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Summit without System

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It is clear why the Russia—U.S. Presidential summit is in the limelight of the world community. In the history of international relations, high-level meetings often become significant events that change the paradigm of bilateral and multilateral contacts. However, this happens when the accompanying factors—necessary for a reverse, revision, or update—mature. Experts agree that the depth of contradictions does not allow us to achieve serious changes. There are opinions that the summit will see an attempt to form some confrontation rules and establish a set of rivalry principles. In my opinion, this should not be expected for a number of reasons that lie in the structure of the contemporary international relations, which is transit in nature. Most likely, the summit will aim to establish personal contacts and tete-a-tete communication, dating in a new capacity.

The Geneva summit of June 16, 2021 has been prepared for a long time and resulted from a telephone conversation between the presidents as well as the subsequent work of the United States and Russian diplomatic services. The Russian-American relations have always been about security, strategic stability, and world order. Bilateral relations are kept to a minimum, and economic cooperation is at its minimum levels. The depth of contradictions regarding regional conflicts does not allow us to expect any serious changes. Theoretically, a successful dialogue can be achieved in those areas that account for similar interests and do not contradict the interpretations of national security. This could be the Iranian, Syrian and Afghan dossiers. In fact, there have never been insurmountable contradictions as regards these issues. In turn, the Ukrainian crisis is viewed by the parties from fundamentally different approaches, with the situation in the Eastern European country seen as the opposite. The conversation here will probably be short, and a compromise will not be found. The issues of strategic stability and arms control also have different interpretations, but at least so far, they have not been fundamental. Perhaps, these are all problems where some understanding could be achieved. In short, the agenda is broad but rather unpromising.

In any case, a meeting is always better than no meeting. The summit being held signals that it is possible and necessary for the United States to deal with Russia. For the new administration, a meeting’s necessity is dictated by the diplomatic structures and the need to establish personal contacts. Indeed, today the relations between the two nations cannot be called normal, working and effective. Given the military and geopolitical capabilities of the two countries, this fact itself is fraught with many threats, security dilemmas and conflict potential. A normalization in relations is a necessity, both for bilateral cooperation and for the global system. At the same time, the prospects for finding any common denominators are shallow. Moreover, this is practically impossible and—given the worldview perspectives of two countries—untimely.

The difficulties of normalization, in my opinion, lie in the systemic factor. Actors see the world, processes, practices, and the international relations system in different ways. Looking at the same things, Russia and the United States see them in contrasting ways, which complicates things and any substantive discussion, not to mention setting rules of the game. There is no consensus or compromise in understanding the international relations system, the role of states, IGOs and NGOs. In Russia, they believe that the United States is in decline. America is convinced that Russia is in decline. In Russia, the realist approach is not only dominant but, perhaps, the only acceptable option for the Kremlin, as the geopolitical interpretation of events seems to be the only relevant mindset.

How to avoid conflict, security dilemma and come to normalization? Today, there is probably no answer to this question. Stability requires institutions. This concept is much broader than organizations, fora or conferences. The institutional theory assumes that actors, bound by some common rules, norms and practices, will find a common language more easily, while the potential for conflict will be controlled. For the relations to be institutionalized, the necessary criterion is the legitimacy of recognizing a vis-à-vis as well as its rights, role and equality. This, unfortunately, is absolutely absent in the Russian-American relations.

Russia sees the world as multipolar, regarding itself as a great power—equal to the United States and China. Following this logic, Moscow demands an appropriate attitude and equality. Russia’s perspective on global processes reflects the growing influence of non-Western actors outside of liberal multilateralism. Moscow denies the international relations liberal theory in much the same way that the founders of the basic IR theory, Edward Carr and Hans Morgenthau, did. The liberal approach, and hence the vision of the United States, is seen as idealistic. In addition, individual divergences are treated not as exceptions to the rules but as an actual refutation of the theory itself. And the discourse hides real geopolitical goals that have nothing to do with its interpretation.

The dominant schools of international relations in the United States reject realist theory and, more importantly, see it as a problem of the current state in global politics. In addition, geopolitics and its methods are called obsolete. The consensus position believes that realism is refuted, as it fails to catch the zeitgeist of the much broader and more complex world. Consequently, the interpretations, practices, motives and arguments of the Russian side are not taken in at all. Their actions, in turn, are interpreted from the standpoint of critical, liberal approaches and methodologies of the English school. The dominant schools in the U.S. see the issues of national sovereignty, the role of non-state actors and military force differently. Some postulates neutralize the very concept of sovereignty and the main tenets of realism. Regional crises are considered not from the standpoint of security and geopolitics but as something essentially predicted by the dominant schools in the West, namely the desire of some states to become part of the family of democracies.

According to the English School, the United States treats NATO as a community of nations, believing the rhetoric of the alliance should be based on the need for securitization, as is required by the Copenhagen theory. The rhetoric from these points of view is aimed at the epistemological community, fixing the enemy to strengthen unity and security procedures. In Russia, which proceeds from classical realism or neorealism, we tend to think of NATO as of a military-political alliance that defends the geopolitical interests of a bloc of countries rather than of a community of global police officers. Numerous crises in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine are seen as attempts by the Atlantic alliance, which seeks hegemony, to expand its sphere of influence. The consequences are extremely negative, as they are deemed to be destabilizing, rooted in irresponsible decisions that ignore the social and regional characteristics of nations. NATO’s direct or indirect involvement in crises is seen as a threat that creates numerous security dilemmas. Moscow sees the strengthening of NATO and the United States as a threat to its national interests and security.

The practices, motivations and characteristics of a multipolar, unipolar or bipolar world are fundamentally different. Consequently, looking at the world through the prism of these theoretical interpretations leads to different, often mutually exclusive readings of the same processes. Indeed, the rules of international relations designed in 1945 and updated following the Cold War need to be revised. However, the leading actors are not going to do this yet, which, apparently, is a sign that the critical potential is lacking at this point. Amid unformed transit world order, which is in some cases similar to the Brownian motion, agreeing on rules of confrontation is inherently difficult.

Today, the relations between Russia and the United States are abnormal, irrational, lacking in systemic thinking, clear goal-setting, and acceptable practices. An experienced administration of professionals has come to power in the United States, and the fact that the summit is to be held demonstrates that the dialogue with Moscow is not toxic. Minimalism and the attempt to focus on small things to achieve practical results may well be the most positive scenario of the summit. At the same time, the transit nature of the current international relations system, which seems to be moving from a unipolar to a multipolar world, prevents the parties from understanding, hearing and accepting each other.

The United States as the largest and the most powerful superpower is experiencing a post-hegemony state, as Robert Cohen puts it. It is increasingly at odds with the new pole of power, China. Russia, not being a full-fledged superpower, is limited in its actions and resources, however, reluctant to give in and believing it is in its national interests to nominally keep a distance from the West. Moscow needs to establish fair relations with the global West, of which relations of equality will be the foundation. At the same time, there is no sound alternative to the ideological construction of a transit world order. The rules of confrontation are, in fact, a kind of detente which recognizes the legitimacy of each party’s demands. Under the transit era, it will be extremely difficult to arrive at.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History, Research Fellow at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, Valdai Discussion Club Expert, RIAC Expert

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Americas

The hegemony of knowledge and the new world order: U.S. and the rest of the world

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In today’s world, knowledge and technological advantages determine – to a large extent – differences in the management of international policy. The increase in a country’s intellectual power directly defines an increase in its economic power, thus changing its position in the international competition for dominance.

The power policy, first in the agricultural age and later in the industrial age, was characterised by military and then economic hegemony, while the power policy in the information age gradually reveals the characteristics of knowledge hegemony at both the scientific and intelligence levels.

The hegemony of knowledge in contemporary international relations manifests itself specifically as unequal exchange in international trade, exploitation of high-value information and various conditions related to technological production. Hence, we see the transfer of polluting industries from privileged to poor countries: energy-consuming and high-intensity activities.

Western culture and values are disseminated vigorously, through the so-called soft power in information and mass media, and take on obsessive and oppressively hypnopedic forms.

Developed countries have patents in the use of outer space, as well as in the development of deep sea resources and in the production of environmental resources that pollute, while developing countries can only sigh as they look at other’s oceans and satellites, which fly around, do reconnaissance activities and monitor them.

The resources of the great and deep seas – which should be shared by mankind as they belong to everybody like the air, the moon and the sun – are instead exploited by the developed countries. On the contrary, they freely and ‘democratically’ share with the wretched ones only the evil consequences of environmental pollution.

With specific reference to sanctions and armed interference in international relations, the technique of violent and conscious bullying is adopted: whoever is militarily stronger imposes the validity of their interests, also at legal level.

The root cause for generating knowledge hegemony lies in the polarisation of the intellectual status of the nation-State. Western developed countries have already crossed the threshold of an information society, while developing countries are still struggling to climb towards industrial civilisation from the most primitive and closed state of existence. Although developing countries hold most of the world’s natural and human resources (just think of Africa), they are far behind in science and technology. Just look at the continental histogram of the 207 Nobel Prizes in Physics from 1901 to 2017 (winners are counted by country of birth except for the Algerian Nobel Prize winner Claude Cohen-Tannoudji [1997], who was born when Algeria was a French territory):

Source: Nadua Antonelli <<Africana>> XXIII (2017) page 12

If they have no means to study, even the greatest and most brilliant brains cannot make discoveries or file patents, looking only at the sky and the earth.

About 80 per cent of science and technology staff and their achievements are concentrated in developed countries. The knowledge advantage gives developed countries the right to set the rules of the game and of communication for all global knowledge production and dissemination. In particular, the developed countries’ knowledge advantages in the military and high-tech media enable them to expand their influence on the civil and military fronts and achieve their strategic objectives.

Developing countries wander between traditional society, modern industrial civilisation and post-industrial civilisation, and are often challenged and oppressed by the third party’s hegemony of knowledge.

The new economy created by the information revolution is still a ‘rich-country phenomenon’, the core of what is called ‘advantage creation’, under the cover of ‘competitive advantage’, or rather: competitive towards those who cannot compete.

The country leading the information revolution is the United States, which is the biggest beneficiary of these achievements. The digital divide highlights the status of the US information superpower. In the global information sector, in 2000 the central processing unit production in the United States accounted for 92%, and software production for 86%.

IT (Information & Technology) investment in the United States was 41.5% of global investment, Microsoft’s Windows system accounted for 95% of global platform applications, while the US Internet users accounted for more than half of global Internet users, and 58% of all e-mail goes through US servers.

E-commerce is worth 75% of the global total and US commercial websites account for 90% of the planet.

Currently, there are almost three thousand large-scale databases in the world, 70% of which are in the United States. There are 13 top-level domain name servers in the world and 10 of them are located in the United States.

The above figures far exceed the share of US GDP, which is 28% of the world total. The United States is far ahead of all countries in the world, including the other developed countries. The leading position in information technology allows the United States to control the basics in the field of information with its strong economic and talent advantages, as well as to master the actual rights, and to set standards and formulate rules and regulations.

The status as cradle of the information revolution has brought enormous wealth and development benefits to the United States. Since the 1990s, the development of information technology and the rise of the related industry have become an accelerator of further economic advancement in the United States.

In the growth of US GDP – from 1994 (the beginning of the Internet) to 2000 – the share of the information industry in the value of the country’s total output has caused the economy to rise from 6.3% to 8.3%, and the contribution provided by the information industry development to the actual US economic growth is estimated at 30%.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States – with its strong national-global power and the relative hegemony of knowledge/information – was already ready to build a new world order.

Knowledge is also the soul of military hegemony. Since the 1990s the United States (after the USSR’s demise) has taken advantage of its absolute leadership in information technology to vigorously promote a new military revolution and equip its armed forces with a large number of modern sophisticated weapons, especially cyber weapons: an overwhelming advantage in the conventional field, clearly overtaking the Third World, as well as its Western allies.

The US superiority in equipment ranges from one to two generations (i.e. from 15 to 30 years) over developing countries and from 0.5 to one generation over allies. All this has established the hegemonic status of the United States as the world’s number one military power.

Gulf Wars II (1991) and III (2003) (the first was the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88), the Kosovo War (1999), the Afghanistan War (2001- still ongoing), and the Iraq War (2003-2011) were four localised wars that the United States fought to establish a new world order after the Cold War. During those events, the US hegemony was strengthened on an unprecedented scale and its attempt to establish a new order made substantial progress.

Moreover, backed by strong military advantages (scattering the planet with its own bases and outposts), as well as economic and technological advantages, those events ensured that the United States had and still has a leading position in the world, thus making the White House a planner and defender of the new world order. (1. continued)

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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