Russians see globalization and international institutions in crisis. They offer to rescue this failing project, but on their terms, with a readjustment of world order more to their liking.
At the October meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club – a group of Russian and foreign international affairs specialists – the attendees assessed the processes of globalization under the rubric “global revolt and the global order.” Russians described Western-led neoliberal globalization as universally destructive economically, culturally, and politically and responsible for sparking a worldwide revolt.
Globalization is under assault “from two fronts,” suggested Fyodor Lukyanov, author of the upcoming Valdai conference report. One set of countries had no say in constructing the Western-dominated world order and considered it unfair, while anti-establishment political parties and social movements in Western countries, often backed by Moscow, reject globalization as an elite-driven project that benefits only a few. Together, the two trends impede needed international economic and security cooperation.
Russia’s concern for globalization was endorsed at the highest level when President Vladimir Putin addressed the final conference session. “Essentially, the entire globalization project is in crisis today” due to these challenges and the continued escalation of “the tensions engendered by shifts in distribution of economic and political influence.”
Putin cited that the triumph of anti-establishment parties in developed countries, the vote of the British people to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican Party as evidence that even in the wealthy West, citizens no longer accept the rule of “unelected and uncontrolled bureaucrats and political elites.”
Putin blamed the West for missing a golden opportunity after the Cold War to partner with the new Russian Federation and construct a more just and stable world order. Instead, he claimed that NATO governments chose to exploit Russia’s weakness and construct a Euro-Atlantic centric political-economic structure that disadvantaged Russia and others: “They chose the road of globalization and security for their own beloved selves, for the select few, and not for all. But far from everyone was ready to agree with this.”
Two recent worrisome trends for globalization, according to a panel on the world economy – decreasing worldwide trade volumes and rising inequality between the world’s wealthiest people and everyone else – amplify the problem: The slowdown in international trade curtails income growth and poverty reduction in developing countries, and increasing inequality simultaneously undermines popular support for globalization and trade expansion efforts within and between countries.
The anti-globalization mood sweeping the world alarmed representatives from emerging and developed economies alike. C. Raja Mahon of Carnegie India argued that the anti-globalization movement’s strength in developed Western countries has shocked the international system. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that failure of large groups of people to benefit from economic globalization has led to political crises and extremist politics in many states, with the failure of international institutions to address globalization challenged compounding this problem.
Putin and other Russian speakers advocated strengthening the United Nations and international law to counter the global forces of fragmentation and disorder. In particular, Putin stressed the importance of the principle of national sovereignty for “help[ing] underwrite peace and stability both at the national and international levels.”
The Russian prescriptions for preserving sovereignty and countering global fragmentation – revitalizing the UN and limiting foreign interference in countries’ internal affairs – enjoyed strong support from other foreign speakers at the conference. Even though their governments were heavily involved in destabilizing Middle Eastern regimes, the Iranian and Turkish ambassadors joined Russian panelists in blaming foreign interference for instigating the civil war in Syria,. However, some US and Arab speakers, referencing the mass deaths in Syria and other war zones, insisted that humanitarian imperatives can override sovereignty and permit international intervention to limit suffering.
Of course, preserving the Russian veto power in the UN Security Council and traditional interpretations of international law upholding national sovereignty remain tools for constraining US foreign policy and buttressing Russia’s status as a great global player.
For this reason, Russians struggle with the issue of Security Council reform. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki and other leaders consider such reform essential for reasons of international justice and representation. Putin acknowledged that some reform is needed, but he and other Russians insisted that this process had to proceed cautiously, incrementally, and only by consensus in order to preserve the Security Council’s effectiveness.
Putin’s call for caution is partly due to his perception that Western powers have constantly manipulated global rules and principles to Moscow’s detriment. In his view, when rules favor the West, the Western governments uphold them, but when those rules do not serve their immediate interests, those same governments disregard longstanding practices and create rules more to their liking.
Putin cited as examples Western military operations in Serbia, Iraq and Libya; the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and Western governments creating “armed terrorist groups” as tools of regime change. He also charged the West with “sacrificing” free trade to apply sanctions for “political pressure” and promoting “closed economic alliances” such as the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he contends violates the universal principles embodied in the World Trade Organization.
In her presentation, Fu Ying, chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, echoed Russian criticisms of Western-led globalization but also saw benefits in existing international institutions. After all, she noted, the “US dollar-centered global economic framework spawned global governance institutions and opened up the world economic structure.” It also helped China attain “unprecedented growth.”
Still, Ying articulated China’s wishes to “reform” globalization’s defects – such as the unbalanced distribution of wealth and poorly regulated capital flows – to make the international system more “just and equitable.” Specifically, she called for strengthening the UN and international governance and advocated an inclusive, multilateral-based framework.
Russian and Chinese speakers at Valdai repeatedly mentioned the Sino-Russian partnership as a more enlightened form of international cooperation based on mutual respect, agreed standards and common interests. In particular, they highlighted plans to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt as a flexible regional integration project that would be open to all countries. The Russian speakers concluded that Russia- and China-led globalization would have better prospects, and yield better results, than the failing Western-led globalization.
Other Asian speakers at the conference anticipate that the Russia-China integration project, still at an early stage of development, would promote their region’s economic health.
Most participants at the late October conference expected Trump to lose the US presidential elections. His subsequent victory would suggest that the United States will also be open to rolling back some dimensions of globalization while restricting others – more so than under the current administration of Barack Obama, whose final trip to Europe as president was keynoted by a speech in Athens that vigorously defended the benefits of globalization based on liberal democratic principles.
Nonetheless, last week’s Marrakech Climate Change Conference in Morocco and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Peru show that many world leaders are ready to fight valiantly to defend globalization.