The Mousetrap

Source: Getty Fotobank

Source: Getty Fotobank

The coming December will mark the completion of two decades of the post-Soviet era. The anniversary of the destruction of the Soviet Union – the world's second superpower – is an appropriate moment to venture an integral assessment of the tectonic geopolitical shift which left the international community sinking into chaos and facing an increasingly dim outlook…

The inescapable conclusion stemming from the flow of economic data is that the current global economic downturn is systemic in character and in this regard differs profoundly from all previous crises including the Great Depression of the 1920s – the early 1930s. In my view, the key cause of today's crisis is that the competition between rival socioeconomic models, a process that used to energize the overall progress of human civilization, dwindled as a result of the political dynamics of the 1980s and the early 1990s. Known under a variety of terms depending on the ideological perspective – such as the clash between capitalism and socialism, or global bipolarity, or the competition between three “world” projects – the rivalry, which occasionally escalated into serious conflicts, used to be an engine of vigorous development and, in a seeming paradox, helped sustain global stability. As it became clear in retrospect, both the USSR and the West drew verve from the race played out between the socialist and the capitalist camps, and, contrary to the expectations of “the end of history”, a crisis was imminent in a unipolar US-dominated world, especially given Washington's evidently chronic short-sightedness and irresponsibility. The impression at the moment is that the parameters of the crisis completely evade the imagination of the world's top strategic planners.

Back in May, 2009, British financial analyst Anatole Kalecki warned that the tasks of reinvigorating growth and healing the global economic “ailment” may prove unsolvable within the current geo-economic configuration. The general decline of the West which - with its irreversibly deindustrializing economy, bloated financial sector, and completely new phenomenon of “eastern neocolonialism” – sees the center of the global economic activity drift to the Asia Pacific region – is paralleled by the Western elites' attempts to stick to old dogmas regardless of the waning vitality of the formerly “invincible” economic and political systems adopted by their respective societies. What thus came into being rather unpredictably is a new state of the world-system, which Fareed Zakaria graphically described as the Post-American World in his non-fiction book of the same name.

The present global chaos recently highlighted by the conflict in Libya cannot be reduced to a crash of the habitual development paradigm as the majority of watchers were prone to believe just 6-7 years ago. There is more realism in the claim that it reflects the intellectual bankruptcy of the world's ruling class and strategic planners. As noted by Acad. N. Simonia, in current settings the US is no longer as important and functionally necessary on the global scale as it used to be, and for today's world the US primacy is an outdated and burdensome legacy. The future that awaits the US is a transformation into one of the world's array of more or less equal players. According to Acad. Simonia, the US efforts aimed at retaining global leadership by military might meet with limited success and, due to their astronomic costs, put under ever greater pressure the economy of the country already staggering under the world's heaviest sovereign debt. Walt Rostow (1916-2003), US economist and political theorist commanding great respect worldwide, expressed essentially the same view in a totally ruthless manner: “It is now clear, in retrospect, in a world of diffusing power that the notion of the U. S. as a super-power has been an illusion since 1948 at least (1948 was the year the USSR acquired the nuclear retaliation capability – A.V.). It is progressively becoming more of an illusion. ... If the United States seeks to do something which runs against the grain of majority thought and feeling in the world, it can be easily frustrated”.

The unstoppable weakening of the West induces greater chaos in international politics. In the long run, such phenomena as the tide of revolutions in the Arab world, unrest in Libya, and the leading countries' crisis of governance which fails to adapt to the mounting complexity of domestic and international challenges are bound to have the same effect. In a colorful statement, Indian international politics analyst M.K. Bhadrakumar attributed the above situation to small-time people holding key positions. Indeed, the contrast between, for example, F.D. Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, or W. Churchill and their present-day political heirs accentuates the near-total lack of vision in the ranks of the latter, as does the West's handling of the crisis in Libya, by the way. In Libya's case, what are the objectives the West (France, Great Britain, and the invisibly present US) is pursuing in a country with a deeply entrenched tradition of popular resistance to foreign interventionism? I daresay, oil is not the ultimate answer.

First, for the US, whose energy security doctrine dates back to F.D. Roosevelt and sets the goal of absolute invulnerability in the energy sphere, the key zone from the energy standpoint is not the Mediterranean Sea but the Persian Gulf via which around 50% of oil delivered by tankers are supplied. Consequently, the countries of top importance to Washington are Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It is an open secret that in the latter, the Shia majority's bid for equal representation in politics (the Shiite Muslims make up around 75% of Bahrain's population) is suppressed by the ruling Sunni dynasty, and the arrangement clearly cannot persist indefinitely.

Secondly, a permanent headache for the US - as well as for a number of other countries - is Israel's security. Israel's role, in part unintended, is to serve as the Middle Eastern barrier in the way of politicized Islam, especially in the context of the Arab world's recent serial regime changes and of Al Qaeda's gradual switching from “prophets” and charismatic ideologists to military professionals as the leaders of the cult.

Thirdly, the failed color revolution in Libya and the disastrous military campaign against the country give M. Gadhafi a chance to emerge as a new edition of Ernesto Che Guevara, a figure epitomizing the developing nations’– the global majority's, in other words - resistance to the Golden Billion with its politics of aggressive hedonism  and armament-protected consumerism. Given their current difficulties on a variety of fronts, Washington's and the wider West's involvement in a conflict of such nature may reflect poor political reckoning on their behalf.

Fourthly, further unfolding of the Libyan drama is likely to reinforce China's influence in international politics and boost the arms race in conventional weaponry. Moreover, the reaction of the increasingly defensive not-so-powerful countries would be commonly taking the shape of “nuclear nationalism” , and therefore the nonproliferation regime would be severely undermined.

It is yet to be understood in the light of the above arguments what the West is up to in Libya. I am convinced that the agenda behind the onslaught on the country is geopolitical. The origin of the unrest across the Arab world may be as of today obscure, but in any case the West was unprepared to face the 2011 developments. Invoking the notion of “regulated chaos” control over the world's strategic regions only partially helps to explain the picture. Geopolitically, Libya's domestic conflict – de facto a brawl between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – seemed to be playing into the West's hands. With the media pounding their audiences, the West could easily make things look as if it regained the grip on North Africa and the entire Arab East. Still, neither of the potential scenarios – the demolition of Gadhafi's regime by protesting mobs ora revolt brought about by a coalition campaign supported by Libyan rebels – has materialized up to date. The approach, successfully tested by the West in Yugoslavia, failed to deliver, nor did Russia, where the public discourse turned conservative long before fighting erupted in Libya, side with the West over the Lybian crisis. Generally, Russia's unification around conservative values does not have to be linked to an anti-Western agenda, but the policies pursued by the US and NATO do drive the process in this direction. The continuation of the Libyan crisis may bear an awakening impact on West European countries where the societies are about to start grilling their governments over extremely serious issues.

One of those serious issues is the sky-rocketing migration from North Africa to Western Europe. The natural solution to the problem is to stop the NATO campaign against Libya and to let the country hold normal elections in line with the “one citizen – one vote” formula that would remove whatever concerns over democracy in the country. By letting the coalition's campaign in Libya gallop, the West will expose NATO's military-political capabilities to the risk of erosion and inflict on itself a threat of rendering unpredictable the inner political mechanics in several European countries (Spain, Belgium, Italy, etc.).

The crisis in Libya brought into spotlight the problem of regulating the inflow of migrants to Western Europe. Over the past years, the migration acquired steady proportions and geography. National egoism of some of West European governments which hurriedly stirred to EU peers the uninvited guests additionally complicated the situation. The present author has had ample opportunity to watch on the grass-roots level the attitudes towards migrants in Europe. Leaving the Venice academic workshop in March, 1999, on the eve of NATO's strikes against Yugoslavia, I was surprised to realize that while, on the one hand, the perception of the coming military campaign among my Italian colleagues was distinctly negative, on the other, for many of them the problems on the horizon looked less acute as they hoped that the anticipated wave of Albanian migration to Italy would be easily forwarded to Kosovo. It transpired shortly that a considerable fraction of the migrants were attracted by Italy's commercial opportunities and dodged the routes they were offered. Similarly, undeserved problems may be brewing for Austria and Germany in connection with the Libyan crisis.

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As for the post-Soviet Russia on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union's dismemberment, it does not appear to be in good shape either. Anders Äslund, a Swedish economist formerly influential among the Russia’s “liberal reformers”, noted in late 2009: “The country's economic performance has plummeted to such a dismal level that one must ask whether it is entitled to have any say at all on the global economy...". Seeing Russia's right to have a say on the global economy called into question is a deplorable but quite a predictable outcome. The general rule from which Russia should not expect to be exempt is that there is a strong positive correlation between a country's geopolitical status and the ability of its economy to convert academic research and development into innovative technologies, processes and products. Throughout the two decades of Russia's liberal “reforms”, we hardly ever heard that putting the country on track towards self-sustained economic growth and sustainable economic development without falling into dependence on export of hydrocarbons and other raw materials would take serious measures to reinvigorate Russia's nascent research and development capabilities and industrial capacity.

Tangible economic progress in Russia will remain illusory unless the country's civil society shakes off the mental stereotypes which help to reproduce and prop up the institutions and practices detrimental to the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the nation. For any rational social order to function in a sustainable way, the sense of dignity must emerge as a part of the overall package, while the lack of self-respect in the ranks of Russia's elite routinely causes it to lure overseas investors at countless and useless grotesque forums which evidently fail to attract considerable investments into the country or to improve its modernization perspectives. Isolated success stories, if any, should not blur a wider picture: Russia's economy is increasingly shedding its industrial potential and falling apart, while the political class's inability to generate creative ideas and the obsolescence of the modernization “model” offered by the country's new “elite” on the eve of the demise of the USSR seem to make the situation hopeless (the recent crash of the vintage Tupolev-134 aircraft in Russia put the final dot in the tragic history of the Russian “liberal reforms”).

Staking a claim for admission to the multipolar world-system under formation, Russia is confronted with at least two challenges such that failure to repel will reduce the country to a regional player if not make it crumble.

First, Russia's ruling class should demonstrate unequivocal determination to establish the country as an independent center of “gravity” and strategic decision-making in international politics prepared to safeguard national interests using whatever means necessary. This happens to be the policy adopted and successfully implemented by China, and this is the reason why the West increasingly has to be taking Beijing's position – backed by the impressive Chinese economic resources - into account.

Secondly, Russia's independence in global economy and politics may only be attained provided that the country comes back to the notion of the political autonomy of the state stewardship in pivotal areas of its domestic development (the concept of a “visionary state”). In Russia, the state should, along with taking responsibility for strategic vision of the country's future, regain the general function of socioeconomic management (for example, the state should be independent enough to shape the relations between the resource-extracting and manufacturing sectors of the Russian economy). Abstract criticism of state capitalism irrespective of the role which must be credited to the phenomenon in the whole context of the emergence of the XX century economic system should not be allowed to prevent Russia from conceptually answering the key question: what can Russia do to rebuild within a historically “compressed” period of time a viable industrialized and knowledge-intensive economy?

Sadly, the intellectual circles in several countries engaged in strategic partnerships with Russia increasingly believe in the Russian elite's, especially its liberal faction's, dependence on the West, as well as in this grouping's alarmist perception of the “vertical” economic rise of China. In India, for example, the widely held view is that the post-Soviet Russia is intellectually and morally unprepared to embark on profound socioeconomic transformations but ready to minimize its ambitions in the international system.

Russian foreign policy analyst A. Kortunov presumes that the country's ruling class would be content to see Russia become an international player with clout comparable, for instance, to that of France under N. Sarkozy. Tolerating Russian invectives, Washington lightheartedly disregards Moscow's position in international affairs and essentially suggests that Russia accept the “limited sovereignty” concept formerly elaborated by French premier and Sarkozy's one-time sponsor Édouard Balladur. It makes no practical sense to slam the Russian elite over its narrow intellectual horizons and the lack of patriotism, at least considering that the deepening economic crisis echoes within the Russian society with divisions which may have repercussions for the 2011 and 2012 elections (unrest like that which recently erupted in Egypt can easily be provoked if the Russian authorities attempt to manipulate the ballot count).

Russia, therefore, faces a risk of being dropped from the currently rewritten international politics equation. The hopes among a part of the Russian “elite” that Washington would allow Moscow to become its junior partner are illusory as the role is beyond means for a country whose industrial potential this very elite has kept undercutting over the past couple of decades. As a result, Russia's delayed socioeconomic crisis is deepening, with the majority of the population being aware of the fact and gradually becoming politically impatient.

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The disintegration of the Soviet Union became a geopolitical mousetrap for the West. Obsessed with the fight against the remnants of communism, Washington and its allies overlooked the fresh trends in the global politics which at the moment define the regrouping of forces in the international system:

1. The strengthening and growing international influence of China. Continental powers (China, India, Brazil) are step by step overshadowing the erstwhile great marine powers (Great Britain, the US) as the genuine history-makers. At the moment Russia is not in the game, and the country's chances to join it depend on Moscow's ability to launch fundamental and essentially “non-liberal” socioeconomic reforms. Notably, the global historical evolution precludes any form of the US control over China. If there is a measure of truth in the view held by some US conservatives that Washington's shortsighted policies created a powerful and “inscrutable” China, it should also be true that the economic and geopolitical ascension of the “Dragon” is largely owed to the US Administration's over-reliance on expertise and advice of the Russophobe “political scientists” originating from the former socialist states of Eastern Europe.

2. The formation of a tightly knit community of “the new regional leaders” with strong political, economic, and cultural interconnections. The advent in the late 1980ies of “new influentials” – Brazil, Argentine, Venezuela, South Africa, Egypt, and later Indonesia and Mexico – was a process that came to a brief halt due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc but is currently reacquiring momentum. Members of the community, now broadened to incorporate the assertive Turkey, tend to avoid international and regional conflicts but boldly defend their interests whenever those are put in jeopardy.

3. Global crisis and regional conflicts alike boost the self-determination of developing countries which altogether account for the lion's share of the population and territorial space of the humankind. In the early 1980ies, the process was described by Soviet scholars as the transformation of subordinate and exploited countries into independent players in global politics (according to Acad. Ye. Primakov, transformation from the objects to the subjects). As of today, the respective societies are entering the self-awareness phase vividly illustrated by the 2011 Arab revolutions. In a foreseeable future, the developing countries will be through with delineating their long-term interests and will call for an inclusive “global concert” with equal rights and no privileges for all nations involved.

At the point, the US and the West as a whole will have to decide between accepting the role of the first among the equals or clinging to power based on yesterday's approaches and accordingly taking considerable risks.

World-renowned historian and economist Charles Kindleberger wrote in the mid-1990ies: “I happen not to be a prophet..., but I predict muddle. Many problems will be dealt with one at a time, others will persist and produce conflicts that linger and mildly poison international economic and political relations. ... There will be some regionalism, some cooperation among great powers, some persistent low-level conflict. ... In due course a country will emerge from the muddle for a time as the primary economic power. The United States again? Japan? Germany? the European Community as a whole? Perhaps a dark horse like Australia or Brazil or China? Who knows? Not I."

Russia's absence from the above list of potential leaders does not come as a surprise – with elites and ideas not refreshed since the 1990ies, the country is doomed to background existence. The last ray of hope is that the self-preservation instinct in the “elite” would urge a part of it to switch from meaningless slogans and hollow speeches to proactive attempts to improve the living conditions of Russia's people. Otherwise, the mousetrap will click and in comparison even the Tahrir Square will look like an innocent political show.

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