The Epoch's New Challenges. Time to Formulate Responses

11:59 28.08.2014 • Veniamin Popov , Director Centre for Partnership of Civilizations of the Institute for International Research Moscow State Institute for International Relations (University) Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Contours of the multipolar world and its transformed governance structures driven by collective decision-making and sustained international agreements, of a world where all parties involved enjoy equal rights and the interests of every side are taken into account, have been growing visible in the wake of two decades of unipolarity and US dominance made possible by the collapse of the USSR. The US propaganda machine continues to press for the former unipolarity, but, as of today, the American primacy is clearly a matter of the past while a new epoch - the one based on the sixth technological cycle which offers communication and information technologies of unprecedented efficiency – makes the world more than ever interconnected and interdependent.

The US, in part to the brain drain suffered by Russia in the post-Soviet era, created exceptional conditions for the cultivation of innovative technologies. The country laid the foundations for the post-industrial economy and way of life, and clearly hoped to preserve its resulting leadership indefinitely. Yet, the sunset days of the waning economic formation combined breakneck economic growth and blooming hi tech with social inequality, cultural decline, and social stratification, and, given the above, suspicion creeps in that the US role in the global economy will decrease in importance in the long run. Princeton University professor and Nobel Prize winner in economy Paul Krugman stresses that, over the past 30 years or so, the US has rolled back to the inequality level which was usual for the grim early phase of the industrial epoch. Back in 1970, CEOs of the 102 biggest American companies reported incomes 40 times greater than the average worker's wages, and at the moment the difference is a frightening factor of 367.

A 2012 Goldman Sachs report, regarded as fairly cautious by many, says that by 2050 the US will be the only Western economy in the world's top five, ranking way below China in terms of the GDP.  The World Bank projects that the US dollar can lose the status of the key global currency within a decade from now.

The recent mortgage crisis which escalated into a global financial meltdown could have been a signal of the neoliberal paradigm's dropping out of synch with reality. In Europe, the elites increasingly call for switching away from the US model of the world finances, and, overall, a question mark hangs over the Western proficiency in financial affairs as such following the 2008 crisis. The success of younger Asian economies and the economic rise of BRICS are serious reasons to revise the notion that untamed interplay of market forces and the minimization of government-imposed regulations constitute an optimal arrangement, and disappointment with the US recipes is spilling worldwide. The moment, it must be noted, marks the end of the five-centuries period of Eurocentrism, during which the concert of Europe and the US has been defining the direction of global developments.

The  rate of change in the present-day world accelerates enormously (largely under the influence of technological progress), and quite a few governments fail to catch up, acting, as well-known US scholar Robert Legvold explains, late and not as extensively as they should have. The world is obviously en route to one of its many transitions which is likely to leave the global landscape completely transformed and to put mankind on the track of development powered by new motivations and values.

The XX century used to be built on mass production. Now the post-industrial formation has grabbed the scene, the general rule being that, in contrast, success stems from the endeavors of strong research teams of highly educated people who generate novel ideas and advanced technologies. The computer revolution did not require material resources comparable to those absorbed by the industrial revolution and relied chiefly on the might of human intellect. Is it a valid extrapolation that the future will be powered by even fewer resources and even greater intellectual contributions?

S. Huntigton, a proponent of the US primacy, nevertheless admits that “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do”.

From a wider perspective, the US invasion of Iraq, which became a prologue to the area's ethnic and sectarian conflict with no end in sight, also left Washington locked in chronic hostilities with the Muslim world. The war in Iraq is a case of a country's seizing control over the situation militarily at a distance unseen since the fall of the Roman Empire.

The consequences of the Soviet disunion in all spheres – in social development, politics, and the international relations – have been truly global.

In January, 2014, scientists reported an appreciable tilt of the Earth axis – apparently, as sages and academics recurrently warned, the very nature started to react to mankind's overstepping the basic moral laws which tend to be interwoven on the levels of nature and human conduct. The response manifests itself in the climate slide, in the form of ruthless winter colds and abnormal summer heat, in endless rains and intervals of drought accompanied by fires, the phenomena which altogether cause people extreme discomfort or, from time to time, take human lives. Fluctuations of the climate reinforce social and political instabilities, with the epoch's “breaking news” being loaded with accounts of killings, fightings, and disasters.

The outbreaks of the Arab Spring which, at first, bred multiple unrealistic expectations, continue to send impulses of pain across the Middle East. In Egypt, the new administration cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood which it declared a terrorist group. The prosecution demanded death penalty to hundreds of adepts of fundamental Islam, prompting outrage among their relatives and friends.

In Syria, which is not that far to the south from Russia, terrorists directly backed by the West are waging a bloody war. The terrible conflict which has already been lingering for three years grew out of the Shia-Sunni sectarian strife as a result of the US invasion of Iraq, the regime change in the country, and the violation of the fragile but,  nevertheless, real balance in the Gulf area. In the meantime, the living conditions of the majority of the population deteriorate and the economy crumbles.

Discord is brewing without much publicity even in the Gulf Cooperation Council which, outwardly, has a reputation for stability. After coming under barbarian NATO air strikes, Libya, a country which enjoyed comfortable, if not careless, existence not that long ago, is left torn apart and devastated, and finds itself at the epicenter of chaos and terrorist activity sending shock waves deep into the African continent. Moreover, there can be little confidence in the domestic stability of all other countries of the region except for Tunisia where the political forces, religious and secular, have sacrificed their political ambitions and achieved a consensus necessary to rebuild the country's economy.

Quite unexpectedly, a severe conflict erupted in Ukraine, attracting the whole world's attention to the country neighboring Russia. It is absolutely clear that in this case the US and West Europe entered into a de facto confrontation with Russia against the backdrop of the Ukrainian drama.

On the whole, it is fair to say that civilizational divisions loom behind the key conflicts in today's world. In line with the trends, the issue of fundamental values is central to what the world is going through. These days Western powers readily renege on their own humanistic traditions and resort to military force in the hope of retaining or restoring their hegemony, the tendency giving a totally new character to global politics. The West's unwillingness to accept the reality that it is no longer in full control thus takes a severe toll on humanity.  

The Ukrainian crisis is unlikely to stay in history as an isolated episode. Rather, it signals the beginning of a protracted phase in the international relations, of a series of events brought about by the widening civilizational divide. Civilizations no less than individual countries emerge as players on the international scene. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on May 8, 2014 in a notable statement made in Tallinn that “What Russia is doing now in Ukraine violates the principles of the United Nations Charter”.

Globalization has caused the level of interdependence between countries to increase sharply, bringing to life the metaphor of the world as one big village. Ever more efficient communication technologies make the world a small place as the Internet, smartphones, etc. evolve into customary elements of daily routine such as, for example, wrist watches. With the innovations already changing our lives beyond recognition, no doubt the coming advancements in biotech, medicine, telecom, and energy will cause people to thoroughly reformulate their priorities. Scientists project that, over the next 15 years, the climate change will deeply affect the human existence both on the personal level and globally. It is, therefore, of great importance that humanity learns to continuously piece together an integral picture of the unfolding transformations and to look far beyond its immediate problems.

The so-called Arab Spring which culminated in the ouster of a number of country leaders whose rule appeared to be perpetual provided a vivid example of the new trends gaining momentum globally. The above illustrates to what extent it is imperative  to conduct on a permanent basis the scientific analysis of the current processes. An adequate line of conduct can only be charted on the basis of recommendations issued by the academic community. The potential of the latter must be employed to put together a credible forecast at least for the coming decade and to define Russia's fundamental interests in various spheres within this perspective.

The West boasts myriads of thinktanks and organizations dishing out foresights and forecasts, the US intelligence community also being heavily involved in the activity, but the impression often is that the purpose behind the whole pursuit is to produce propaganda influencing the public opinion of partners and opponents alike rather than to get a serious glimpse of the future.  What we need, in contrast, is an analysis of the trends observed plus a fusion of the various findings and conclusions to be subsequently used as practical guidance.

Certainly, the near-abroad should be at the focus of Russia's foreign policy. Our objectives for the coming decade – especially those pertinent to the reinforcement of the Eurasian Union - must be spelled out wit utmost clarity. In Central Asia, China more than the West is going to be our main partner and competitor in the next 10 years. Moscow should see empowering BRICS as a viable international organization among its prime goals. The formation has a chance to take a role of the backbone of the future world order, though there are many bumps down the road. Drawing new members to the ranks of BRICS would by all means be in the interests of Russia. Eyeing the Muslim world whose population growth far outruns that of the Christian world, would be a reasonable strategy in this regard. It would make plenty of sense to attract Egypt and Iran to an informal alliance. Given appropriate criteria, it would also be a good step to engage with Mexico. The involvement of Nigeria as Africa's leading oil exporter would be a welcome move forward as well. Turkey is of great interest considering its regional weight, but the withdrawal of the country from NATO would be a prerequisite for its admission to BRICS.

BRICS should make an effort to create, within a decade, a currency system of its own, possibly by introducing a special monetary unit to this end, and to construct its own machinery of financial clearances. The forming of a BRICS Internet should also be added to the agenda.

The present structure of the UN is inadequate to many of the contemporary realia. It has to be taken into account still, that initiating its reform is an uphill task since neither Great Britain nor France are interested in having the composition of the UN Security Council adjusted. Under the circumstances, it would be a good idea to pop a plan for the creation of a new organization – the Council of Civilizations, a body where several countries would represent the key civilizations of the world. Significantly, the format affords positioning Russia as an independent and unique civilization. The plan is completely practical thanks to the parallelism of the core values and orientations of all of the non-Western civilizations. Latin Americans, the Chinese, Indians, and particularly Muslims would not accept the West's flexibility on moral norms, gay marriage, etc.

The new approach would require profound reforms of Russia's domestic policies in a number of areas. The following three directions may be listed in particular:

First, the course must be taken towards real local self-government and the forming of local administrations on the basis of elections, with their authority being expanded and backed financially.

Secondly, a land reform should be implemented, part of it being the distribution of vacant agricultural terrains (totaling slightly under 50 million hectares in Russia) among the citizens interested in cultivating them. The measure is to give a boost to Russia's food security. So far, the country has not utilized properly its natural advantages such as the massive availability of lands suitable for agriculture and the ownership of a quarter of the global reserves of drinkable water.

Thirdly, there is an urgent need to design and construct an expressway stretching from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Consultations on the project may be opened with various European and Asian countries. The functioning of the expressway would cast a unifying influence across Russia. 


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