On Monday, October 2, the 20th Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club opened in Sochi on the topic “Fair Multipolarity: How to Ensure Security and Development for Everyone”. The first day featured three working sessions, as well as a presentation of the annual Valdai Club Report and a meeting of participants with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In his greeting to the forum participants, Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Valdai Club, emphasised that the formation of a new world, which is happening before our eyes, does not entail the complete disappearance of the old one: the future is rising from its elements. Therefore, the task that the authors of the Annual Report set for themselves is to understand what principles and rules govern this process, in the context of the destruction of cumbersome hierarchies. Finding an answer to this question is also one of the tasks facing the participants of the Annual Meeting.
Two authors took part in the presentation of the report, which was broadcast live (the recording is available on our website): Timofei Bordachev and Andrey Sushentsov, programme directors of the Valdai Club. The moderator was British historian Richard Sakwa, a long-time participant in the Club’s meetings.
According to Sakwa, today, for the first time in human history, a full-fledged system of nation states has matured, and multipolarity is becoming a reality. It has four levels: 1) national states 2) regional and military-political blocs 3) ideological blocs such as the G7, G20 or BRICS and 4) mega-unions: the political West, formed after the Second World War, and the currently emerging Eurasian bloc.
This process is causing strong resistance in the West, as it undermines its dominance. That is why the collapse of the existing world order is presented there as a catastrophe on a global scale. However, as Timofei Bordachev noted, the last year and a half have shown that countries around the world are quickly adapting to changing conditions and learning to seek benefits in order to achieve their development goals.
At the same time, the very concept of multipolarity needs to be rethought. The point is not only that multipolarity in itself is not an unconditional blessing, since it means less stability for the international system and the emergence of multiple risks. Bordachev emphasised that the very concept of a pole must be used with caution, since it presupposes the hegemony of some over others. Russia rejects the idea of hegemony, so it is necessary to develop new terminology.
For the same reason, Russia does not seek to offer the world the only correct interpretation of history, in which there would be a “right” and “wrong” side. Each state has its own unique experience. Russia's experience has been to defend its unique niche in international affairs for 500 years. In the face of requests from the non-Western world for expanded sovereignty, it could share this experience.
According to Andrey Sushentsov, the last thirty years demonstrate that a fundamental difference exists between the West and Russia in their respective approaches to the world order. It is due to the fact that the West (especially the United States) does not recognise the fragility of peace and believes that the liberal order can be established by any means, regardless of sacrifices. The Russian vision of world order is based on the understanding that peace is an anomaly, and it is necessary to be careful not to upset the fragile balance that ensures amity between nations.
This understanding was first formalised in the Russian-Chinese declaration of 1997, which proclaimed such principles of bilateral relations as mutual respect for sovereignty, cultural characteristics, and civilisational identity. On these foundations, Russia is ready to build relations with all countries throughout the world.
At the same time, the authors of the report emphasise that the spread of these principles throughout the world will not occur at the same speed, and propose the term “asynchronous multipolarity.”
The first session, which was also broadcast live, was dedicated to BRICS as a prototype for a new international architecture. The existing international system is not balanced and not representative, noted session moderator Fyodor Voitolovsky, Director of IMEMO RAS. One of the tasks of BRICS is to change this state of affairs. The BRICS countries have become important players in the global economy, he emphasised. They account for a significant portion of energy and food production. They are also playing an increasingly large role in the technology sector and produce almost half of the world's cars, something that would have been unimaginable fifteen years ago.
The session participants agreed that BRICS meets the demand of many countries around the world for alternative systems. Pham Lan Dung, Acting President of Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, believes that BRICS is proof of a change in the architecture of the world, and the increase in the number of members of the group reflects widespread interest in a multipolar order.
According to Professor John Gong, vice president for academic affairs and strategic studies at the University of International Business and Economics, unipolarity and hegemony do not bring either prosperity or peace. The task of BRICS is to make the world system more equitable and to restructure the financial and economic architecture. Since economic development is driven by infrastructure, BRICS needs to support China's Belt and Road Initiative.
Philani Mthembu, Director of the Institute for Global Dialogue (South Africa), noted the importance of BRICS in terms of managing development funds. Until recently, 80% of these funds were controlled by the OECD, which meant there was virtually no alternative for the poorest countries. Today, BRICS provides such an alternative with the New Development Bank.
At the same time, the implementation of the request for a global alternative is associated with a number of difficulties. İlter Turan, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University, noted that BRICS could become an instrument for creating a fairer international order, but it is not an organisation, but rather a club of states with common interests. According to him, while some members of the association want to develop the economy, others are interested in spreading their influence.
Ram Madhav Varanasi, President of the India Foundation, emphasised that some countries around the world are concerned that BRICS may take a bloc position. Potential participation in inter-bloc confrontation is also unacceptable for some members of the association. Thus, India seeks to join various alliances (whose goals are sometimes contradictory), guided by its understanding of national interests.
In order to become an alternative to existing global institutions, the BRICS countries must develop their own monetary fund, and for this it is necessary to overcome the resistance of national banks, noted Paulo Nogueira Batista, Executive Director of the IMF (2007–2015) and Vice President of the New Development Bank (2015– 2017). However, this ambitious goal is difficult to achieve while the main currency of the New Development Bank is the US dollar, he emphasised.
The next session was devoted to the role of nuclear weapons and the danger of nuclear war. In the context of a sharp escalation in international tension, the topic of the possibility of a nuclear conflict has returned to the agenda. The situation is in many ways more dangerous than during the Cold War, when leaders demonstrated greater responsibility for the fate of the world, maintaining dialogue and taking measures to maintain trust. Today, Western powers have lost the ability to take other people's interests into account and make concessions. The sense of the inadmissibility of a nuclear conflict has been lost: high-ranking US officials are saying that climate change could be worse than a nuclear war. According to one of the session participants, this is an indication of the degradation of Western elites.
During the session, an opinion was expressed on the need for Russia to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. According to one of the participants, in order to prevent a third world war, Russia must take the escalation staircase, threatening to use nuclear weapons against NATO countries (but not the United States). This will force the West to back down and ultimately make the world a fairer place, he said.
It cannot be said, that the prospect that nuclear weapons may be used found understanding among the audience. However, the session participants agreed with the thesis that any (not just nuclear) war between great powers should be ruled out.
The topics discussed during the first two sessions were also touched upon during the meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The minister confirmed that the countries of the world are striving to increase their own sovereignty. According to him, countries are drawn to associations that resolve their issues on the basis of mutual benefit and a fair balance of interests; he added that one such association is BRICS.
The West is failing to impose its agenda on the world majority countries, Lavrov emphasised. Attempts to mention the Ukrainian crisis and condemn Russia in international forums are met with resistance. At the same time, he pointed out the desire of Western countries to manipulate the UN and selectively interpret its fundamental documents.
The last session of the first day of the Annual Meeting was devoted to food security. For Russia, this topic is extremely relevant, since it is a powerful player in the global agricultural market, occupying a leading position in the production of agricultural products and fertilisers. Agriculture in Russia is developing rapidly. Millions of hectares of arable land abandoned in the 1990s are being returned to production. In 2022, a record volume of grain and legumes was produced.
The issue of climate change was raised, which carries both risks and new opportunities for the Russian agro-industrial complex. The likelihood of droughts is growing in the southern regions of the country, as well as the Volga region and Siberia. However, at the same time, new territories are being developed: the boundaries of the land which can be used to grow crops such as soybeans, corn and sunflowers are shifting to the northeast.
Russia is the world's largest exporter of wheat. The main export destinations (in total about 80% of the volume) are the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The session participants discussed the “grain deal” and the reasons for its failure. One of them pointed to a disinformation campaign carried out in Western media, designed to present the situation as if Ukraine is the only supplier of grain in the world, and that without it, there will be famine.
Meanwhile, hunger – and, more broadly, food insecurity – is a source of enrichment for a number of players. Shock famines arising from supply disruptions and turbulence in food markets provide global agricultural corporations with the opportunity to earn exceptional profits.
During the session, the idea of creating a system of collective food security was put forward: an alliance of suppliers and consumers of agricultural products. The principle of this system should be “insecurity for one is danger for others.” Thus, famine, for example, in Ethiopia is a problem for Russia because it means missed opportunities for cooperation, delayed development, and blurred prospects for creating a more just international order. However, to realise this requires a restructuring of thinking. Of course, to make this system work, trust between its participants must be higher than in relations with external players. BRICS can serve as a platform for creating such a system.