Task Forces


Interview: Devaluated Standards


The latest EU summit in Bratislava clearly showed that EU leaders and heads of state are baffled by current challenges. The impression is that Lenin’s meme about a housewife learning how to run the state has at last become reality. Sergei KARAGANOV, an international relations expert and the Dean of the School of World Economics and International Affairs at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, talks about the human factor and mentality in politics. 

– There is a feeling that incumbent leaders, I mean Western ones, of course, simply have failed to live up to the challenges they are facing. Is big-time politics really degenerating? Why?   

– This is a very difficult structural problem which almost no one expected to crop up. Democratization of societies adversely affected the quality of politics and gave people more ways to influence national agendas. Their main demand is well-being, preferably right now. Add the digital revolution which makes politicians around the world respond to both the “imperative” of the masses and numerous external irritants. It appears that Western democracy is not fit for that. The sixty-year-long period of prosperity ended in slow degradation of political elites, because people elected their likes to positions of power—movers and shakers are not popular in calm times. As a result, mediocrity prevailed. Deteriorating governance in this situation is a very big challenge. As Europe is once again facing serious problems, its leaders are not able to offer appropriate solutions. There are people who understand this. But they are also aware that questioning the adequacy of such problems publicly would call into question democracy itself. There have also emerged some other variants of political governance that have not been around for many years. For example, authoritarian or leader democracy, which previously was largely seen as an interim stage, now can become a key form of government. It existed in Europe before, some 50-150 years ago.

Another important factor is that elites have become global in terms of thinking and interests, thus losing touch with people who are not at all concerned with global problems. Right-wing forces are reemerging on the political stage again, and both left and left-right politicians will inevitably speak up as they have already done in France, Italy, etc. It is hard to say where all this can lead to.

We are witnessing full-blown disintegration of the common European project, which can have dire consequences in the very near future for Russia as well. We may see a surge of nationalism, reemergence of old rifts between states and their mutual claims, new radical trends, and the need for strong measures to deal with emerging challenges… One of the main reasons for disagreements between Russia and the West is that the European project is in deep crisis and Europe needed a consolidating external threat; to put it bluntly: an enemy. But Russia, too, needed an enemy for mobilizing itself for action — we have become accustomed to developing by struggling external threats. But this certainly is not a panacea for us, let alone for Europe. 

– Would it be appropriate to speak about some strategy in the West in these circumstances?

– No, there is no strategy. There used to be the Old West which is now going through multiple crises, and its main goal is to preserve its positions. This may actually be a rather dangerous attempt. China has a clear development strategy, Russia seems to be acquiring one, but there is no global trend. We are going to see further disorganization of the world as we know it. There is a sweeping economic deglobalization underway: the economic system created by the West after World War II is falling apart. But this is not the result of some strategy. It is just that any system outlives itself sooner or later. Americans are trying to put a halter upon the deglobalization process and retain their leadership if not globally then at least in a considerable part of the world; hence their projects of narrow economic cooperation with Pacific states and Europe. But they have not succeeded. Yet again, this is a reaction to current events, not an attempt to pursue their own strategy.   

– Speaking of China’s strategy, one can assume that a perfect world, as Beijing sees it, is a far cry from Washington’s vision of such a world. How can these disagreements be resolved? 

– The American and Chinese projects are on a collision course right now. China hardly needs such collisions. In fact, it needs to strengthen its positions and acquire the status of superpower, at least in Asia. Americans are doing their best to prevent that and, in my opinion, are pursuing an absolutely imprudent policy by building relations with China through containment or maybe even confrontation.   

– The United States never paid much attention to anyone before, but is now fidgeting and has to address problems created by other countries. 

– For us, the United States is still something big and powerful, but we ignore the fact that it sustained big losses in the late 2000s by getting involved in a number of military conflicts. They obviously wanted to show their might but lost. Then there was an economic crisis which had a damaging impact on the attractiveness of the American economic model, followed by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, Snowden’s revelations, etc. The U.S. has lost the aura of moral supremacy. There is no doubt that it is still very strong in all respects, but it has entered a very dangerous period when it will have to realize that although it remains a powerful state, it is no longer dominant. This is going to be hard for the Americans because the feeling of having been chosen and empowered to dominate runs in their genes. This feeling got a strong boost in the 1990s when the U.S. seems to have won everything and everywhere. But the situation has changed and the Americans will need a long time to get used to this.  

– But politics is not a soap opera where at the height of success the hero is about to be ruined, and when it seems it’s all up with him he gets unexpectedly rescued…  

– American have convinced themselves and everyone else of their final victory. When they realized that it was not so, the U.S. turned from a factor of global stability into its opposite and began changing the rules of the game. Russia has been accused of pursuing a revisionist policy and changing the established rules. True, we are changing rules but only those of them that were forced upon us since 1980s. We had a similar situation in the 1970s when countries tried to overhaul the existing system after America’s defeat in Vietnam and a series of ensuing political, social and economic problems. But the U.S. was lucky to get Reagan as president who partly reversed the situation. They can hardly hope for anything like that now, which makes the U.S. the main challenge to global security. Things are complicated by the split within ruling elites, and their infighting is truly startling. Neither side is offering a constructive program: old elites headed by H.Clinton demand revanche, while the forces led by Trump say: “Go to hell! We’ll start from the ground up!” 

– We began our conversation by observing that elites are becoming petty. Is this is what is happening in the United States?

– It certainly is. It looks like a tendency: as the number of global problems, such as migration or climate change, grows, the level of competence in global governance declines. Incumbent leaders are trying to solve global problems on a national scale.  

– Let us assume for a second that there are “secret power brokers, ”a sort of secret world government. What could it do in this situation?

– I know quite well how the world is governed and I also know that there is no secret government. Freemasonry or Communist International could influence global processes somehow, but this was a long time ago. If there really were a perfect global government, it would definitely have to resolve crises, manage migration glows, help Africa, where poverty, diseases and political instability cause tides of emigration and epidemics, deal with environmental pollution, and pull efforts to subdue the Middle East, even though it is already too late to do that.

– All of that is supposed to be done by the United Nations. Does it mean it cannot manage?

– This is exactly what I am talking about: the current level of governance fails to match the tasks the world is facing. If the world’s best minds ever dreamed of some “secret government” that would provide adequate responses to all global challenges—actually things were going that way at some point — we have been seeing a reverse movement over the past twenty years. Countries are trying to solve global problems by pursuing their own national interests.  

– If we assume that people’s personal well-being is the main goal, then there are no disagreements between the United States and Russia: we do not have to take anything away from each other in order to live better. Then why confront each other?   

– The level of mutual mistrust between our countries is way over the limit. It wasn’t so high even during the Cold War. The truth is that objective disagreements are quite minor and there is indeed nothing to divide. The root cause of the problem lies in that the United States lost the past decade on the political stage in a very bitter way, creating all of its problems with its own hands. This spurred the rise of other forces around the world, which started to challenge the postwar order. Russia was one of the main ones as it did not like the order forced upon it. China is doing the same now, even though not as brazenly, or so many within the U.S. think. In other words, the contradiction is in the fact that we are not pleased with the old order but there is no new one yet. The U.S. and some of the elites want to restore the old order, but this is impossible.       

– Let’s fantasize a little bit. Let’s just imagine that America has won all these global games and got the world it wanted. What place would Russia have in this world, honorable or disgraceful? Or, vice versa, if Russia wins, what is going to happen to America?

– Russia’s policy, thanks God, is winning for the time being. But a victory in this world is a very relative and quickly passing thing. It is much better to win together than alone. In a perfect American world, Russia would be part of the Atlantic community and would follow Washington’s policy and keep a low profile. But now Russia is the main challenge to the American order, and the U.S. will have to adapt to this reality. This is a historical and objective process, and there is no way to avoid it? The U.S will have to adapt to it. The main point is that this process must be managed properly so as not to slide into a new global war along the way, the probability of which is high right now, much higher than it ever was in the 1960s.   

– As you have pointed out, both Russia and the United State need an “enemy vitamin” of some kind that would consolidate and mobilize them. What if either of them gets the upper hand and this “vitamin” simply ceases to exist, how will they live and develop further? 

– Let me say for the sake of objectivity that Russia needs the image of the enemy more than the U.S.. Hopes entertained by world elites that Russia could be fit into the capitalist order and attempts by some of our elites to become part of it were a dangerous delusion and could not but lead to the current situation. Russia cannot be built into any system as its subordinate member, because it can only be there as a co-organizer of the global process. There are two values we will never give up: security and sovereignty. The reason for this should be looked for in Russian history, there is no way to subordinate a country that has such values.

– German Foreign Minister Steinmeier has said recently that when several decades pass, Russia would embrace the values Europe is preaching now, like exaggerated tolerance. What really surprised me is that he said this with some pity. Do they actually pity us for being unreasonable? 

– They hope that we will become like them, but they will not always be what they are now. We will certainly become more tolerant but only to the extent to which we ourselves need that, not the rest of the world. If you are a strong country, why would you need to seek someone’s approval? In fact, we are quite tolerant as it is and our society is more European than Europe itself was in the 1990s. Look at the level of comfort in Moscow and other major cities—we have taken what we wanted from Europe: stores are full, public toilets are clean and personal freedoms are admitted. But we do not want to borrow other spiritual, not material, values. In fact, they will change in Europe too, because in my opinion, what the Old World’s elites are defending now is not viable and is contrary to human nature. Perhaps you did hear some pity with regard to us in the past, but now it has given way to fear, because we are offering a viable alternative to the present European values. Pity may also be there, but it is purely inertial.     

– Libya and Iraq were completely destroyed, and Yemen, Afghanistan, and Syria were ruined by attempts to bring democracy to nations suppressed by authoritarian regimes as a gift. Millions of people are suffering (or so the West thinks) in North Korea. Would an intervention be necessary and reasonable? 

– Russia offers an alternative approach. We support the freedom of choice. Every nation should build its own political system and decide what is best for it. This is drastically at odds with the ideology of democratic universalism advocated by Europeans and Americans. We had a similar ideology: democratism and communism are much closer to each other than we think. And we firmly believed that everyone would be happy to live under communism. So we advanced our ideology and forced it upon others. What did the foreign communist parties financed by the Soviet Union look like? They were no different from present-day NGOs through which people are indoctrinated. When the ideology was no longer forced upon them, they fell apart. Western countries have also been imposing their values upon the rest of the world as the best ones, and life seems to have proved them right as everyone wanted to go to Europe and the United States. But it appears that people want to go there for a full belly and comfort, not because of a good political system.

– On the one hand, it is good to say that every nation has the right to choose the political system for itself. On the other hand, when something happens in one country, others cannot remain indifferent, because this directly affects their own interests. Could Russia have passively watched events in Ukraine?

– What happened there was a result of geopolitics, not internal problems, no matter how Russia explains its involvement. Ukraine was heading for membership in Western alliances and ultimately in NATO. This created an unacceptable threat to Russia’s security interests. If this had happened, a large-scale war would have been inevitable. Instead, we did what we did.

But I think the main reason for the Ukrainian crisis is utter inability of its elites to pursue a truly independent policy throughout the years of independence. Each new leader and his government were worse than the previous ones—a unique case indeed. This can partly be blamed on the West, which was literally forcing its system of values upon Ukraine. But the “aggressive good,” which the Soviet Union also advocated quite vigorously, ran aground in Ukraine and even more so in Asia.   We are at the end of Western civilization’s 500-year-long global dominance. There are many reasons for that, but the main one is the largely unforeseen consequences of nuclear parity and the ability to support dominance with force. We all remember that the European model of civilization was always imposed by force. This cannot be done any more; hence democratization which brought not only positive but a lot of negative effects. In fact, the exit of Europe from the Middle East coupled with climate change led to a decline in food production in the region. This and the growing influence of Islam consequently blew up the region. The blaze will rage on there for a decade as a minimum as there are no quick recipes for putting things back in order.    

– So we can only watch and wait?

– Watch and treat the symptoms. This is actually what Russia is doing—by fighting terrorist groups and supporting state entities that are able to ensure some more stability.  But there are no final recipes anywhere in sight at this point. 

– We all remember the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 when all leaders sat down together and agreed on how the world should live further. Why can’t they do something like that now? 

– It would actually be great if they could. Unfortunately, we failed to use the window of opportunity in 1991-2011, partly because of the West’s thoughtless expansion, and partly because of our own weakness, idealism and habit to hope for a miracle. Anyway, the ship has sailed. The world has changed, and once tested forms of reconciliation will no longer be effective. I believe that European problems will have to be addressed in a new setting, not only geographical but also ideological. Old ways will not work. The “Greater Eurasia” concept officially proposed by Russia offers a new approach. What makes it distinct from the purely Eurasian project, which was conceived a long time ago, is that it naturally encompasses the western part of Eurasia...

– Will Western Europe and China and every nation between them form a single political space?

– There are good prospects, possibilities and the need for this project, and it has no negative experience of failures. Russia is already committed to development towards the East, and China, towards the West. Europe has little choice but fall apart or join in this project. The American and old European elites are trying to keep Europe on the old Atlantic track, but I think this is impossible.   

– The latest events clearly indicate that this track most probably leads in the wrong direction...

– Great Britain’s exit from the EU can be explained by its unwillingness to see hordes of immigrants on its territory or by some other reasons, but still the main one is that it can no longer benefit from being in Europe. It needs new horizons, because its internal sources of growth are exhausted. 

– What about our own growth areas? The world largely sees Russia as a huge storeroom...

– Resources are our traditional competitive advantage but not the only one. Clearly, we should restore the once high level of the Russian engineering school which was just as good as the American one both in tsarist and Soviet times and often even better. There are also new advantages such as water, and not so much water itself. The Middle East and the majority of African countries experience a severe shortage of goods the production of which requires large amounts of water. This is why water-intensive products should become our specialty. These include grain, cellulose, and various chemicals… Our other competitive advantage, quite unexpected I should say, is cold. Data storage is turning into a real industry with gigantic sets of servers, like large factories which use huge amounts of power for cooling, actually as much as aluminum plants do…      

– A global server on the Frantz Josef Land archipelago?

– So far in Irkutsk where the concept has already been implemented and where storing one megabyte of data costs only one-fourth of that in southern China where such storage facilities are quite common. In order to find competitive advantages we must understand the world and its laws, something we lacked in Soviet times and at the beginning of the modern period.  

– Contradictions are mounting in Europe and radical politicians can come to power any minute now. The immigration and financial crises, and economic stagnation continue. How can it all affect Russia? Or should we gloat over their problems? 

– The two main underlying princiles of the European project is the overcoming of the history of wars on the continent and opposition to communism. The world in which it was conceived is gone, but if the European project falls apart, we are not to benefit from that in any way. We may get some temporary tactical opportunities, like playing on contradictions or winning over some countries, which is already happening, but consequently Europe can become a much more difficult partner than it is now; and more dangerous, too. In ten years’ time we may as well find ourselves between the Middle East swept by instability and Europe to which this instability will spread. And if there is gloating at all, it only stems from our humiliation in the 1990s and the subsequent unfriendly European policies. However, one should always remember that the bell “tolls for thee” too. The current European crisis has seriously weakened modernization-minded forces in our country, because they were historically bound up with Europe. We can feel happy that “Westernizers” can no longer dictate anything to us, but their diktat also brought many useful and positive things which we sought ourselves, such as full stores and clean public toilets.

Sergey Karaganov