On Thursday, May 14, the Valdai Discussion Club held an online presentation of the Club’s special report, titled “Staying Sane in a Crumbling World”. It became a logical continuation of the two previous annual reports of the Club, the central theme of which is the growing uncontrollability of the international system.
As Fyodor Lukyanov, the Club’s Research Director, noted in his opening remarks, the 2018 report, which introduced the concept of a “crumbling world”, was perceived by many as too alarmist. However, the problems brought about by the coronavirus pandemic allowed the authors to feel like prophets for a while. Under the influence of the pandemic, the world really crumbled: international institutions and mechanisms do not work as they should, or have simply disappeared. However, the pandemic was merely the latest stage of a process which began long ago.
The notion of a “crumbling world” was shared by all the participants in the discussion. “Obviously, the pandemic has become an additional catalyst for many processes in the context of the transformation of the world order,” said Sergey Ryabkov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. “Unfortunately, this new common threat did not lead to a mitigation of geopolitical differences, but exacerbated the ideological and informational confrontation.” According to the deputy minister, against this background, the familiar world really crumbles and it is difficult to imagine what it is to be if manifestations of “political Darwinism” become normal. In turn, Thomas Graham, Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, stated that the concept of an “international community” turned out to be a myth: the world did not see any signs of unity.
In this context, the issue of leadership is of particular importance. According to Samir Saran, president of India’s ORF analytical centre, for the first time we are dealing with a crisis in which the United States, which has long claimed the role of world leader, has not tried to lead others. But the so-called rising powers, primarily China, have not demonstrated the desire for leadership, which was also confirmed by the Chinese participant in the discussion. Beijing’s global ambitions have weakened during the fight against the epidemic, said Chen Dongxiao, president of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. According to Chen, a situation is not ruled out in which medium-sized countries take the initiative to create a new world order – for example, within the framework of a “G20 minus the USA and China” format.
One of the important topics of discussion was the possible rollback of the world to bipolarity, which is described in the Valdai Club report. According to Timofei Bordachev, programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club, one of the authors of the report, it is precisely in the struggle between the two poles that the danger of a new era lies. Only two countries – the USA and China – have the potential for revolutionary changes in the world and the creation of a new order. The problem is that their visions are competing with each other.
On this issue, the opinions of speakers diverged. So, Sergey Ryabkov urged that the confrontation between China and the United States shouldn’t be overemphasised, describing the emerging world order as “complex polycentricity, in which there are many factors”. But Samir Saran suggested (while insisting he was playing the role of devil's advocate) that bipolarity may not be so dangerous: after all, during the years of the Cold War, more was done to preserve peace than in the previous era. However, there will be no repetition of the Cold War: rather, a Hot Peace awaits us. Due to the close interdependence between the two potential poles, the situation in the world will always be overheated.
One of the undeniable consequences of the pandemic is the increased role of the state at all levels. As the speakers noted, there are both positive and negative elements to this. The first, according to Sergey Ryabkov, is the revival of the value of sovereignty in all dimensions. The second is the restriction of the rights and freedoms of citizens, which, incidentally, citizens themselves are willing to accept to ensure their safety. The universal threat blurs the line between “democracy” and “dictatorship”: as Samir Saran noted, the only important thing is how much the government is able to mobilize citizens and resources to combat this threat. The big question is which of the restrictions adopted during the pandemic will remain in force after it ends. It is worth noting that in many countries, not only governments, but also private companies have received additional powers to control citizens – will they abandon them voluntarily?
During the discussion, which lasted more than two hours, many other issues mentioned in the report were raised. A full video of the discussion will be published on our website in the coming days.