Morality and Law
Values ​​and Interests in World Politics

There is not only one-way traffic between values and interests. Not only values as a basic category define interests as a more applied category. On the contrary, interests also influence values; they shape and reform them. Sometimes they completely alter the values that were inherent in society before. So, the question which is primary — values or interests — here does not have such an unambiguous answer, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

The problem of values in world politics is one of the most acute. Virtually the entirety of international relations in the 21st century is closely linked to the discussion on values. Moreover, strategies to promote values have become key ones, as well as policies based primarily, if not exclusively, on values, and only then on interests. In the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union explicitly wrote that it pursues a values-based policy. Thus, the previous interpretations of international relations as a struggle for interests that form the basis of the classical theoretical school of realism, should be seem as a thing of the past.

But is this really the case? How unambiguously determined is this process?

Perhaps, of all the values that somehow figure in political discourse, there are only two that are definitely uncompromising and all-encompassing. These are religious values and national identity (ethnic, racial, caste, etc.).

It is clear that the willingness to defend these values and fight for them varies from religion to religion and from ethnicity to ethnicity. It is clear that there are political strategies for the construction of national/religious identity and they are being implemented. Even if we assume that a cynical form of social engineering played its role here, then we must conclude that it fell on fertile soil. Issues of ethnicity and religiosity are just those topics that are primordial for an ordinary person and mass society. If you use Lev Gumilyov’s term, then here the passionarity is manifested especially quickly in a person and society — which is absolutely necessary for the effective promotion of a value outside.

For all other values, honestly speaking, this is not the case. In addition, the initiators of the discussion about values, about their universal character in a globalised world and their promotion to all states and societies, hardly had in mind these two values (ethnic and religious). It is unlikely that the European Union intends to pursue a policy that protects precisely ethnicity and religiosity. Moreover, let’s be honest, as many examples in history have shown, from national/religious identity to national/religious exclusivity, there is often only one small logical step left (especially in the context of the struggle for the promotion of values and the competition between them). This, I think, is hardly included in the tasks of the programme to build a homogeneous global society and a single world policy based on universal values. Here ethnicity and religiosity should, ideally, become nothing more than an exotic “highlight” of every local society, something like cute stereotypes from tourist guides. As a matter of fact, the value of tolerance that is being actively promoted now is intended to achieve this (separate nuances of this value associated with positive discrimination and the priority of minorities over the majority are a separate issue, but for the purposes of this article it is not so important). The only problem is to what extent these globalist universal values are capable of evoking in an ordinary person and mass society a primordial passionary response, at least minimally comparable to the values of ethnicity and religiosity? If the answer is that this extent is minimal (even for environmental values, which today, in our opinion, have the greatest potential for passionarity), then wouldn’t it be correct to say bluntly that these values are only a postmodern social construction, even if the entirety of 21st century world politics are based on them?

Morality and Law
Global Biopower: From Theory to Reality?
Oleg Barabanov
One of the important consequences of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic was the revival of expert discussions in various countries about the new relevance of biopower and biogovernance concepts. They were reflected during the discussions at the 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.
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An important and practically controversial issue is the relationship between values and interests. On the one hand, they are traditionally quite clearly separated from each other in conflictology and in other disciplines. The contraposition of conflict of values and conflict of interest is of great importance here. Attempts to resolve them should be based on fundamentally different basic orientations and technological methods. Where the conflict is based only on mismatched interests, then there is almost always an opportunity to bring them closer together, to come to some kind of at least a temporary compromise, and therefore the potential to de-escalate these conflicts, or at least to freeze them, is quite high. Conflicts of values, according to the theory of conflictology, are much more difficult to resolve, since there can be no compromise on values, they are all-encompassing and indivisible, and the struggle for them, ideally, should go on until complete victory or, alas, until complete defeat and the undermining of the resource base.

On the other hand, world politics provides many examples where values and interests are intertwined. In part, this makes it possible to actively use values in the geopolitical struggle. For example, historical memory is undoubtedly a value that can evoke a serious passionate response in society. But the policy of forming (and modifying) historical memory, which is actively pursued by many states, is a social construct, implemented solely on the basis of interests. And there are many examples of this kind. Thus, we can conclude that there is not only one-way traffic between values and interests. Not only values (as a basic category) define interests (as a more applied category). On the contrary, interests also influence values; they shape and reform them. Sometimes they completely alter the values that were inherent in society before. So, the question which is primary — values or interests — here does not have such an unambiguous answer.


The alignment of values and interests has a direct impact on the relationship between morality and law in world politics. Traditionally, within the framework of the Westphalian model of the world, the interests of states were regulated by international law. Interstate treaties made it possible to fix the achieved interests and put a barrier in the way of too-ambitious interests which were unacceptable to others. One of these interests, shared by many countries, is, for example, the legal principle of non-interference in internal affairs, enshrined in the UN Charter. At the same time, the established international law often became an obstacle precisely in the way of the realisation of values, since the task of promoting values abroad presupposes, first of all, the need for intervention in the affairs of other states and societies, directly or indirectly. As a result, a discussion unfolded that “the laws of 1945” are out-dated with respect to the value challenges of the 21st century, that the out-dated right contradicts morality and therefore must be replaced and supplanted by morality. The notion that there is a moral duty to protect values has become an argument that legalises interference in the affairs of others, even if the law does not allow it. It seems that this trend will continue to develop.

A separate issue is the problem of the universality of values. Is it possible or is it just an illusion? For Russians, there is also a subjective aspect here. For a person and a society that emerged from the Soviet model, educated on communist ideals and values, who survived their collapse, it should be logically characterised by a certain nihilism in relation to any new ideals. The post-communist legacy or, if you like, the post-communist social trauma leaves little room for other dreams, except perhaps for some nostalgia. Therefore, this type of society a priori is often characterised by cynicism in relation to the issue of values in politics in general and in world politics in particular. They are completely supplanted by pragmatism and interests.

Law, Power and the Power of Precedent in International Relations
Rein Müllerson
Current discussions, including the recent annual session of the Valdai Club in Sochi and its aftermath, have drawn attention to international law and particularly to two crucial questions: can international law be effective (even exist as such) in the absence of a balance of power, and what is the role of precedent in that domain? Here are some reflections on these matters.
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In this case, the dichotomy between true and false values does not work either. If our previous values turned out to be false (or were declared as such), then why should these others necessarily be true? Here, experiential scepticism plays an important role in the perception of values and their implementation in politics. In general, from the point of view of logic, the term “true values” is more a matter of faith and religion, and by no means rationalism. In addition, given the aforementioned interweaving of values and interests, there is always a temptation to say that any discourse about values is just a pretext to promote crystal-clear geopolitical interests. Hence, negativism arises when, in the perception of values, the key meaning is not a reflection on one’s own values, but the negation of external ones. Therefore, it will not be such a great exaggeration to say that for many both in Russia and in the non-Western world as a whole, the following postulate will be true: “our only value is that we are against your values”. For all its external paradox, it works and even politically unites the most diverse countries and forces in the non-Western world. Between them there is often very little in common from the point of view of positive shared values, but there is a negative denial of Western domination, which was previously carried out through resources and interests, understood by everyone (and provoking, just as importantly, a passionate response in the mass society of these countries). Domination through values is also added to it. In postcolonial societies, this is often combined with the implementation of the universal values promoted by the West as a new culture colonialism, as a notorious, to borrow from Kipling, “white man’s burden 2.0”, when he again carries the light of enlightenment through values to non-Western communities who do not want to accept them. Most often it causes rejection in the mass society of these countries and is perceived as neo-colonialism. All of these trends should not be underestimated.

As a result, the discussion of values in world politics entails a number of fairly deep theoretical questions. First of all, this is the question of the primordiality of values, whether they are inherent in society from the very beginning or they are constructed by means of social engineering. If the first answer is correct, then how easy (if any) is it to change them? If the latter is true, then the cynical conclusion suggests itself that values are only a social construct used to advance interests in a geopolitical struggle. However, even when admitting this, it must be emphasised that there is nothing wrong with the postulated universal values in themselves, that they are most likely capable of making our world a better place. And that is precisely why (and by no means only because of the geopolitical struggle) they will determine the agenda of world politics in the 21st century.

Morality and Law
The Pandemic Era: Valuing Non-Freedom and a New Social Contract
Oleg Barabanov
We can say with a certain degree of confidence that the pandemic has largely destroyed the previous forms of social contract between citizens and authorities in a number of countries. Also, this imbalance of trust has spread from the national levels to the global attitude of people towards international organisations and their activities, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.