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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

The Munich Security Report 2019 gives a clear answer to the question “Who is to blame”? We can argue with the conclusions reached by the authors, but they are clarified for us. Of course, Russia is among the guilty: the report reproduces in one way or another the official line of the EU and the US on key issues, although this was done quite correctly and without additional Russophobia. The problem is with another question – “What to do”?

The organizers of the Munich Security Conference have released their annual report. As usual, it is a good and well-founded text. The analysis of key international trends is combined with the contours of the doctrinal guidelines of European security policy. In terms of its weight and content, the report remains one of the most significant and highly anticipated reviews on the world political scene. It provides a ready source where the strategic orientation of Western foreign policy, as well as the direction it is taking intellectually, may be ascertained.

In spite of the high level of substantive implementation, the Munich Security Report 2019 still has a sense of ambivalence to it. The high concentration of qualitative analysis is undermined by the authors’ perplexed tone, which has significantly increased in comparison with the previous texts.

One of the key points is the loss of orientation, the destruction of the old world order, threats to the “rule-based” liberal world, and the obscure contours of the world order. All this is correct and understandable. It is difficult to argue with the thesis about the long transition. The problem is that in recent years and even recent decades, the idea of the old world facing crisis and of the uncertainty associated with the new world have become so widespread that the story has lost any intellectual fertility. Perusing scientists’ research, the speeches of politicians and reports from conferences, it has gradually become a collection of words, characterized by savoir vivre, a way to fill the place. It can be like a talk about weather – seemingly necessary and useful, but hardly intended as anything more than a way to fill a pause in the conversation. Moreover, the Western chorus of voices is reflected, albeit with some other features, in similar narratives found in Russia, China, India and other countries. For instance, in Russia we see the endlessly repeated popular mantra about the inevitable demise of the unipolar world and the long transition to a multipolar and polycentric world. It seems to be a good sign: if everybody is talking about the problem in a similar way, it means that it is really relevant. In fact, we are confronted with intellectual stagnation: the world is rapidly moving forward, and its intellectual elite remains trapped within the usual categories. Apparently, this group understands that it is losing touch with reality. But the elite can hardly grope it reliably. The anxious feeling of disorientation and lack of understanding regarding what is happening is a typical symptom of modern life.

Another thesis of the report, about the growing competition between powers, is also not new. The authors are right to pinpoint the tendency towards growing contradictions between China and the USA, the USA and Russia, etc. Indeed, over the past year, the feeling that the point of no return in relations between Beijing and Washington has passed (with respect to Moscow, this happened even earlier). However, the contours of contradictions between the great powers emerged quite a long time ago. Today they are only setting out a specific political course, a set of actions and counteractions that unleash the flywheel of competition.

It is hardly possible to consider the events taking place in the West new, such as the growing unpredictability of the US and the turbulent processes in Europe. The authors of the report again correctly reassess the trend in good faith. But behind it, the distinct contours of the future are also invisible. It binds us again to the tired idea about the crisis of the old world and the long passage to the new one.

The complex task of looking beyond the horizon, in my opinion, complicates the somewhat stereotypical perception of the competition between great powers. One of the temptations is to reduce it to the struggle between the enlightened, peaceful, liberal and democratic countries and others that violate that order— authoritarian Russia and China, which propagate their principles to the world and seek to profit from this. We must pay tribute to the authors – they do not misuse this scheme, but rather refer to it as a generally accepted system of Western thinking. However, the problem is that the driving forces behind these growing problems seem to have a completely different nature and be indirectly related to the characteristics of the political regime and the internal structure in general. It is also a mistake to attribute them only to the “evil will” of Moscow and Beijing. For example, China prospered in the decades following the end of the Cold War. US-centered globalization allowed it to grow rich and gain strength, and at the same time remain an independent and sovereign player. Beijing is the last in line of those interested in revising the existing order. Russia’s foreign policy motivation, or rather those steps that led to a split in relations with the West, had its own specifics and was extremely weakly associated with ambitions to revise the “foundations.” Moscow has, long and loud, expressed its dissatisfaction with the unipolar world, the double standards of the West and the evils of the liberal order, but pursued rather narrow security tasks in specific areas – no less, but no more. Neither Russia nor China today offer the world any intelligible alternatives. They point to the problems and imbalances, and also try to promote their own interests. But they do not yet offer any comprehensive alternative model, comparable, for example, with 20th century socialism. The exclusion of Moscow and Beijing from the usual scheme of the liberal order is a symptom of its general crisis, and not a result of the deliberate effort of individual countries hoping to destroy it. Generally speaking, the unpredictability of the United States as the leader of the liberal order stands to do it much more harm. This threat is addressed quite clearly in the report.

The Munich Security Report 2019 gives a clear answer to the question “Who is to blame”? We can argue with the conclusions reached by the authors, but they are clarified for us. Of course, Russia is among the guilty: the report reproduces in one way or another the official line of the EU and the US on key issues, although this was done quite correctly and without additional Russophobia. The problem is with another question – “What to do”? From the content of the report, the conclusion is clear: to preserve the liberal world order by all means, to rationalize United States policy, and to isolate Russia and China or make them return to their usual roles. But a return of the old order of post-bipolar times is unlikely. It would be worth thinking about the parameters of the new world, as well as what role all key players could play in its construction. Perhaps this would provide a key to the solution of the great powers competition problem.

Author: Ivan Timofeev is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, Director of Programs at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

First published in Valdai Discussion Club.


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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
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