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DIFFERENT OPINIONS

The opinions expressed by the authors of the articles in this section are for discussion purposes only and may not coincide with the position of the Russian Government and the Embassy

03.04.2012

Convergence vice versa

Article by Sergey Karaganov, Dean of the School of International Economics and International Affairs of the National Research University Higher School of Economics (NRU HSE), Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense PolicyAlmost everything about this world is changing. Rebalancing of forces, rather fast by historical standards, is one of the most visible changes.

Old geopolitics is making an extremely fast comeback. In addition, people reject centuries-old rules, political morals, which used to add some predictability to international relations in the past. Now they refuse to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity, or to keep their word and be loyal to allies.

All of this is being made worse by the deepening intellectual vacuum. Ruling circles, even those in rather developed and seemingly advanced countries, are carried away by God knows what. Suffice it to mention that Western countries welcome or encourage overthrows of half-democratic, though secular, Arab regimes and play up to super-reactionary Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf, whose victory will drive the Middle East back into the Shariah, make women put on a veil and surely result in a further socio-economic degradation and greater instability. To make things worse, this is the largest energy producing region of the world. And all of this is being done under the slogan of democracy support. In the past one could presume that these slogans were motivated by ideological considerations – a wish to broaden the sphere of influence or a simple desire to weaken a rival by limiting his ability to concentrate resources by democratic mechanisms. Now these actions are motivated by the devil knows what. The West acts to the detriment of its own interests in the Middle East.

One might try to explain the current policy towards Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria by transitory moods. However, before that there was Iraq and the land operation in Afghanistan they are still struggling to finish. And if anybody gained from the invasion of the Americans and their friends in Baghdad, then it is Teheran, which they are now trying to cut down to size.

Voices in favour of abandoning the unreasonable policy are hardly heard. The rational Obama announced changes in the US strategy — from direct involvement in conflicts to redistribution of resources for the benefit of economic revival of the United States – but the country is so divided that it prevents Obama from staying rational. It is the official Moscow that has been acting rationally so far, but it has no explanation for what is happening either. And maybe for this reason, as well as for some domestic considerations, Moscow started to pump up external threat in an effort to discredit the dissatisfied and justify the (generally necessary) military expenditures.

It appears, though, that the situation is far worse than if there were a threat. On the one hand, the majority of traditional Western partners are entering a politico-economic crisis so profound and protracted that it destroys their of the ability to act rationally. On the other hand, the emerging multipolarity, for which so many fought in Russia, and the demise of the bloc discipline, hegemons or simply acknowledged leaders give a green light to regional players who have started to advance their agendas, predominantly inherited from the past.

Persian Gulf leaders almost openly decided to resurrect a mostly mythical Arab caliphate, the Iranians – the Persian Empire and the Turks – the Ottoman Empire.

But why is the West so helpless and irrational? The explanations may be many, but one of them is that the West has seen an unexpected and extremely painful downfall in its geopolitical standing, following what seemed to be a triumph. The US has been defeated twice - in Iraq and Afghanistan, Europe has had internal problems and a failed common foreign policy, which turned a group of great geopolitical players into a foreign policy dwarf. But the most comprehensive explanation is that the Old World’s economic and political system has run into a systemic crisis. It remains attractive and humane but would not be effective under new conditions, despite gaining a victory in the Cold War and reinforcing – through liberalizing goods flows and financial markets – a new spiral of globalization. At first, the globalization helped to spur the development but then new industrialized countries caught up the wave. Even energy exporters, like Russia.

Let me set the record straight here: there is nothing about the Western crisis that we may gloat over. There is a visible weakening of modernizing and humanizing impulses, which used to reach us from the West but not the East, though the West has always been our geopolitical competitor. So I do understand, yet do not recognize, the certain malevolence in writing or speeches of some of my compatriots. When gloating delight in the “Decline of the West” is accompanied by hysteria over its perceived subversive actions it all sounds like a medical case to me.

But let us go back to the crisis. Its main reason is that the political system that taken shape in the Old West by the beginning of the 21st century fails to ensure competitiveness in the new world.

Several years ago it was in fashion among politico-economic elites to speak about a challenge of the authoritarian capitalism. Now it appears that the problem is much larger than the challenge from the “newcomers”.

It is also about the old ones. The surge of well-being in 1980-1990-ies resulting not as much from information and technological revolution butfrom the large extensive growth of the global (i.e. capitalist) market resulting from reforms in China and the flight of the USSR and the Eastern Europe from socialism prevented the West from implementing the much-needed structural reforms (with notably rare exceptions like Germany or Sweden). The West started to lose in economic competition. In Europe, this was contributed into by an overly speedy expansion of the EU and the euro-zone — not accompanied by unified economic management. They tried to turn a blind eye to the problem and started to live on credit which is now due to be paid.

The rich were those who benefited most from the state support. Inequality felt tolerable while everybody’s share of the pie had been growing. Following the 2008 crisis the majority of the Western population knew that they and their children would be living a poorer life contrary to their habitual expectations of ever-improving living standards.

The stronghold of the modern developed democracy – the middle class – has started to erode, hence the rise of far-right sentiment – nationalists, the US Tea party, as well as far-left– pogroms in Europe’s cities, different forms of the Occupy Wall Street movement. As a result, left-of-centre politicians are simply being washed away while left-of-centre ones find themselves at a loss (this is why President Sarkozy made his rather demagogical promise to renounce the Shengen zone). Such statements are equal to political blasphemy in Europe.

It will be quite difficult to get out of this situation. Democracy is good for good times, but it makes things difficult at a the time of painful reforms, which must result in a significant fall in living standards of the electorate majority.

The victorious majority will not cede what they have, despite the promises “to share” voiced by its most enlightened representatives.

Consequently, the old world is in for a long period of social and political instability and reorganization. I am almost sure that its policies will be acquiring more elements of authoritarianism, though I hope this will not entail rejection of basic principles of democracy.

After all, the political system under Churchill, Eisenhower and De Gaulle was rather authoritarian by modern US-European standards. Some things from this future are coming to view now. When commercial banks were made write off (restructure) tens of billions of dollars of the Greece debt without their consent or the consent of dozens of thousands of common people who kept their savings in Greek bonds.

Relatively poor authoritarian countries, including Russia, are likely to evolve in the opposite direction. The growing middle class in these countries will demand greater democracy and greater respect for their interests. Pressing international competition will require fighting corruption that stangles the economy, which will only be possible in a pluralistic political environment.

Over 40 years ago, a great Russian physicist and humanitarian Andrey Sakharov put forward the idea of convergence, according to which socialism must move towards greater democracy, while capitalism – towards greater social justice. The prediction failed: Soviet socialism refused to reform itself and collapsed, while capitalist countries lost their motivation for social justice and restraint in foreign policy, which resulted in a systemic crisis.

It seems though, that the new world of open competition makes Sakharov’s idea of convergence relevant again and humanity will move towards a unified socio-political model, be it authoritarian democracy or democratic authoritarianism.

P. S. This article is not intended to justify Russia’s current politico-economic model. The author views it as a relatively ineffective as well as ethically and aesthetically unpleasant. But he is convinced that there is no way we could leap over any stages of development in a fairy-tale fashion. We tried to do so in the 1990-ies — and the country was saved by miracle. Europe made such attempt as well – now it will have to rollback a bit.




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