The clever thing was to break the rules and stay alive all the same. If you kept the small rules, you could break the big ones.
George Orwell, 1984
Certainly this in no way resembles the disorderly, unorganized election-days of the ancients, on which (it seems so funny!) they did not even know in advance the result of the election. To build a state on some non-discountable contingencies, to build blindly, — what could be more nonsensical? Yet centuries were required to pass before this was understood!
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
Can the huge, global, diverse and interconnected world suddenly stop dead, paralysed by a collective fear? Can it slow down its movement and start hurriedly shutting doors and windows? Before the spring of 2020, the answer was negative. It seemed impossible to visualise the fading of international life, whose exuberant, perpetual humming was perceived as a constant. Yet it did happen. The planet went into lockdown, shocked by its own vulnerability, the ease of alienation and simultaneously a sensation of being a single whole.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not upended the universe. The erosion of international rules and institutions created in the second half of the 20th-century, which survived the Cold War, albeit in a slightly modified form, began in the 21st century. COVID-19 has only stimulated the processes that emerged before it came into being; it has accelerated the evolution but failed to add to it anything fundamentally new. However, the pandemic’s scale and shocking impact on the habitual social and political relations have drawn a symbolic bottom line under the existence of one world order and ushered in another.
It is usually said of current international politics that the mechanisms of the previous system are no longer in operation and that a dangerous and chaotic world without rules is dawning. Before 2020, in fact, it was legitimate to say that anarchy was advancing, with the world environment sliding into chaos. The Valdai Club repeatedly said as much in its 2014–2019 papers . The “crumbling world” that we described in our 2018 and 2020 reports has ceased to be a metaphor and turned into a palpable reality before our own eyes.
But social systems cannot be chaotic forever. A period of chaos is only a transition to another arrangement. Every type of order is finite and its demise inevitably generates new forms of international interaction. The crumbling of a former organisation is simultaneously the emergence of a new system. The pandemic may have accelerated the developments: what otherwise would have taken years has occurred within months.
The most significant event in 2020 was the unprecedented worldwide closure of the borders, this symbolising a rush for maximum sovereignty. Being shut within national jurisdictions was a way to protect oneself against a transnational problem and simultaneously betrayed confusion in the face of a challenge that COVID-19 posed to national healthcare and security. The closing of borders and the impossibility of direct contacts has led to an unprecedented surge of information and communications technology in all areas, from state governance to science and education.
The pandemic has been a catalyst to the disintegration of groups and isolation of individuals, a phenomenon that frightens observers most of all. The dysfunction of institutions at the height of COVID-19 became obvious to the masses. This impels people and states towards greater independence in decision-making and awareness of their own responsibility for their survival.
Development trajectories become individualised in social and economic behaviour. A greater diversity of choice is characteristic of different spheres, including education, forms of employment, the starting and final hours on the job, and the nature of hire. Grassroots mutual aid is emerging as a real strategy to address vital problems. This is of importance both locally (for example, joint actions by participants in civic protests, or medical and logistical collaboration during the pandemic) and globally (environmental and fair redistribution campaigns). People are looking for answers within groups of like-minded individuals and mutual interest societies rather than in formal groups (institutions), something promoted by the social media phenomenon.
Political party systems are declining. Even parties of a “new type” (the so-called populists, who were up and coming just a few years ago) are losing momentum because in essence they are akin to the former political institutions. The classical political parties are ever less effective where political representation is concerned and are being replaced by outwardly amorphous civic movements without clear-cut ideologies. Their approach is at first sight anarchic but it is really aimed at dealing with one single specific problem. It is they that are increasingly setting the political agenda.
A new generation of leaders and a new generation of individuals are entering the world arena. People who have grown up in an age that is often called “post-heroic” will increasingly play the determining role in politics. Of course, great risks and threats, including military risks, are still there, but the most important thing is that the new generation is seeking to find self-fulfilment and expand its comfort zone in every sense of the word. This cannot but affect the atmosphere of international politics.
Processes under way within social organisms predetermine the behaviour of states at the international level. The popularity of eco-activist Greta Thunberg and the public response to the pandemic highlight the sluggishness and political bias of the bureaucracy. The global society is forming a real (and therefore fearsome) alternative. Structurally, it is amorphous, anarchic and atomised, for which reason it is more in line with today’s realities and is calling forth a response.
States have faced the same problems internationally as individuals at the national level. As a result, people and countries are less orientated to institutional algorithms and more to their own interests, no matter how momentary or misguided they might be, hence the volatility and impulsiveness of international life. Uncertainty is the sign of the times and so these writers will not venture to predict what the world system will be like five or fifteen years from now. We have decided to write a utopia, describing an imagined and ideal world that may take shape if the current tendencies could be used for the benefit of humanity.
We make a point of avoiding panicky expectations that prevail today, because we believe that each major crisis affords a chance to open a new chapter in history, possibly a more productive and promising one than what we are leaving behind.