In each of its annual reports since 2014, the Valdai Discussion Club has consistently spoken of the need to restore global governance – meaning the resolution of emerging and growing problems through institutions-based cooperation between states holding particular political and economic importance to world affairs. This is the fifth such report, and it has the unpleasant task of reporting that the world has now passed a critical juncture with regard to the formation of an effectively functioning international order based on global governance. That is, the world is now moving in a different direction. It has slipped into a clear and undeniable trend of unilateral decision-making. And, although this process is essentially unmanageable, we must strive to understand its consequences.
The First World War was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. It wiped several empires from the face of the earth, caused mass relocations – including forced migrations – and spawned totalitarian ideologies, and yet failed to resolve the underlying differences that, 20 years later, once again erupted and thrust the world into turmoil. Most importantly, the war destroyed the existing order, the principles on which European politics (essentially synonymous with world policy) had been built over the previous 100 years.
The victorious powers failed to build a new and sustainable model of world order after the hostilities ended. The vindictive triumphalism of the winners, the desire of the defeated for revenge, the outbreak of social cataclysms among the European powers, and the rise of new players and forces created the conditions for an even bloodier mass slaughter. Only by mid-century did humanity manage to restore a balance and establish institutions that could help reduce the risk of confrontation and maintain the peace.
On the one hand, the international situation today has nothing in common with the world of 1918. Humanity has learned to avoid major wars and their attendant horrors. The abominable experience of the first half of the 20th century has not been forgotten. Historians, politicians, and economists frequently cite those events in an effort to prevent a repetition of those fatal mistakes. It would seem that we know that drill by heart.
On the other hand, the current situation in the world paradoxically resembles that of a century ago. The rise of nationalism – now pitted against globalism – and the resurgence of an aggressive form of economic behaviour in the spirit of neo-mercantilism invariably calls to mind the atmosphere that prevailed in Europe and the world at the beginning of the last century. Back then, the world also experienced a surge in global trade that at certain point aggravated relations between powers. And the ‘strategic frivolity’ that we spoke of in last year’s report evokes an unpleasant association with the ‘sleepwalking’ that historian Christopher Clark has said led reckless leaders into a world war.
However, all of this is largely a nominal similarity of circumstances, mere background to the main feature common to both historical periods. Now, as then, the world has entered an interlude: the old order no longer exists, but the new one has yet to take shape.