Government and governance, International relations | Asia, The World

25 October 2019

The recent meeting of Russia’s Valdai Discussion Club suggests the country’s foreign policy is focused on rising powers in the East and fractious issues of national sovereignty, Olga Krasnyak writes.

At the 16th annual meeting of Russia’s state-backed Valdai Discussion Club that took place recently in Sochi, Russia, the main theme for discussion was a new world order. Covered by the common title ‘The Dawn of the East and the World Political Order,’ the Club’s expert community proposed a hypothesis that a new world order is more likely coming from the East and that it will come with consideration of the terms and conditions of the East.

This meeting was by no means a trivial event. The Club traditionally invites state leaders, often from those countries and regions where Russia hopes to strengthen its influence and promote its national interests. Its agenda usually gives a clear indication of the Kremlin’s vision of foreign policy strategy, and how it sees Russia’s place in a new and presumably multipolar world.

This year, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov hosted the King of Jordan Abdulla II, Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

The geography says it all: the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia – a vast region which is undoubtedly in Russia’s interest and geopolitical reach. Whether deepening partnerships or diversifying its international partners, Russia aims to position herself prominently on the international stage.

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Analysis of the plenary sessions, panel discussions, and interviews suggests there are two main ideas that were crisscrossing during the entire meeting: the East in the new world order formation and the question of national sovereignty.

The first idea permeating the meeting was that the existing global rules are no longer useful or are being seriously challenged, but a new system of international relations has not yet been fully developed.

Thus, we have a period of transition towards multipolarity that might head in an easterly direction.

The East (Восток in Russian) – which here means the wide Asian region from Maghreb and the Middle East to East and Southeast Asia – might be gradually restoring its world-leading positions which were lost with the rise and domination of Western civilisation.

Modern Egypt, India, China, Turkey, Japan, and Central Asia, to name but a few, are part of an enormous region that is foremost the inheritor of ancient civilisations.

Starting from this historical perspective – which could be well promoted in state narratives to influence public perception – the role of the East in modern world politics can’t be further undermined. If anything, the East might pave the way to restoring its role in the world economy and policy-making.

The willingness and the desire of new but in fact, old players to raise their voices has already led to clashes with leading powers of the Global North, adding complexity and peculiarities in the traditional North-South world division.

When or if the East is added to the list of great powers, inter-state relations would critically challenge the currently declared rules-based international order.

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What is beyond doubt is that leading world powers – regardless of the regions or groups they belong to – will certainly have different geopolitical strategies and visions of world-making. Those visions and strategies are unlikely to coincide with one another.

What is also certain is that geopolitical strategies will continue to achieve a certain balance of powers but they will not be immune from rivalry.

The state of anarchy among a handful of global powers that compete with one another would be a renewed reality. Each and every country would do its best to find innovative and rapid solutions to new challenges constantly on the horizon. Finding solutions would depend highly on technological innovation and advanced scientific development.

However, the East has already proven its ability to foster rapid economic and, to some extent, technological development.

Another issue highlighted at the Club was sovereignty. The notion of globalism would no doubt have been questioned by such a diverse mix of international actors. All world regions and countries function through their own visions and principles that correspond to their cultural, historical, and geographical peculiarities.

Sovereignty and national interests are at the forefront of international affairs. The diversity of all states couldn’t possibly be unified into one frame, and the preservation of self-identity would most certainly be considered critical by those involved in the partnership.

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Regardless of the quality of a current regime, any war-torn country would welcome positive reform and economic development. Russia continuously pursues the idea of creating new models of development and competitiveness. This is also reflected in its military involvement in Syria, as it nudges the country towards positive change already enjoyed by most of the modern world, including strong human and women’s rights.

Russia’s dealings with North Korea can also be viewed through the lens of national sovereignty.

The start of the dialogue between both nations and the change in rhetoric between the US and North Korea could reflect a positive dynamic between the two.

Not only could this lead to improved bilateral relations, but it could also help Russia secure the whole Northeast Asian region. Russia insists that its relationship with North Korea should be sustained and that the country’s sovereignty should not be compromised.

For the global community, working towards pragmatic goals and establishing a mutual understanding of issues should become the basis of resolving conflict and detangling international problems. Not only with Syria and North Korea, but also with Palestine and Israel, Iran and the Persian Gulf, and so on.

According to the Club, the new world order is coming with the (re)appearance of countries in the East. These countries must not have their voices omitted in world policy-making. Worldwide, policymakers will become even more diverse.

National sovereignty will become the cornerstone in framing international relations and forming a new world order. This tendency, no matter how supportive one may be of liberal and democratic principles, can’t be ignored when nation-states make and promote their policies.

Many actors may well promote national interests and secure sovereignty – both agendas that may well dominate world politics in the decades ahead. If so, we must all prepare ourselves for the change that is to come.

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