31 May 2021

IMEMO Director Feodor Voitolovsky: A new system of coordinates is a challenge for the modern world order

Feodor Voitolovsky

Feodor Voitolovsky
Photo: Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences

The Primakov Readings, organized by the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, will take place in Moscow on June 8-9. The topic of the 2021 readings is “Challenges to the Contemporary World Order”. Interfax is an information partner of the Primakov Readings 2021. IMEMO Director Feodor Voitolovsky describes in an interview with an Interfax special correspondent how the 2021 readings will differ from the previous ones.

Question: This year’s forum will take place as the pandemic is retreating. Is this the only difference from the previous ones?

Answer: Last year we were forced to switch to the online format and the pandemic naturally imposed very serious restrictions. Now it's retreating and we are returning to the usual format. Nevertheless many foreign political scientists and economists, experts, and diplomats won't unfortunately be able to come here because of the restrictions still in place. They will join us by video link-ups. That is why these readings are likely to be held in a hybrid format. Some participants will come here and we are very glad that many will be brave enough to make such a journey in these difficult times. We have specially hired very skilled assistants to help us organize video link-ups.

From the point of view of content, these readings will cover challenges to the current world order, which is still evolving. We can say without doubt that the world order that emerged after the end of the Cold War – call it what you like, a unipolar world as American political scientist Charles Krauthammer said or the period of unconditional dominance of the United States and the West – is coming to an end. This doesn’t mean that the U.S. and its allies will lose their financial, economic, technological, and military power in an instant, but they now have rivals in many spheres, as well as the states that live in a different system of coordinates, ones that aren't guided by Western development standards and ideological dogma. These trends affect not only interstate relations but also transnational economic processes, as large companies and non-Western banks grow larger and new value chains form, and the system of international division of labor system transforms. Yevgeny Primakov once wrote about a new polycentric world order which will have many decision-making centers. Polycentrism assumes a very high level of competitiveness. Various development patterns for the political world order are possible here - either fierce rivalry and confrontation or a system of checks and balances aimed at searching for compromises.

We can say today that the world order which is being formed will be polycentric, but at the same time it will have a rather rigid hierarchy. A very fierce battle for who will be at the top of this hierarchy is unfolding now. Primarily, this concerns relations between the U.S. and China. And such centers as Russia, India, the European Union and others will have to understand in the next few years how to build their strategies of socio-economic development, foreign and security policies and how to build partnership in the new system of coordinates.

We cannot so far say for sure that the evolving world order is a new bipolarity, but trends like this can and already are becoming manifest. There is rivalry and growing confrontation between the United States and China, which differ seriously from what there was between the USSR and the U.S. – they were not interconnected economically during the Cold War years, there were none of those effects that the globalization of the global economy has brought. Then there was ideological, political and military-political confrontation and now there is economic and technological rivalry, a battle for new emerging, potential and significant markets on a global scale. The fight is on for exploring areas of global significance, the world’s oceans, outer space, cyberspace, leadership in the development of telecommunication technologies and leadership in the economic sphere in general.

But so far the U.S. maintains its foothold in many areas and will strive to maintain it for many years to come.

Q.: What is the goal of the upcoming discussion? Is it to define the real processes in the world?

A.: The topic that we proposes – challenges to the modern world order – is worded in such a way as to make it possible to understand what real processes are occurring in the world, what challenges and threats are emerging and how significant these will be to Russia. The most apparent of the recent new challenges is the Covid-19 pandemic. But this is not the only one and by no means the last of those that we will encounter in the next few years. These include new military-political confrontation and arms races, climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, environmental pollution, international terrorism and transnational crime, as well as new transnational processes related to the use of information and communication technologies. We should bear in mind that new technologies provide new development opportunities but on the other hand they are assisting the emergence of new risks and threats.

These Primakov Readings, under the auspices of an analysis of such global trends, will pay much attention to regional processes and the regions that are and will be of particular importance to Russia and for Russia's interaction with the outside world.

Of course, Europe has remained important and we'll have a special session dedicated to the global role of the European Union, but Russia is increasingly pivoting towards Asia. And for the Primakov Readings this pivot is - and not for the first year - a persistent tendency and priority. And now it has grown even stronger. That is why we are paying even more attention to the development of the situation in the Asian-Pacific region and developments in Central and South Asia. We are very seriously interested in relations between the leading powers in South Asia - and two of them are nuclear ones, India and Pakistan. We are very much interested in the Middle East situation as a source of problems and risks. Naturally, Central Asia is of particular importance for us, because many processes that influence the post-Soviet space arise there. Events in neighboring countries, including Afghanistan and South Asia, are also closely related to developments in the Central Asian region, which means with the security of our country, its economy. There are our trade partners there, CSTO allies and suppliers of migrant workers to our market - that is why this region is also important to Russia from the point of view of our investment and trade.

That is why this year we will pay particular attention to Asia and its various regions.

Q.: The previous readings mainly addressed current problems and their reasons. But could new challenges be discussed without making recommendations for politicians of the future? Do you expect such a swing at this year’s readings?

A.: Yes, we do. When we were setting the agenda of the Primakov Readings, we contemplated many problems and topics that are now coming to fruition and those that will evolve in the next few years, and not only in the short- or medium-term but also long-term.

One of the sessions is called “Does China Need the Global Leadership?” This topic looks to the future.

The U.S.-China rivalry in various areas that has become manifest and is increasing is being talked about more and more frequently. In my opinion, China has much more modest ambitions than the U.S. The U.S. wants to maintain global leadership. The question of whether China needs global leadership is still open. Yes, China is the leader of the Asian-Pacific region and aspires to leadership in this region but to be such a leader that doesn't claim to know single-handedly how other countries of the region should live and develop.

         The Americans still pursue a messianic foreign policy, they still view the world as a space that needs to be reorganized. They view other societies and states as systems that need to be reformed according to their vision. I think the Biden administration will demonstrate this messianic line even more than the Trump administration. Trump wanted to “make America great” again. There was an understanding that the American leadership, although global, still has clear boundaries, clear limits, both in terms of material resources and in terms of motivation. It also depends on the activity of external actors and restrictions that emerge from the ideologized vision of the American role in the world as a state that embodies a certain set of its ideas and values and that can form coalitions on the basis of values. In my opinion, this course will get even stronger, but this in turn is leading to a serious collision, in particular with China.

Trump battled against China as with a rival super power. His representatives in the administration said categorically that this was their rival on a regional level that is growing into a rival, an adversary on the global level. The Biden administration – and this is already manifest – has begun to put a value-based, ideological component in there. If we look at the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, we will see that this value-based component is written there distinctly – the U.S. leads liberal market democracies that counter non-liberal and non-market democracies, primarily China and Russia. It is noteworthy that back in March the new administration hastened to publish - and this an interim document - a supplement to the current National Security Strategy developed under Trump, rather than a National Security Strategy in the full sense of the word that every administration publishes.

Q.: Will these readings address the military-political problem, or, to be more specific, could this rivalry result in negative military consequences?

A.: We will have a special session dedicated to Russian-U.S. relations. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who is responsible at the Foreign Ministry for arms control and Russia-U.S. relations, will moderate it. He has made an enormous effort to extend the New START Treaty. Of course these topics will be of great importance for discussing the future of Russia-U.S. relations. Despite the extension of the New START Treaty, such a topic as the deployment of U.S. ground-based short-and intermediate-range missiles in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region have remained open. The problem of high-precision weapons and hypersonic systems and of how they will be regulated in bilateral Russian-U.S. relations is still open. If progress is made in this sphere, discussions could then continue on a broader, multilateral level involving other parties.

Missile defense issues. These are also still on the table and there is no solution to them so far. European security is also related to strategic stability and arms control.

Let me note that European security will be discussed in at least two sessions.

But this year, unlike the previous years, we didn't organize a special session on military issues. Given that topics for negotiations are only being formed at the official level, we decided to focus more on regional problems.