Forecasting is a risky affair for any scholar, particularly when discussing medium- or short-term prospects. One would think that there is nothing easier than visualizing the near future: the principal parameters are known, and current trajectories are clear. All you need to do is project them a few steps ahead. And this is the correct approach for stable and balanced systems.
The problem is that with international relations we are dealing with a non-linear and mercurial environment. The situation in international relations changes rapidly, nullifying the realities of yesterday and even of today. Paradoxically, making a long-term prognosis for the international environment can sometimes be a simpler task. When dealing with major trends, it is easier to discard multiple chance happenings and fluctuations to get a "clearer picture." However, medium- and short-term forecasts are in higher demand in practical policies, because most political decisions are made here and now for a term of a few months or years. Understanding long-term trends is necessary. And it is in demand. Adequate political strategies can hardly be formed without such an understanding. They also play an important educational role. Still, in solving operational tasks, long-term instruments prove to be too complex and cumbersome. For all the risks of short- and medium-term forecasting, such work is more compatible with tactical and operational tasks. In each case, we need to take into account so-called "black swans" – improbable and unexpected events that could give a major boost to previously outlined tendencies or, on the contrary, weaken them.
In recent years, international relations have been marked by a growing vulnerability to such events. When we developed our short-term prognosis in late 2017
, we could not have predicted either the Skripal affair or the Kerch incident with any kind of precision. However, both events indicated the condition of the international environment. They demonstrated that the parties to the incidents had failed to develop mechanisms for preventing the destructive consequences of such events in the future. It means that new incidents can happen anywhere and anytime, and their consequences will be hard to control. Vulnerability to local crises and their disproportionately strong impact on relations between the key players signal larger changes to the structure of international relations. The world is at a point where short-term changes in certain countries and regions coincide with global shifts. The current situation is comparable to an "appulse" of sorts, or to an eclipse, when trajectories of small and large celestial bodies cross in a single point.
In this report, we gather the opinions of Russian experts on the country's foreign policy with regard to individual countries, the situation in individual regions, and the specifics of the development of the key functional areas in international relations. Each forecast offers its own level of analysis and its own "analytical lenses" depending on the topic under consideration or, to continue our "appulse" analogy, on individual "celestial bodies." We will attempt to offer some thoughts on the dynamics of the "solar system" itself – that is, to demonstrate possible trajectories of the development of the system of international relations or what is traditionally called the world order.
Clearly, in the short- and medium-term (between one year and four to five years), the trajectory of the world order will be determined by several major factors, including:
1. The domestic political situation in the United States and the influence that U.S. domestic politics have on its foreign policy.
2. The dynamics of U.S.–China relations; the speed at which military, political and economic contradictions between the sides are increasing; the depth of these contradictions; and the determination of the parties to defend their original political positions.
3. Russia–U.S. relations, as well as relations between Russia and the "collective West" as a whole. What also matters here is the pace at which political conflicts deepen further and the probability of their escalation into a military conflict.
4. The stability of existing alliances (primarily NATO) and the prospects of new alliances forming (Russia–China).
5. The growth or, conversely, decrease in the autonomy of the foreign and domestic policies of other major players, such as the EU or Japan. India is possibly retaining its strategic autonomy.
It is difficult to reduce the diversity of international life to the actions of and relations among key players. Additionally, even in the "key player" segment, the number of independent variables is far higher than the five factors listed. It hardly needs mentioning that international relations are characterized by a large variety of other factors beyond those five. It is our belief that the five factors listed form the framework of the current political dynamics. And we should emphasize once again that the present historical moment is characterized by the vulnerability of relations between great powers to the effects of local "lesser factors." Mechanisms that could in other circumstances attenuate the impact of local crises have been lost. It is extremely hard to predict what exactly will destabilize the relations within the five factors listed. What is important is that it can happen at any moment. And with each new local crisis, vulnerability to new stresses increases. Herein lies an important difference that sets the current political situation apart from the Cold War era, when individual crises, on the contrary, advanced development of new rules of the game.
Below, we consider four basic scenarios of the possible dynamics of the world order in the next four to five years.