It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that practically the entire system of international relations in the 21st century is closely related to the discussion about values. Moreover, strategies to promote values have become key issues, and are policies based primarily, if not exclusively, on values, and only secondarily on interests, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
Values determine policy. How true is this statement? The dynamics of world politics in the 21st century more often move from the traditional balance of power to the normative and value conditioning of foreign policy actions. Therefore, moral attitudes begin to play an ever larger role, sometimes even prevailing over the law in world diplomacy and the foreign policy struggle. This value factor is of particular importance for the perception of foreign policy by society in various countries. Therefore, the problems of moral relativism, value revisionism and the normative conditionality of foreign policy come to the fore.
Different values and different normative attitudes associated with them are now becoming an increasingly tangible obstacle to dialogue between different centres of power in the world arena. The idea that Western values are universal is being increasingly rejected, and is often perceived in developing countries as neo-colonialism; among the revisionist powers, it becomes a key argument that Western expansion is taking place, which is seen as interference in their internal affairs. As a result, in contemporary world politics the actors increasingly use different semantics. This happens even when everyone communicates using the same professional English. The reason for this lies in different value attitudes and public expectations from foreign policy in different societies. Therefore, mutual semantic misunderstanding is now becoming a key problem in international relations.
In this regard, it would probably not be an exaggeration to say that practically the entire system of international relations in the 21st century is closely related to the discussion about values. Moreover, strategies to promote values have become key issues, and are policies based primarily, if not exclusively, on values, and only secondarily on interests. In the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union wrote explicitly that it pursues a value-based policy. The concept of “normative power” has become, perhaps, the main one in describing the external strategy of the European Union.
This policy of the global promotion of values and the normative foundations of politics provokes, in the context of modern geopolitical struggles, a revisionist response from those opposed to the Western powers, primarily China and Russia. As this struggle intensifies, their value and normative revisionism begins to increasingly complement the traditional geopolitical revisionism of these countries. Moreover, it itself becomes, if you will, the normative basis for their geopolitical protest and thereby receives its quasi-ideological base.
In this regard, the problem of universal values is becoming an extremely acute issue on the revisionist agenda. Are they possible or is it just an illusion? In addition, given the close intertwining of values and interests, there is always a temptation to say that any discourse about values is just a pretext for promoting quite clear geopolitical interests. Hence, negativism arises, when, in the perception of values, it is not reflection on one’s own values that acquires key importance, but rather the negation of external ones.
It is no less important that the simplicity of this value negativism makes it completely understandable and a priori acceptable for the broadest masses of society, for the notorious “deep people”, for an ordinary person. This allows it to be actively used in media politics, with an emphasis on simplification and grotesque in its coverage. As a result, value issues are becoming a priority for the information war that now accompanies geopolitics.
Another aspect of value revisionism is its traditionalism and primordialism (and, if you will, archaism), the close linking of values to cultural archetypes and the depths of history. In this regard, the normative advancement of the West is presented as a threat to a traditional identity. Moreover, identity is understood in various aspects: in the ethnic, religious, state-centric, behavioural or sexual sense. This semantics of traditionalism makes it possible to interpret external normative pressure as a key threat to the very foundations, to the very existence of a people. As a result, the political challenge for the elites is very easily transformed into a total value threat to the entire nation, and yields a corresponding emphasis from the media.
This link between value revisionism and traditionalism makes it imperative to address history in normative politics. Different interpretations of historical memory are becoming the focus of a real foreign policy struggle. Here you can see a very telling example of how values and interests are intertwined with each other. This is partly what makes it possible to actively use values in the geopolitical struggle. I think we can say that historical memory is undoubtedly a value that can evoke a serious passionate response in society. But the policy of forming (and modifying) historical memory, actively pursued by many states, is a social construct, implemented solely on the basis of interests. Thus, we can conclude that there is not only one-way traffic between values and interests. That not only values (as a basic category) define interests (as a more applied category). But vice versa, interests also influence values, shape and reform them, sometimes completely changing the values that were inherent in society before. So, the question of what comes first — values or interests — does not have such an unambiguous answer.
The use of historical memory in the value struggle is often associated with the opposition of the heroism of the past and the modern “post-heroic” society. This can be seen in the broader context of criticism of the consumer society and its lack of spirituality, where history (or at least idealised historical myths) becomes an important moral example. Here, on the one hand, we are familiar with the notion of the “Prussian school teacher” being the real architect of the national cohesion of Germany (and its militarism). But, on the other hand, such an approach cannot only lead to the “re-heroisation” of society, but also provoke reflections on how this historical ideal is combined with the real behaviour of the elites and their compliance with such an ideal. In the context of society’s distrust of the elites (which is quite common in many countries in the modern world), this media and political promotion of historical ideals can sometimes only increase civil discontent.
The next key value around which a sharp regulatory and geopolitical struggle is being waged is the value of democracy. The Joe Biden-initiated Summit for Democracy in December 2021 put this problem at the centre of real world politics. After it, perhaps, it will not be an exaggeration to talk about the symbolic division of the world into two parts: the union of democracies and the “union of dictators” opposing it. Thus, the values here have had an extremely significant impact on the real geopolitical split of the world. The key disagreement is whether the perception of democracy should be universal, common to all countries, and based on Western values, or not, and various “non-Western” interpretations of democracy are possible, determined by the specifics of the historical, religious, cultural and political development of individual countries. And what, in this case, is understood by non-Western democracy (and by non-Western values)? Is it possible to give them a positive independent definition, or are they characterised only by the rejection of Western models, as discussed above?
Of course, historical memory and democracy are by no means the only values that have found themselves in the focus of real political struggle. In the modern world, these include, undoubtedly, environmental values and green ethics, which are gaining decisive importance in the context of the energy transition and the fight against climate change. The Covid pandemic has had a major impact on the evolution of the value agenda. On the one hand, in many countries we see the promotion of a kind of new “value of unfreedom,” postulated as a necessity for the safety of people in a risky society. On the other hand, this also provokes a civil protest, an increase in mistrust between society and the elite, the emergence of the concepts of “medical totalitarianism”, a return to the ideas of Michel Foucault’s biopower. The struggle for values began to manifest itself more and more often in sports and in the Olympic movement. The phrase “sport is beyond politics” now, perhaps, can already be replaced by the phrase “sport cannot exist outside of values.” Migration issues, gender equality issues, and many others are in the focus of the value discussion. The attention that the Valdai Club intends to pay this discussion in its expert work in 2022 is quite justified, given the acuteness of the global value and regulatory agenda and its direct impact on real world politics. We hope that our readers share our interest in this theme.