A Plenary Speech on Geopolitics and Relations among Major Powers at the 8th World Peace Forum

Beijing, 8 July 2019

By Igor Ivanov

It is my honor and my pleasure to speak at the 8th meeting of the World Peace Forum here in Beijing. Over past years, the Forum has become one of the most representative and respectful meeting points to discuss problems of international security and challenges to regional and global stability. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of these problems and challenges in the world at large and in Asia in particular. I am sure that today and tomorrow we will get plenty of food for thought from a remarkable constellation of bright minds gathered in this hall.

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Let me start with a somewhat trivial observation – the situation in the world gives more and more reasons to be concerned. The manifestations of the growing instability are multiple; I would limit myself to only the most apparent ones.

The rapid and chaotic process of globalization produced many negative side effects including a rapid decline of traditional values, a global revolution of expectations along with social and cultural polarization, growing vulnerability of an individual to extremism and political radicalism. The ongoing technological revolution created a whole spectrum of new opportunities for subversive non-state actors  –– including new means of communications, new types of weapons, and new mechanisms of political mobilization. However, states turned out to be unprepared to regulate properly the technological revolution and to put its potentially dangerous repercussions under proper control.

We observe a deepening crisis of the traditional state system – more and more states are losing their sovereignty. Failed states become sources of international terrorism, religious extremism and uncontrolled trans-border migrations.

The growing unpredictability and volatility of global and regional economic and financial markets creates new risks for all of us. States, societies and individuals can no longer control their economic destinies or even to influence them in a significant way. We observe economic and social polarization among states and within them; polarization increases populism, radicalism and extremism of various kinds.

We record an ongoing decline of many international institutions  –--- global and regional, security and economic alike; the growing inability of the UN based system to find effective solutions to mounting problems.

The rapid rise of non-state actors challenges state sovereignty and questions the fundamentals of the modern international system.
Uncontrolled and potentially disastrous environmental and climate changes, mounting challenges to biodiversity, environmental stability and resource sufficiency constitute another dimension to the crisis.

Today, a lot of attention all around the world is focused on US President Donald Trump as the most visible and the most powerful troublemaker in international relations. Without going into details, I would say that the peculiar policy of the current American president helped us to some extent to look more realistically at the state of affairs on international arena.

First, two and a half years of his presidency showed the whole world how far the United States can go in trying to protect its immediate interests to the detriment of the global commons. The White House today is ready to pressure not only its adversaries, but also its allies; it does not seem to care much about international law or about international public opinion. And this trend towards an extreme ‘national egotism” is likely to continue.

Second, the policies of the Trump Administration demonstrated all the fragility of the modern international system as such. For instance, it took only a couple of disruptive steps to put into question the whole strategic arms control infrastructure, which the international community had been working on for the last fifty years. The same can be said about the global financial and trade system; nobody today can predict its future.

Third, Donald Trump announced something that many of us pretended not to talk for a long time. The old world order has already ended. No matter whether Trump gets reelected or not, there will be no return to the past. We should have no illusions about a post-Trump world – it will be an unstable, volatile and a dangerous place. 

Fourth, Donald Trump is a wakeup call for governments, opinion-makers and intellectuals all around the world. All of us have to stretch our imagination, to renounce old approaches and begin a joint search for answers to our common challenges and opportunities. The time for such a reassessment is running out.

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It would be wrong to look for just one source of all these diverse problems or to blame just one country for them. What we see in international relations today is a“perfect storm” – a combination of long-term social and economic trends, personal political ambitions, inertia of thinking and human blunders.

The Western triumphalism after the end of the Cold War led to ungrounded hopes for the West-centered world. The Western (both American and European) arrogance led to many crises that could otherwise have been avoided or at least mitigated. The selective use of international law, double standards in international relations, and a lot of hypocrisy contributed to the erosion of some of the fundamental norms of international public law. These factors produced diverging and even opposite narratives, contributed to more cynicism, and opportunism in foreign policies.

So, what should we do to overcome the current crisis in international relations?

Above all, we have to agree that the critical task of the day is the task to restore and to enhance the shattered global governance. Without addressing this task, we are not going to succeed in any other undertakings. The central dividing line in the modern international system is between order and chaos. The prime building blocks of the international system are and will continue to be nation states. Therefore, the principle of sovereignty should be fully respected and considered to be of paramount importance. Interdependence and integration can be accepted as long as they do not contradict the principle of sovereignty.

The emerging international system should fully reflect the changing balance of powers in the world. The existing West-centered institutions should either undergo a profound transformation or be replaced by more universal, more inclusive and more representative organizations. The emerging concept of modernity should imply opportunities for preserving national traditions, culture, specific economic, social and cultural models distinctly different from the Western examples.

The task of restoring governance in international affairs is a common task for all states and it is urgent. Some politicians argue that the new rules of the game in world politics will develop over time and this process cannot be accelerated. This approach might have been justified if we were talking about less important matters. But history may not forgive a wait-and-see attitude in the face of growing threats to international security.

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Now let me say a few words about the emerging Russian-Chinese partnership, which I consider an entirely new type of partnership with no precedents in history. I do not want to imply that we have no problems between Moscow and Beijing – no state-to-state interactions are free from problems. However, in my view, the contemporary Russian-Chinese relationship questions many traditional assumptions about how major powers can and should deal with each other.

First, throughout history major powers cooperated either to agree upon their respective ‘spheres of influence’ or to form coalitions against common adversaries. This is not the case with Russia and China today. Their partnership is not directed against any third countries; the relationship between Moscow and Beijing has its own driving forces and its own logic. Likewise, this partnership has nothing to do with ‘dividing Eurasia’; it does not create any threats or challenges to neighboring states.

Second, traditional relations between major powers implied sophisticated bilateral or multilateral balancing mechanisms. Russia and China do not balance each other, but rather complement each other –– in political, economic, humanitarian and other areas. This is why this partnership does not imply relations between a “senior partner” and a “junior partner”, as it has often been the case in international relations. There may be asymmetries in the Russian-Chinese relations, but these asymmetries do not make the relations hierarchical with the leading power imposing its will on the satellite power. Instead, in each particular case both sides are looking for a fair balance of interests and are ready to compromise, if needed.

Third, traditionally relations between major powers required quite rigid institutional frameworks. The current Russian-Chinese relations are a very flexible form of interaction, which the two sides can calibrate and customize depending on the particular area of cooperation. The sides are not constrained by any highly detailed bureaucratic procedures, protracted decision-making mechanisms, limitations of national sovereignty and so on. The bilateral interaction consists of numerous ‘building blocks’ or regimes, and each of the regimes has its own dynamics and its own modus operandi.

Fourth, the “new major powers relations” go far beyond the state-to-state dimension. They also involve business communities, civil society organizations, educational and media institutions, and a variety of other non-state actors in Russia and in China. This complexity reflects the essence of the modern world politics, where challenges of security are closely linked with problems of development, and economic cooperation cannot be separated from cooperation in the social field.

I have no intention to argue that the current state of the Russian-Chinese relations is perfect. It is definitely not the case. We are only in the very beginning of a long road, and there are still many obstacles, ambiguities, and uncertainties along the way. It would be unwise and even dangerous to stop reflecting on what might be done better and how we could be more efficient. Nevertheless, the overall direction is clear and we have a detailed roadmap to follow.

I do believe that further elaboration of basic principles and main components of the Russian-Chinese cooperation is very important not only for our two states, but for the emerging system of international relations of the XXI century as well. This emerging system – on the global level as well as on the regional level – could be gradually built on similar partnerships – big and small, bilateral and multilateral. Of course, Russia and China should not try to impose their experience on anybody, but this experience is likely to be of interest to many international actors.

In fact, we already see that the Russian-Chinese experience has an impact on the international system: if you look at such multilateral structures as BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation organization, you will see that these structures are based on the same principles as the bilateral Russian–Chinese relations. One can predict that such approaches will be utilized in other multilateral organizations and groupings.

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One of the profound problems of the XXI century in world politics is the need to find the proper balance between national sovereignty and international governance. Countries – small states and major powers alike – are getting very sensitive about their sovereignty and their independence. No country likes a foreign interference into its domestic affairs. Nobody is willing to accept international ‘norms’, if these ‘norms’ are enforced on the global community by a limited number of major players.

At the same time, the world is getting smaller and more crowded. To survive, the humankind will have to reconsider the traditional understanding of national sovereignty. It will have to empower international organizations with more authority. It will have to enforce international law with more energy and consistency than it does it now. It will be a long and a bumpy road for all of us, but this is the only way we can take if we really want to cope with the numerous challenges of the future.

“The water that keeps a ship afloat can also sink it.” We can apply this ancient Chinese saying to describe the current state of the world. The humankind has entered unchartered waters of globalization. Our common ship can sink in these dangerous waters, or it can reach new shores of development and prosperity. It is up to us to make the right choice.

 Igor Ivanov is former Secretary of Security Council of the Russian Federation (2004-2007).