The increasingly complex vortex of international life makes it difficult to implement foreign policy for most countries. The polycentricity towards which Russia has been striving so much, is yielding more and more surprises, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
2021 was a year of growing confusion and a jubilee year for the New Peace, which ended the Cold War thirty years ago. It was the second year of the pandemic, which is increasingly being perceived as the new normal, a kind of common life.
2021 was a year in which the old world order continued to crumble, and through the cracks, the contours of the new order are beginning to emerge. The increasingly complex vortex of international life makes it difficult to implement foreign policy for most countries. The polycentricity towards which Russia has been striving so much, is yielding more and more surprises. The erosion of American hegemony has opened up a wide scope for the activities of medium and small countries amid crises in Eastern Europe — primarily in Ukraine and Belarus. In these situations, we observe medium-sized and small countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia engaging in especially risky behaviour. However, this behaviour is not accompanied by an awareness of their responsibility for peace and stability in Europe. The Lithuanian line towards China, the opening of an official representative office of Taiwan in Lithuania and Beijing’s sharp reaction to this move only confirm how poorly small and medium countries understand the consequences of their actions and what significant consequences this could have for political processes on the continent.
Apparently, “negative sovereignty” — a concept offered in the early 1990s by researcher Robert Jackson — still maintains the framework of international relations in Eastern Europe. This concept reflects a phenomenon that was born after the end of World War II — it consists of the prohibition of the conquest of one state by another. And even if a state is incapable of maintaining domestic order or an effective state apparatus on its territory, the right to exist of such a state as a sovereign cannot be legitimately challenged from outside. This “negative sovereignty”, as opposed to “positive sovereignty” which presupposes the ability of a nation-state to effectively exercise power in its own territory, is a safety net for desperate states pursuing high-risk policies.
The second major trend that manifested itself in 2021 was the collision of the liberal development paradigm as the basis for the prosperity of the modern world with the decline of Western political influence in international processes. The shift of the economic and political centre of gravity to the East, to the Asia-Pacific region, has led the key countries of the Old World, and some countries of the Western Hemisphere, to strategic disorientation. It manifests itself in the growing inconsistency of the mental map of what is happening, which has developed in the heads of the elites. The “long 1990s”, during which rapid economic growth lasted a long time, fuelled by the resources freed up after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, proceeded in parallel with the wave of democratisation that spread from Central and Eastern Europe to the Middle East, until it was finally reversed. After the unsuccessful completion of the American military expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the question of nationalist revenge in the countries of the Old and New Worlds is becoming increasingly acute. A nationalist wave in the Old World has amplified the long-term effects of Donald Trump’s presidency, which shook the foundations of American politics and caused significant trauma to the Washington establishment. Will this wave of liberalism of the past thirty years make it reversible?
In the year 2022, we will see a whole series of presidential and parliamentary elections in European countries, and leaders from the nationalist camp are already visible. The most likely candidates for the second round of the presidential elections in France are Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. The second most popular candidate, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, has called on France to leave the Euro zone, and Eric Zemmour has voiced radical anti-immigrant positions. It will be extremely difficult for President Emmanuel Macron’s party to maintain the majority in the National Assembly, which it still holds. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party will also fight to maintain a majority in parliament in 2022. In Northern Ireland, the nationalist party Sinn Fein is leading in the upcoming elections in public opinion polls. Finally, in Austria, the former presidential candidate from the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, will run for the presidency. Will the European nationalist wave make the gains of liberalism of the last 30 years reversible?
Finally, the third key trend in 2021 was the return of diplomacy. The aggravation of the crisis in Eastern Europe once again made interaction with rivals a top priority. Although a major war between the nuclear powers is unimaginable, the rivalry between them is growing ever more acute. The key challenge that the diplomats will face is the development of rules to regulate the new period of confrontation. The history of the Cold War is especially useful here, as it is a textbook for structuring complex rivalries in the context of limited information. The excessive publicity and even theatricality of diplomacy, which we have become well acquainted with in recent years, will become a matter of the past. Diplomats, who played the role of hawks, were, in fact, engaged in the elimination of their own profession. Raising the stakes in international competition amid the security crisis in Europe should revive the profession of the true diplomat and reliably provide jobs for the new generation of graduates of diplomatic universities over the coming years. The tendency to turn diplomats into universal bureaucrats is probably broken: regional studies expertise, knowledge, the ability to empathise and those qualification skills that distinguish diplomats from the general environment of bureaucracy are again in demand. Hopefully, this renaissance in diplomacy will avoid the sharpest turns of the security crisis in Eastern Europe, which escalated in late 2021.