinning their hopes on benefits, payments, etc., on the often hated state.
In the same context of the pandemic’s value challenges, Dmitry Poletayev considered a COVID-era surge in migrant hate.
Next came May and a subsidence of the first COVID-19 wave in some countries. Lockdowns were being eased and China stopped the spread of the virus at home altogether. It was time to conceptualise the results. The Valdai International Discussion Club released the report “Staying Sane in a Crumbling World.”
Among other things, the paper expanded our earlier ideas of values, ethics and morality in a new era. It was also a time to assess national responses to COVID-19. Mary Dejevsky analysed British policies in an article titled “Coronavirus Under Brexit”:, Taisuke Abiru – Japanese policies, Philani Mthembu – South Africa’s record.
In June, the first wave had subsided in Europe and the US, and a “vaccine arms race” began to unfold. The geopolitical rivalry between the world’s top states vying for the laurels of number one anti-COVID-19 vaccine maker was increasingly felt. Simultaneously voices were being heard that the vaccine should become global commons resource and that it should not just be handed out free to the poorest countries (like ordinary humanitarian aid from the rich to the poor) but come under the heading, “open innovation” or “open patents” with free access for everyone. Earlier, there was talk of open innovation, but normally as part of abstract and almost utopian constructs. Now, it is being suggested, for the first time on a global scale, that they be applied to real legal relations. This means that a fundamental change has occurred in the nature of all market economic relations and that the notion of profit itself has come to be reconsidered. This is challenging the existing legal system of intellectual property protection, and not just for music or movie piracy but in the name of global justice and equality. Thus, the world’s age-old morality-versus-law discussions to the effect that moral justice should prevail over legal standards and that morality is always above law have been reinterpreted in relation to the pandemic and the vaccine.
Francine Mestrum has contributed to our programme by stating that healthcare as a whole should be regarded as a global commons resource.
Amid the pandemic, July and August turned out to be the “quiet summer months” for Europe and the United States (although the coronavirus caseload soared in Latin America during that period: see Pepe Escobar’s article on Brazil.
An array of statistical data for the second quarter which showed the lockdown’s ramifications was already available by that time. Accordingly, the discussion focused on the quarantine policy pursued by different states and ways to achieve herd immunity, an analysis of optional solutions, human and economic rights violations during the pandemic and the responsibility of the states. These questions were posed by Alan Freeman’s Valdai paper “How Many People Need Die?”
During a discussion hosted by the Valdai Club, Karl Friston presented his models for building herd immunity.
Richard Lachmann provided an analysis of how the pandemic will affect the power of the elites nationally and globally.
Jordi Raich Curco, in the context of unequal access to healthcare, warned against COVID becoming a “disease of the poor.”
The autumn brought a second wave of the pandemic to Europe and new worries. Pessimism set in with a massive return of the disease, which appeared to have been defeated in the summer, followed by sad expectations that this might, indeed, last a long time. Quite naturally, this invoked the genre of dystopia. In this regard, the world in 2020 as an actual dystopia was compared with popular literary works of this genre.
On the other hand, let’s face it, the quest for optimism is the goal of this analysis. This approach usually meets the expectations of the public. In this regard, Richard Sakwa raised the question of whether fallout from the crisis could be turned into a positive by taking advantage of the opportunities presented by this global system shock.
The second Valdai Club policy report this year, “History, To Be Continued: Utopia of a Diverse World” which came as a result of expert reflections during this challenging year followed the same line of thinking (by no means dystopian, but an attempt to present a positive future world utopia).
Climate policy, too, gained more prominence among the public and expert opinion amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps, improving air quality more quickly was the only positive outcome of the pandemic and the lockdowns. A sharp decrease in the anthropogenic load led to a rapid expansion of wildlife habitats as well. This amazing global natural experiment has shown that it is possible to drastically improve the environment, reduce emissions and curb climate change fairly quickly.
It has also shown that environmentalists’ calls, if followed, can lead to significant results not sometime in the distant future, but almost instantly. On the other hand, there was a concern that some kind of a disaster is needed in order to start this process (like the coronavirus) and that humanity will do nothing to this end of its own free will. The fact that air quality began to deteriorate quickly following the resumption of economic activity is a case in point.
That is why, in the first months of the pandemic, a sufficiently powerful civil movement started in many countries around the world to use this pivotal point, of the epidemic, to reset global energy, industrial and other policies based on green principles. A heated discussion of the green transformation strategy began, and the concept of green power, by analogy with soft power or smart power, began to gain prominence. This issue also became the focus of the Valdai Club’s interests and gave a boost to the focus on climate policy and green values that have been mentioned in our papers in previous years. Christof van Agt discussed the role of green energy in economic recovery after the pandemic.
Alexey Yekaykin raised the issue of climate dissent and what will become of the planet if nothing changes.
At the 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Club, a special session was devoted to climate change and decarbonisation. At the end of the year, a collective report, “Climate Policy in a Global Risk Society,” was released, covering green transformation, climate diplomacy and climate migrants in the context of the risk society paradigm mentioned above.
The year 2020 has been a year marked not only by the coronavirus, but by great historical anniversaries as well. It was the year of the 75th anniversary of Victory of the Soviet people against Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War and the end of World War II. Of course, the moral importance of the historical memory policy in the anniversary year was particularly important in many countries, and discussions focusing on memories of war and their different, occasionally opposite, interpretations, became particularly heated. The Valdai Club prepared a special expert report for the anniversary: “Forgive but not Forget? The Image of War in Culture and Historical Memory.”
In this report, Konstantin Pakhalyuk compared two narratives about war that can be identified in modern culture. One of them is heroic, emphasising feats of courage and valour, while the other is tragic, focusing on victims and war crimes. Clearly, war has a place for both, and these narratives do not contradict each other overall, but complement various aspects of war. The only question is how they relate to each other and whether this relationship is balanced. Whenever this balance is upset, the author highlights a tendency aimed at de-heroisating the war completely. In its ultimate expression, this narrative finds its embodiment in a kind of “war gore” where war brings to life only the worst qualities in people, and civic consciousness during the war is replaced by philistine sarcasm and detachment. In this context, the author addresses the much broader topic of “post-heroic” society in the modern world as an integral part of a global consumer society.
The other contributor to this report, Matthias Uhl, analyses the historical perception in Germany of the end of WWII, as well as the process of formation in German society of perceiving the end of the war as the liberation of Germany. He then shows certain pitfalls that prevented the public opinion of the state that had lost the war, to perceive the end of it not just as victory over Nazism by the Allies, but as the liberation of Germany. This psychologically and politically complex process of perceiving defeat as liberation was studied by the author on a broad factual base and analytical material and fits into the context of general discussions about the role of historical memory in today’s Germany.
Also, in honour of the anniversary, expert materials about the perception of historical memory of the end of World War II in Russia and Japan were published as part of the programme.
Expert materials on the political significance of the Nuremberg Trials were published as well, which acknowledged different degrees of guilt of representatives of various groups of this criminal regime’s senior officials, including the military, diplomats, special services, the economy, propaganda, etc. This is quite logical from a legal viewpoint. In a moral context, though, it raises the question to what extent this division by gravity of guilt borne by different management spheres corresponds to the key principle of Hannah Arendt's banality of evil concept where guilt applies to every member of a criminal regime. Vladimir Pechatnov analysed the political significance of the 1945 Potsdam Conference.
Among other anniversaries celebrated this year, Reinhard Krumm focused on the anniversary of German reunification in 1990 and how it is perceived now by German society.
Vincent Della Sala focused on the anniversary of the completion of the unification of Italy in 1870 and intra-Italian unity today.
Unfortunately, hopes that the common threat of the pandemic would push geopolitical conflicts aside failed to materialise. The year 2020 was accompanied by both the continuation of old and the emergence of new political conflicts. They all touched on moral values, the political narratives that frame them and the form of their expression. These issues were the subject of Roman Reinhardt’s Valdai Paper “Tweets vs. the Officialese” on changing the language of diplomacy in new circumstances.
Igor Istomin drafted a Valdai note on the concept of revisionist powers in international relations, which is to be published soon. It includes the transition from revisionism of interests to revisionism of values. Moral ambivalence, which we mentioned in relation to the coronavirus, is reflected in the geopolitical battle. Radhika Desai writes in this regard about the anti-Chinese rhetoric of the Trump-led United States.
Carlos Ron examines the international aspects of the year-end election situation in Venezuela.
Much attention was paid to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and to the spread of its ideas and values around the world. James Andrew Lewis uses the term “Yeltsin moment” in this regard in relation to the United States.
Andrei Tsygankov analyses the oligarchy crisis in the United States amid the protests.
Daniil Grigoryev covers the prospects for the AltRight ultra-right movements.
The Black Lives Matter movement has also exacerbated the policy of historical memory in the United States and the world in general and led to rethinking it based on anti-colonialist values and denying the white racial domination’s implicit influence on historical narratives. In this regard, Thomas Sherlock wonders how legitimate the historical myth of the founding of the United States is now.
Marlene Laruelle writes about the “monument debate” in the context of monument demolition.
Perhaps, in the run-up to the New Year, most of the Earth’s inhabitants would wish that the events of this challenging year are never repeated. However, seen from the point of view of expert analysis, it must be admitted that 2020 turned out to be surprisingly productive in terms of developing and testing a large number of radically new ideas, breaking old clichés and providing an opportunity to openly discuss many previously taboo topics. For this, we must say thank you to the pandemic.