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Topics / Emerging Global Order

Dispatches from Sochi: The world order ... where is it heading? (Quo Vadis), Part 1

The vice president of Carnegie Corporation's International Program reports from the 13th meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, Sochi, Russia

Sochi—known for hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics (to date, the costliest Olympics ever)—is a long stretch of land squeezed between the Black Sea and the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The investments made in preparation for the Olympics transformed this provincial seaside town into a mega-resort filled with both western and Russian hotels and restaurants large and small, all glowing with multicolor lights meant to uplift spirits and entice tourists. While the city seemed relatively uncrowded, a taxi driver boasted that it had been a busy summer.

A time-honored vacation destination for Russian and Soviet leadership, Sochi was the favorite escape of Joseph Stalin, who retreated to his green dacha in Sochi for a few months every summer. The emerald green complex—vast, dark, and gloomy—is now a "closed" private hotel, which we visited yesterday for a brief tour. A replica of Stalin at his desk with the world map behind him reminds one where and how the decisions that set the course of the Soviet Union and the post-World War II transatlantic order were made.

The day’s panel began with a Russian participant contending that the U.S. has lost its way since the 1990s. The many mistakes America has made since the end of the Cold War have disqualified its claims to provide global leadership. The world cannot wait for American soul-searching, the Russian panelist continued, and should move on to follow the alternative global leadership model offered by Russia and China. This alternative would lead to greater stability in the world.

A Chinese panelist followed. The frictions in the South China Sea remind China that its relationship with the U.S. is fragile. China considers a legitimate world order to be based on the UN. Although such a UN-led world order overlaps in some places with the U.S.-led world order, major incongruities between the two persist.

Chinese and Russian initiatives can offer a framework to cover countries and interests inclusively and fairly. The U.S. should be open to these initiatives as they are not incompatible with frameworks and initiatives led by the U.S.

The third panelist, an American, began by proposing that great power competition, particularly in the security arena, has returned to today’s world. At the end of the Cold War, the world transitioned from bipolarity to unipolarity. We are now in the process of transitioning from unipolarity to multipolarity. There has been no great power competition since the end of the Cold War, but now China has advanced and Russia has risen from the dead. The world and its transnational institutions do not know how to handle the new phenomenon of global competition between the U.S., China, and Russia.

The American panelist offered that U.S. relations with Russia will not be the defining relationship for this century. It is the U.S.-China relationship that will define the century. As China rises, it will challenge U.S. leadership and will try to push the U.S. out of East Asia. The U.S. will push back, leading to security-based confrontation and competition that will dominate the century. The American speaker predicted that although the U.S. has very foolishly pushed the Russians into the arms of the Chinese, the Russia-China partnership will not survive. China will become so powerful that Russia will inevitably see it as a threat as well, and, subsequently, will join a U.S.-led coalition to counter it.

Following the American, an Indian panelist suggested that other factors will also shape the world and great power competition. These include: the coming backlash to globalization; technological change and disruption attendant to a fourth industrial revolution (including the emergence of artificial intelligence); and a populist revolt in politics—an unrest among the masses as they become increasingly able and willing to challenge leadership.

Reflecting on what had been said before, the Indian panelist said that competition will not be limited to the three great powers. Many elements of competition will emerge within Eurasia. Regional problems and competition will loom large. Restraint should be the key tool in managing competition. Those who chart the global order, as well as those who are defined by it, must exercise restraint and make effective decisions in order to limit conflicts.

The last participant was an Australian, who stressed that the world is grappling in the dark due to an explosion of uncertainties. What are the certainties? Russia is back as a geopolitical power. China is rising as a geopolitical and economic superpower. The U.S. remains a global geopolitical and economic superpower. The EU is in a phase of transition.

What are the key uncertainties? The current model of world order does not fully reflect the dynamic evolution we are seeing on the international stage. There are crises of legitimacy and an inability of international institutions to respond effectively to problems. Much of this dysfunction is due to the emerging competition between the three great powers.

The Australian speaker reflected that the global order is comprised of three great powers, 190 other states, and a web of institutions that tie them together. All are players.

He also stressed that, historically, global disorder had far outweighed the periods of global order, and that the latter is a relatively new state that emerged from World War II. If we do away with the post-war global order, the real question is what to replace it with. The Australian panelist ended by saying that building on existing institutions is the key to future stability.

After the panelists presented their views, the Chinese participant offered a response: China has no interest in playing the role of global hegemon as the U.S. has. The notion of any single country leading or directing the world is an outdated notion, incompatible with today's international environment.