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Fyodor Lukyanov

Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, RIAC Member.

Thirty years ago in 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay “The End of History?” The title drew a line under a long period of world history and held out the promise of a perpetual liberal world order. The latter had proved its worth by winning the fierce 20th-century confrontation without firing a single shot.

Thirty years ago in 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay “The End of History?” The title drew a line under a long period of world history and held out the promise of a perpetual liberal world order. The latter had proved its worth by winning the fierce 20th-century confrontation without firing a single shot.

Yet, today’s Western world is being swept by a pessimism bordering on panic. Just a couple of years ago, the advocates of the rules-based liberal world order acted confidently, arguing that there was no real alternative to it and that temporary difficulties would be overcome because mankind would not invent anything better. Opponents pointed to the phenomenon of “authoritarian capitalism,” which had allegedly proved that there was another, more effective, development model. However, the experience of Russia and China, which were usually cited as examples of such a model, showed quite soon that authoritarian capitalism was closely linked with the liberal order and could not exist without it.

The crisis and retreat of the liberal world order is a prevailing topic nowadays, with commentators trying to outdo one another by offering the grimmest description of events. They link the malicious activities of global revisionists – such as China and Russia – with public and political changes taking place in Western countries. They claim that all of this together, which is probably coordinated through collusion, may destroy the liberal world order and plunge the world into the bloody chaos of bygone times.

The break with the INF treaty and the entire system of arms control agreements sets off alarmism; signs of a new nuclear arms race have set Europe on edge.

But is everything really so disturbing?

It is, if one looks back and follows the make-the-liberal-order-great-again principle. In other words, the attempt to return to what worked in the past. But it is not so disturbing if one accepts that a new stage of global development has set in. Many principles of interaction will have to be worked out anew. The future may still not look bright, but at least it can be manageable.

The problem of political thinking is that it continues to draw on the 20th-century template and extrapolates its notions and categories to present-day reality. It is not just that the situation in the world has changed dramatically. The 20th century was a unique historical period when various ideologies had a decisive influence on world politics. The liberal world order was the result of bitter ideological competition that was eventually won by the Western community. At the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries this produced a common framework, which included such a notion as “the right side of history.” This term has been repeatedly used by Western politicians to assess various international processes and events.

But this figure of speech is anti-historical because history has by definition no sides. It is coherent and indivisible. After the end of the Cold War, the liberal view turned into a new guise of Marxism with its dogmatic postulates on the constant direction of social development. Lenin and Trotsky spoke about the inevitability of world socialist revolution, while Fukuyama saw a different goal, but universal all the same.

Globalization played a bad joke on everyone. It made world politics all-embracing by increasing the number of relevant actors. It was believed that new powers and forces would take on “the right” model – but they did not. More and more countries became engaged in the global economy, and more importantly, in world politics, but they did not become homogeneous and like-minded. As a result, the world became global and interconnected but retained the diversity of interests and original political cultures and views. This did not fit the universalistic understanding of “the end of history” and the triumph of its “right side.” As rising powers became more persistent in advancing their interests and principles, they faced growing opposition from those who considered themselves the conductors of this process – namely the leading Western countries.

Throughout history, the natural growth of new forces has always caused friction.

It is always a risk but it can be handled through a careful and well-considered realistic approach. However, today there are two factors that exacerbate a classic dilemma: first, there are too many actors on the world chessboard; and second, the dominating power and its allies are not just guided by the feeling of their supremacy but believe that there is no alternative to their sociopolitical and ideological model. This becomes an obstacle to fundamental agreements because the counterpart is viewed as the one who must change in “the right” direction. However, the vis-à-vis, who also understands that his partner expects him to change and become “real,” loses a great deal of trust in negotiations.

This is a complex psychological situation. But there is also good news. If it is interpreted fairly and correctly, it will become clear how we can build a new balance.

The West is gripped by irrational fear. At its core is not its weakness – given the combined military, economic, and informational clout of the Western world – but confusion from the realization that things did not go as expected.

What exactly went wrong? There has been no end of history. No universal development model fit for all has been invented. The hegemon has been challenged by the contenders. The interests of states are still there and they are quite different, and public sentiments inside countries swing from one side to the other like a pendulum.

But what is so unexpected or unnatural about this? This is precisely what has been happening in world politics and international relations for centuries, often causing upheavals. But mankind gradually learned to avoid and minimize them. At the end of the 20th century, people for some reason decided that everything would become different and previous experiences were no longer valid. As it turned out, there is no one panacea. But there is also no reason to panic.

At the end of the 20th century, the international system lost its balance. Everyone has been affected, and it is time to start looking for a new one. But for that we must acknowledge the need for a serious discussion with all actors, regardless of their views or political system. When world politics involves countries of different traditions and political cultures, there can be no universal views, but there can be a common understanding that no one country can realize its interests without cooperation with others.

It will take three things to break the current state of hopelessness.

First, it is necessary to understand that the world is changing qualitatively and irreversibly, with no going back to the past. So, the end of nuclear arms limitation agreements is not a catastrophe but rather a reason to assess the new international situation and offer new initiatives.

Second, it is necessary to recognize that a new international system will not be based on Western principles, but that the West has powerful resources to defend its interests when creating new agreements.

Third, moral arrogance does not work in world politics involving very different countries. Cultural diversity requires equal agreements.

A new world is not a reason to be scared, but an opportunity to show our intellectual ingenuity and imagination. This has long been Europe’s strong suit. It only needs to believe this itself.

Source: Robert Bosch Academy

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