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Russia and the West face the same problems

07 Nov 2016 - 13:51
Source: Prachatai/flickr

Russia and the West are confronted with the same fundamental challenges: a relative decline of their geo-political position, global threats that require more international cooperation and internal pressures to withdraw from that.

Because the countries of the West, Russia and Japan were the first to industrialize, they reached a level of development that gave them an enormous advantage on other countries and provided them with the opportunity to extend their power over the rest of the world. This period is now coming to an end. The countries of the South are catching up and the relative position of the countries of the North is declining.

The USSR used to be one of the two global superpowers. The Russian Federation remains very important, but not necessarily more important than China, India or Brazil. Even the relative power of the United States is declining.

The relative position of the countries of Western Europe is in continuous decline. Take for example the Netherlands. Between 1945 and 1975 it lost more than 97% of its territory. In 1962 it was one of the founding members of the G10, the group of ten most important Western industrialized countries, but in 1999 it did not receive an invitation to become a member of the global group of twenty countries, the G20.

The war in Syria gives the impression that the world is still basically an anarchy. However, a comparison with the situation a century ago makes clear that it is an exception to the global trend in the direction of a rule-based global order. The wobbly international order that is slowly developing might to a large extent be an accidental result of globalisation rather than the consequence of a common vision of countries, but that makes it no less real. As technological and economical developments proceed, countries have no choice but to accept a growing acquis of rules, encompassing inter alia communication, international finance, trade, scientific standards, public health and environmental protection.

Possibly the toughest challenge for both most Western countries and Russia is to engage in intensive international cooperation to deal with global challenges, while an important part of their population wants to go in opposite direction. What the movements that seek refuge in isolation have in common is that they blame “foreigners” for everything that goes wrong and therefore want to have as little as possible to do with the outside world. Typical examples are the Dutch referendum against an association agreement with Ukraine, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States.

Although blaming the outside world for everything that goes wrong is not a very fruitful long-term strategy, governments are tempted to sing to the tune of these groups, as they comprise a sizable part of the electorate. Both Russia and the West are tempted to seek refuge in antagonistic isolation instead of constructive engagement to adapt to a changing world order. However, in the longer run the only alternative for cooperation is self-mutilation.