“Look, I think that the president is the one that’s keeping the world from chaos,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders a few days ago. “We’re gonna continue doing that as a team with the president leading that effort.” The decisive statement was a response to the words of Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who believes that only the presence of people like James Mattis, John Kelly and RexTillerson around Donald Trump “help separate our country from chaos.”
This wonderful polemic reflects the state of mind in Washington. The secretary of state is supposedly threatening to resign, calling the commander in chief a moron, while the president’s quarrel with the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is connected above all to strictly domestic motives – everyone trying to get re-elected however he can. But if we step back from this bacchanalia of human relations and think on it, what really is keeping humanity from chaos?
Pessimists will answer – nothing. The system of institutions created in the second half of the 20th century to support peace and governance by means of global processes is in a deep crisis. The rules have either been disregarded or not even acknowledged – they were formulated at the turn of the 21st century without the participation of important players, pessimists say. And the politicians’ irresponsibility exceeds allowable values.
Optimists will allude to the fact that despite the decline of institutions, something nevertheless remains, and now there’s even a correction taking placing toward understanding the real risks and the importance of exercising caution. The United Nations and its Security Council retain the function of a regulator, while nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent which makes politicians, to use a colloquial expression, “watch their mouths.”
Aha, pessimists will answer, that’s probably precisely why there are attempts to “improve” both the one and the other: initiatives to reform the U.N. Security Council, for example, and attention-getting appeals to abolish the veto power have followed one after another, while the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
There’s no need to see everything in black, optimists will retort. Yes, there was a period following 1989 when there were attempts to remake the world under one single model, a “reliable and therefore all-powerful” model, in effect eroding for its sake the previous rules that had been so painfully worked out. But now, an understanding of the perniciousness of universalism and the imposition of a single set of ideas have arrived such that the formation of a truly, pardon the expression, inclusive world order is beginning.
One could continue this lofty debate for a long time, and the arguments of each side would sound convincing. They’re both right – the threats are great, but the irreversible hasn’t happened yet. The vocabulary of world politics is adding fuel to the fire. The stylistics of a shouting match in a bazaar – or, to put it in a more modern way, communication on social networks – has overflowed to the very top and into the most critical spheres of activity, and the immediate public disclosure of practically every possible thing deprives diplomacy not only of the discretion that was inherent to the profession but of the time to come up with a response.
A combination of geo-economic, social, technological and cultural shifts, each of which is working in its own direction – and the directions don’t necessarily coincide – is creating a truly revolutionary situation. Yet many representatives of the political classes still don’t notice it or pretend not to notice it, being as they are completely absorbed with attempts to suppress or turn back the situation in their countries to the period following the Cold War, a period which seemed so comfortable for the West and relatively safe for the rest.
Meanwhile, a revolution means precisely that turning back is impossible. Even a period of restoration – which is almost inevitable after revolutionary changes – doesn’t restore everything as it was, but rather simply arranges the fruits of change in a more conventional way. But that’s the next phase; we’re just now entering a stage of drastic transformations. And the exacerbation of conflicts across all vectors – geopolitical, socioeconomic, intercultural, technological and natural – is creating what’s called a “perfect storm.”
Will a new order arise from these conflicts? Will the destruction now taking place be creative? These questions will be the main subject of the annual conference of the Valdai Discussion Club, which opens Monday.* The report, traditionally prepared for the event, this time is entitled “The Importance of Being Earnest.” But unlike Oscar Wilde’s jocose play, from which the title is borrowed, the authors in fact urge the abandonment of the “strategic flippancy” that took hold of the global elite at the end of the last century and shattered the foundation of foundations – a sense of self-preservation. It was very well developed in the years of the Cold War, especially after the sobering educational effect of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But subsequently it seemed to many that it was possible to relax. Yet it shouldn’t have.
Trump, however paradoxical it sounds, both personifies chaos and serves as an instrument to restrain it. One would like, of course, to write off the emergence of such a leader as the result of a fateful accident or the force of circumstances. In fact, it’s an indicator light warning of profound trouble and the need to go about solving the problems facing humanity in a completely different way than before.
*Editor’s note: The Valdai Discussion Club, established in 2004, aims to promote dialogue among the Russian and international intellectual elite, and to present an independent objective scholarly analysis of political, economic and social developments in Russia and the world.