Like Grass through Asphalt

July 27, 2018 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

Yakov Chernikhov

 

By

Igor Ivanov

 

 

The world is going through a very difficult and dangerous period in its development. This much is evident not only for prominent global politics experts, but also for anyone who browses the daily newspaper or watches the news. As has happened throughout history, the end of the second decade of the 21st century will bring a multitude of challenges and security threats on which our common destiny directly depends. Some of these threats are inherited from previous eras, while others have appeared for the first time before our very eyes. Some of the challenges directly affect our everyday lives, while others still loom on the horizon.

 

 

Social Mobility on a Global Scale

 

In politics, the information and communications revolution is changing the mechanisms of political mobility and rendering the traditional party system, and political parties themselves, obsolete. In practice, new technologies that have the potential to provide a breakthrough in the development of political democracy more often than not become tools in the hands of irresponsible right- and left-wing populists. Entirely new means of manipulating public opinion and imposing simplified ideas and stereotypes on society are being created. Constant and reasonably successful attempts are being made to erase the lines between truth and lie, between information and propaganda.

 

The impact of new technologies on the system of international relations is extremely ambiguous and contradictory.

 

On the one hand, technological progress creates the conditions for expanding cooperation between states, peoples, regions, private businesses, and civil society institutions. Entirely new opportunities are emerging for what sociologists have dubbed “ascending social mobility,” both for individuals and states. People have a better understanding of each other than they ever have in the past, and we can justifiably refer to ourselves as a unified humankind.

 

On the other hand, new technologies are unintentionally undermining the stability and predictability of both global and regional politics. Almost as soon as they appear, these new technologies are in the hands of stock market speculators, financial wheeler dealers, international terrorists, and transnational gang leaders. Government institutions are always playing catch-up, and their wholly inadequate responses always come too late (partly because their priorities are to a large extent still determined by the traditional agenda inherited from the past).

 

The most dangerous challenges can be found in international security. Just look at the threats emanating from cyberspace, which today are often compared to the threat posed by nuclear weapons. It is true that certain parallels do exist, but there are also significant differences. Nuclear weapons have always been at the disposal of a narrow circle of select powers, although that circle is definitely expanding (albeit rather slowly) in the face of active international opposition. Conversely, cyber weapons are extremely democratic in that any state, or even non-state actor, can create them. Moreover, the features of this new kind of weapon mean that such non-state actors as transnational corporations, international organizations, NGOs, and network structures often possess far more powerful resources than governments.

 

What’s more, nuclear weapons were not created and deployed in order to be used, but rather to deter potential adversaries. The fear of global nuclear war meant maximum caution and a high level of responsibility on the part of the nuclear powers. Cyberwarfare is different — few believe that it poses an immediate threat to all humankind. This is why the temptation to use such tactics may be too great. Moreover, cyber weapons are largely anonymous. Cyberattacks can be carried out from practically anywhere on earth and the real perpetrator may go unidentified and consequently unpunished.

 

We are not just talking about threats to national security here. Threats from cyberspace also affect private business and every single person who uses modern digital technologies. The cumulative effect of this danger is so great that the international community must come together to evaluate the situation and adopt urgent measures.

 

I do not want to come across as an out-and-out pessimist; the changes taking place also give rise to new opportunities. And of course, new technologies are our common heritage, not a curse. People live longer today than at any other time in the past, and the opportunities for self-realization are greater than they have ever been. In addition, our social circles are bigger than those of our ancestors, we have more varied sources of information, we travel more, and, on the whole, we live fuller, brighter, and more interesting lives. Nevertheless, new technologies present humankind with a number of fundamental questions, to which we have not yet found adequate answers

 

 

Not Succumbing to Historical Pessimism

 

It is probably no coincidence that in many countries today, including Russia, new technologies are often perceived through the threats and challenges they generate rather than through the opportunities they create. Anti-globalization moods are intensifying, as is the nostalgia for the understandable and predictable world of the 20thcentury.

 

A prevailing opinion today is that if we limit our participation in global processes, then we can protect ourselves from the negative effects of unpredictable fluctuations in the global economy and in global politics. Isolationism is an extension of patriotism, and helplessness in global political and economic matters is practically a principled position. But isolationism is an untenable position. It puts countries in a kind of lame-duck position, unable to influence globalization processes while at the same time suffering the negative consequences thereof.

 

Similarly, it is difficult to believe that anyone stands to benefit from a decrease in the manageability of the international system, the exacerbation of contradictions among various centres of power, and the emergence of regional conflicts. Strategically speaking, the erosion of world order and the expansion of global political chaos and uncertainty will be disastrous for everyone, including Russia.

 

The international community faces the truly historic task of restoring order to the modern world on a fundamentally new technological basis and building a new world order for the coming decades. The task is similar in size to the world-restructuring programme developed in the middle of the 20th century by the victors of the Second World War. The problem is that this world order was created primarily in the interests of a group of winning states. The new world order of the 21st century will only be legitimate (and therefore effective) if the global community as a whole — both rich and poor countries, the private sector and international organizations, the global expert community and civil society institutions — works together on its construction.

 

Over recent decades, we have witnessed — and to some extent participated in — attempts to promote various ideas of restructuring the world, including those that take the changing technological world into account. For example, approximately 30 years ago, the ideas of “universal values,” “balance of interests,” “reasonable sufficiency,” “common European home,” etc., were put forward in the Soviet Union.

 

The issue of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide was seriously contemplated in the mid-1980s. As legendary Marshal of the Soviet Union Sergey Akhromeyev recalls, “Back then, in early 1986, just like now, people often asked: How realistic is this idea of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether? Isn’t this some kind of utopia? I think that even those who don’t know the ins and outs of military service understand that the General Staff is made up of realists who are seasoned in dealing with issues of national defence. They don’t have time for pipe dreams. So why did we develop a 15-year plan for the total elimination of nuclear weapons?

 

“First, the General Staff clearly understands all the dangers of accumulating huge nuclear potential in the context of a drawn-out standoff between military blocs. These military unions have thousands of strategic carriers and tens of thousands of warheads on combat alert, ready to be deployed in a matter of minutes. If utilized, this unimaginable nuclear power could reduce every living creature on earth to ashes in a few dozen minutes.

 

“Second, the General Staff realized that this danger was understood both at home and in the West. We counted on the U.S. administration and other NATO countries responding to the appeal of Russian leadership.

 

“Third, we hoped that, if we were unable to completely eliminate nuclear weapons in the proposed timeframe, then we could at least reduce their number considerably and mitigate the threat of a nuclear conflict, which is also important.”

 

Unfortunately, the world was not ready for such a radical revision of the principles of international relations, and the possibility of moving into the 21st century with a new world order was lost forever.

 

 

A Game of Poles

 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its allies attempted to restore the controllability of the international system on the principle of a “unipolar world.” I must admit that the originators of this strategy sincerely believed in the wholesomeness of the “enlightened” American hegemony not only for the United States itself, but also for other participants in the international system. However, we all know that the attempts to build a unipolar world were not only unsuccessful, but also gave rise to a number of additional problems that the international community now faces everywhere. Incidentally, it should be noted that modern technologies, which consistently undermine the rigid hierarchies of global politics and economics, actively work against the idea of a unipolar world.

 

The concept of a multi-polar world began to gain traction as a more stable, reliable, and fair system than the unipolar world model around the turn of the century. However, a more or less specific plan for this multi-polar world has yet to be put forward. This is understandable. In current conditions of universal interdependence, global production chains, international finance, transcontinental migration, and the globalization of education, science, and technology, it is rather difficult to believe in this multi-polarity. Relations between countries and peoples are increasingly determined not by fateful strategic interests, but rather by countless concrete agreements, private contracts, universal technical standards, and harmonized regulatory practices. We have been talking about multi-polarity for 20 years now, and we are still no closer to getting a handle on what it really means. The potential participants of the global concert of the 21st century are not sufficiently equal, and their mutual relations are too asymmetrical. The foundations of the traditional global political hierarchy have been fundamentally undermined as non-state actors have taken an excessively large role.

 

Even less promising is the concept of “new bipolarity,” which entails the formation of a new world order around the central axis of U.S.–China relations. Reproducing the U.S.–Soviet model of the bipolar world is not something that will happen overnight, if only for the simple reason that the modern international system does not allow for a confrontation between two socioeconomic systems that are separated by irreconcilable ideological differences. Most problems in the 21st century do not usually arise between states, but rather within them. Generally, the sources of instability are non-state players who oppose the existing rules and norms of international life.

 

In the 20-plus years since the end of the Cold War, we have, through joint efforts, virtually destroyed the Yalta system without building anything new in its place. Now the world is moving faster than ever towards chaos, which no longer threatens individual states or regions, but rather the international community as a whole. Runaway technological development only accelerates this movement towards chaos, generating newer sources of stability and contributing growing mutual suspicions and mistrust.

 

History has taught us that the transition of humankind from one world order to another has always been associated with the accumulation of new production technologies, and wars and revolutions have served as the catalysts for these transitions. We have already reached a critical mass of technologies for the next civilizational breakthrough to take place; however, a new cycle of wars and revolutions is fraught with fatal consequences not only for individual countries, but for all of humanity. This is why it is extremely important to break the stable algorithm of history: we need to transition to a new level of civilizational development without yet another global cataclysm.

 

 

Stopping at the Point of No Return

 

In a situation where it is increasingly difficult to impose anything from the outside on a state, society, social group, ethnic group, or individual, the only thing left is tough negotiations, difficult compromises, and, possibly, voluntary commitments and gradual evolution. In any case, the future world order will not replace the current system; it will gradually grow through it, like grass through asphalt. The chances for success will be greater if we follow some basic principles.

 

First, the only way to restore controllability is through the joint efforts of the entire global community. The last three decades have demonstrated the inadequacy of attempts to construct a new world order by force in the interests of the “elite club,” no matter what name it happens to have — NATO, the G7, or “coalition of like-minded states.” The discussion should begin within the framework of the United Nations as the only universal and unconditionally legitimate global organization. This will make it possible to breathe new life into the United Nations by way of a well-thought-out reform process.

 

Second, the new world order should be based on unconditional respect for the sovereignty of all states — big and small, rich and poor, Eastern and Western. Double standards in this area are the rust that will inevitably corrode the structure of the world order that is being created, no matter how strong it may seem. We must pay careful attention to the need to restore universal significance and a uniform interpretation of the basic premises of international law, without which we can hardly talk about a single system of global politics.

 

Third, security issues cannot be separated from issues of development, at both the regional and global levels. The most telling illustration of this interrelationship is the migration crisis which emerged not only as a result of international terrorism and civil war, but also of acute socioeconomic problems in a number of Middle Eastern and African countries. The new world order should include a set of international regimes capable of effectively regulating the management of resources — raw materials, energy, water, food, information, and human resources — at the global and regional levels. Just like security in the 21st century is not one-sided or exclusive, economic development and social harmony cannot be limited to the territories of individual countries or regions.

 

Fourth, we need to understand just how urgent the task of restoring manageability to the modern world is. We are approaching the point of no return with regard to this issue, and it will be extremely difficult (if at all possible) to reverse the destabilization processes once we pass this point. The continued accumulation of crisis situations, the further fragmentation of global security and development, the conscious or unconscious departure from pressing (albeit difficult) decisions, and the pursuit of immediate interests and goals — all of this could lead to tragic consequences. These consequences will be so severe that many current disagreements and contradictions will seem small and insignificant in comparison.

 

*

 

At the very beginning of the 20th century, in September 1900, the famous inventor and popularizer of science Nikola Tesla responded to pessimists who had predicted wars and cataclysms, including those which would arise as a result of technological process, thus: “The men who talk in this strain are ignoring forces which are continually at work, silently but relentlessly — forces which say peace. There has been an awakening of that broad philanthropic spirit which […] makes men in all departments and positions work not so much for any material benefit or compensation — though reason may command this also — but chiefly for the sake of success, for the pleasure there is in achieving it and for the good they may be able to do thereby to their fellow men.” Naturally, Tesla linked the awakening of this spirit with the new technological capabilities of humankind. Unfortunately, his opponents proved to be correct, as the 20th century plunged the planet into unprecedented disasters that were in part made worse by technology. However, it is true now, just as it was then, that it is not technology that decides, but people; and it is people who decide whether these technologies will be used for good or for evil. The current generation of politicians will once again have to make this decision.

 

 

 

 

This article was originally published by the RIAC and is reproduced with their kind permission

 

 

 

 

Igor Ivanov

President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1998–2004).

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