The Return of the Future and the Triumph of Political Realism. Day 2 of the Valdai Club Annual Meeting
Sochi, Russia
List of speakers

On the second day of the 18th Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, two regular sessions and two special sessions were held, which included the presentation of a new report and the first book of the Valdai Club’s Scientific Series. In addition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with the participants of the event.

On Tuesday morning, the presentation of the Valdai Club annual report took place, titled “The Age of Pandemic: Year Two. The Future Is Back”. The experts of the Club have said for a long time that the concept of the “end of history” was bold, but untenable. The pandemic was a borderline, after which it became clear that the era of certainty was over, and a multivariate future was opening up for humanity. “This is not so much about the future of the planet, even though universal problems cannot be ignored, as it is about countries taken separately," the authors of the report write.

The speed at which states, regardless of the nature of their political regime, put an end to cross-border mobility clearly showed that globalisation is finite. What lies ahead remains unknown, but it is already clear that the control of states over citizens has tightened, also thanks to digitalisation. The pandemic, as the experts of the Club noted more than once, did not provide an impetus to a global restructuring of the healthcare system, but created the temptation of "medical totalitarianism", which any political regime can adopt. This, in turn, is fraught with undermining citizens' confidence in the state. A lack of trust has also been observed at the international level: the credibility of multilateral institutions is falling, because they have failed to ensure coordinated action to combat the pandemic.

However, there are other, rather positive strokes to this gloomy picture of the collapse of globalisation. So, although the level of exchange of goods has decreased, the level of data exchange has begun to grow exponentially, which has meant an increase in the profitability of technology companies. Thanks to the transition to online interaction, it was possible to restore gender balance: today more women are involved in solving international issues than before the pandemic. In addition, in 2021, world trade will have increased 9.7% (in 2020 it fell 8.2%). However, as noted in the report, digitalisation not only provides convenience and new opportunities, but significantly increases the level of vulnerability of all related systems. The session’s participants also discussed traditional security threats in detail, particularly those related to nuclear weapons.

The first session was followed by the traditional meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister, which took place in a closed-door format. Sergey Lavrov discussed a wide range of international issues with the Club’s experts, including such important topics as the closure of the Russian mission to NATO and the possible reform of the UN Security Council.

The second session of the Annual meeting was devoted to the impact of the pandemic on the psychological state of society. Amid the lockdowns, the psychological health of the population has predictably deteriorated, the experts said. Hypochondria, obsessional states and suicidal tendencies are spreading, and domestic violence explodes. In Russia, this presents particularly acute difficulties, as relying upon psychologists and psychiatrists is generally stigmatized, although those who have already had such experience are more likely to seek psychological support from doctors.

Western societies also have their own problems. Over the past 20 years, the level of health in the United States, including mental health, has been rapidly declining due to the inability of many to receive the necessary care, and this is a consequence of neoliberal health policies. In the United States, citizens without health insurance have not received the vaccine. Lack of insurance has led to a third of all COVID deaths. According to one expert, world leaders have failed in everything except helping the rich: for example, in the United States the number of billionaires has increased by 25%. Participants noted that many governments have failed in the fight against the pandemic, and sooner or later they will have to answer for this to their citizens.

The topic of state control tightening over society was continued during the third session. As one participant noted, the actions of the state were unchanged since the days of Hobbes, who formulated that the state provides space for security in exchange for freedom. Today, the state has reached the level of biopower: control over the human body (this topic is also touched upon in the Valdai Club report). What we have now is the ‘new emergency’ norm. Practices that emerged during the pandemic will become routine. But this control cannot become a total success, and modern states have not turned into totalitarian ones at all. It is noteworthy that, according to the Europeans, the main danger is the irresponsible behaviour of people; the expansion of the powers of the state scares them less.

At the same time, without noticing it, we became prisoners of the technology companies, exchanging our personal data for their shareware products. In parallel with this, as one of the experts noted, we are falling into the trap of digital obesity. The Internet provides ultra-accessible and super-cheap informational food, which has become a problem for humanity.

At the political level, the spread of digital technology has led to the emergence of “digital ochlocracy”, as one participant called it. Mass protests are coordinated through networks on the Internet. At the same time, a synthesis of the modern and the archaic is taking place: protesters often hold a smartphone in one hand and a cobblestone in the other. Both are now quite accessible.

The transformation of society can lead to the fact that territorial communities based on the state will become a matter of the past, one of the experts noted. States are trying to fight those processes which threaten territorial communities, but people are organising into new communities in the digital space.

At the end of the second day of the Annual Conference, Timofei Bordachev presented his book “Europe, Russia and the Liberal World Order. International Relations after the Cold War”, which was published by Routledge and became the first in the Valdai Club’s Scientific Series. Presenting his work, the author made a reservation that the question “Russia and Europe - what went wrong?”, which became the name of the session, is only of interest for him from the standpoint of publishing: in his opinion, an idyllic picture in relations between the two sides was impossible in principle. Using the example of the interwar period, Bordachev explained that situations when the interests of countries that have real weight and influence are not taken into account in the emerging international order can lead to a catastrophic chain of events. This is precisely the situation that was created after the end of the Cold War, when the world order was built around a narrow group of Western states, realising their narrow goals and ignoring the interests of Russia, which plays a key role in maintaining the European order. Speaking about his methodological approach, the author emphasised the need to take into account two main theoretical categories - strength and institutions. They belong to different schools of thought (realism and liberalism), but only their combination makes it possible to accurately describe the phenomenon of a failed international order in Europe.

The author's theses caused a heated discussion among the panellists, who for the most part, like Bordachev, consider international relations from the standpoint of realism. In particular, it was noted that it is impossible to view Russian-European relations in isolation from the United States. If Europe is deprived of the American security umbrella, many of its bellicose statements against Russia would cease immediately. Moreover, it would be more correct to talk about Russia's relations with the West, and not about Russia and Europe. For their current state America is to blame, first of all, as the main driving force of the Western alliance. True, some participants insisted that Russia should view Europe as an independent and still important player.