The first, prompted by the triumph of communism in Russia and fascism in Germany, led to the terrible Second World War. The Soviet Union emerged one of the victors at a cost of nearly 30 million lives. The second, a classic cold war, was a war that the communist U.S.S.R. lost.
The old West gained not only a moral and ideological victory, but a geo-economic victory. Vast resources were redistributed in its favor. Thanks to the involvement of billions of people in the capitalist system, the world enjoyed unprecedented economic growth.
But since the start of the new century the old powers have begun to lose ground. This has exacerbated tensions in the last few years. Serious amounts of the world's GDP has been redistributed from Europe to Asia, from the old capitalist countries to the new.
A revolution has taken place in the energy sector. If, in the mid-1990s a large part of the world's reserves were controlled by Western companies and governments, a decade later, the overwhelming majority are controlled by governments and companies in the countries doing the extracting-countries that have become far more independent. The increase in oil prices has further fostered the transfer of resources from the old West to these countries.
For some, this has raised doubts about the triumph of the liberal-democratic model. As one might have predicted, at a certain level of development, economic growth is assured not only by the free market, but by the ruling power, and not necessarily a liberal-democratic one. This is what happened in Europe in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. That is what is happening now in Asia and Russia.
Furthermore, the countries of the old West have started losing foreign policy ground: Europe is experiencing a loss of direction, encouraged by the European Union's excessively rapid expansion. The "arrogance of power" of the United States led to the Iraq fiasco.
The erstwhile victors, in their search for the causes of their unexpected retreat, have found the ideological symbol of a new "enemy": authoritarian capitalism. China and Russia are prime examples. There has to be an enemy to unite against. Scholars' remarks - that relative authoritarianism is typical of capitalism in the early stages of development, that its "maturity" will bring more democratic forms of government - have been ignored.
Russia, too, has contributed to the increase in tensions in at least two ways. First, it has in many respects become the symbol of changes that do not benefit the old West. This "young pupil" of western democracies has suddenly become an independent player. A country seen as ready to pour its resources into the western energy system has instead taken them under its strict control. Recently no more than a global beggar, Russia, thanks to oil revenues, has come to embody the rise of new states. Secondly, Russia has abetted the new cold war with its actions and gestures. We have been arrogant with everyone. We haven't even tried to pretend that we're playing by the old rules. Even at the level of ordinary communication, we have often provoked irritation by flocks of nouveaurich Russians.
Given these and other tectonic shifts in world economics and politics, one would expect reaction from the old West.
One could go on forever trying to sort out who was behind Tbilisi's attack on South Ossetians. The reactions of the United States and some countries in the old West and "recruits" in Central and Eastern Europe to Georgia's aggression and Russia's response speak for themselves. The United States is trying to start a new farcical Cold War in order to reign in Russia. But very few in the world are ready to support it.
Russia emerged from the Georgian crisis a victor, not only militarily, but politically. Russia showed that she has the political will to defend her interests, that she will not accept further expansion of NATO. However, she also suffered losses. There was a fall in the Russian stock market. More importantly, following Georgia's aggression and the blatantly unfair reactions of the United States and Europe, most of the Russian elite felt alienated by the West.
Nevertheless, one should bear in mind that for the last 300 years at least, the most important source of modernization in Russia has been the influence of Europe. The striving "to live the way they do in Europe" has always been a chief incentive for Russia to move forward. The weakening of this tendency today may jeopardize the impulse to modernize. The alienation from Europe will strengthen non-competitive segments of society that are afraid to move forward.
Another potential loss is that the Russian elite has been distracted from constructive goals at home: the fight against corruption and the modernization program proposed by President Dmitry Medvedev. Little time is left to work on modernization programs if Russia becomes involved in resolving international conflicts that have been forced on it.
Being drawn into a military-political conflict is a serious danger. Russia must avoid any such confrontation, more so an arms race. Although additional investment into a new generation of general-purpose armed forces is essential, as was shown by the Georgian conflict, we must also increase our flexibility and maneuverability
with nuclear weapons. We need to begin new negotiations to limit and reduce excess nuclear arms.
The United States has chosen to start a confrontation with Russia. I would like to be wrong, but I'm afraid that the Americans will stay this course, in one form or another, no matter who wins the battle for the White House. The world economic crisis may, however, distract the world from this farcical cold war. Russia is not willing to cooperate in waging this war.
Monumental shifts, financial crises, creeping destruction of international law and multilateral institutions are beginning to resemble the eve of the First World War. Not allowing conflicts to escalate is our main task again.
Sergei Karaganov is Dean of the World Economics and International Affairs School at Moscow State University - Higher School of Economics.
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