Some Russian scenarios

Russian researchers and scholars have outlined some possible scenarios for the world order transitions in the coming years.

Liberal Order: An Attempt of Adaptation

The present liberal world order is going through rough times, when new centers of power are growing. The US President emphasizes the pre-eminence of American national interests over global leadership, international norms and institutions, which are crumbling. Ironically, the liberal order is being destroyed by the nation that presided over its inception and was its leader for a long time.

Its durability lies in the fact that the US has not yet made a definitive choice in favour of an alternative, while its allies are expressing their preference, in different ways, for the comfortable world order they are accustomed to.

The process of adapting the liberal system may start with the next presidential cycle in the US, either 2020 or 2024. President Trump’s policy agenda is opposed by a huge number of people both in the US and elsewhere, who are increasingly outraged by his rejection of the established interpretation of world leadership in favour of patriotism and going alone, pressuring allies, and undermining a number of regimes and institutions. It could be assumed that reverting to the old policies will be as (or more) radical than the U-turn made by Trump himself.

The big question is how effective this U-turn will be. Will it solve the problems and imbalances that have piled up? How long-term will the policy of liberal order restoration persist? It is likely that Trump, Brexit, European populism and other phenomena are not just a fluctuation but a symptom of more fundamental and long-term problems.

Nevertheless, the likelihood itself of a liberal U-turn seems quite high, as does its backing by many influential players.

Strategic Autonomy and a New Multipolarity

Any attempt to revive the liberal world order will likely end in fiasco. Although the liberal order has its supporters, the new international realities will soon dispel such liberal idealism. Moreover, the US itself is less and less inclined to coordinate its actions with allies.

China and Russia are too big or too recalcitrant for the old order.

The European Union is becoming increasingly independent, albeit in no hurry to break off transatlantic ties.

While remaining as a US ally, Japan is gradually departing from its usual policy as it becomes a more powerful military-political player. India is following its traditional non-aligned path.

The key feature that distinguishes the multipolarity scenario from the previous new liberal order scenario is that there are growing centers of power, for which strategic autonomy or progress in that direction is a more attractive proposition than US leadership. Such a world lacks organizing principles or ideas but it is not beset by anarchy and chaos.

The main question is how long this order can exist and whether it can be stable in principle.

Bipolarity 2.0

The new bipolarity scenario is rooted in the growing US pressure on China and Washington’s attempt to preclude the crystallization of Beijing’s military and political might. Furthermore, the ‘China card’ is being played in the context of US domestic political competition. Regardless of who becomes the president in 2020 and 2024, the US–China confrontation will become irreversible. The trade war will undermine both countries’ economic interdependence. Washington will impose sanctions against Beijing and gradually expand their scope. China will retaliate with painful countermeasures. An arms race in Asia will pick up speed.

These processes will threaten China’s stable economic growth. Expansion of the military-industrial complex and military production will emerge as an important compensatory factor against the background of an economic slowdown. Ideologically, China will promote an alternative vision of the world system.

The advantage of the new bipolarity for Russia lies in the opportunity to reliably overcome diplomatic isolation and considerably bolster its security based on its alliance with China. The system itself may prove stable, given the high containment potential of both poles. It is easier for Russia to overcome economic pressure from the part of the US and its allies.

In an alliance with China, Russia may play the role of a junior partner. Moscow’s economic relations with China will be asymmetrical, with Russia growing more dependent.

A New Anarchy

The defining feature of this scenario is that it can come about by virtue of a whole range of unpredictable events, like military incidents, cyberattacks, man-made disasters, terrorist attacks, religious conflicts, etc.

However, it implies just one outcome, which is a major international conflict involving leading world powers and a wide array of armaments, which will affect a large number of countries, negatively impact the world economy and carry dramatic consequences for the future balance of power in the world.

At a minimum, several possible forms can be considered, that this catastrophic scenario might take. In the new anarchy scenario, all players pay a price. In case of a nuclear conflict, the losses threaten to be irreparable. Even a major conventional conflict will paralyze the world economy, finance, transport, and other crucial infrastructure. The onset of each of these options is probable but it is unlikely that they will develop into an uncontrolled disaster. Obviously, numerous other options are possible as well.

Undoubtedly, all four scenarios are “ideal types”. Many other options are possible as well. But it is important to recognize that the anarchy scenario can follow any of the three other alternatives, liberal order, new multipolarity, or new bipolarity.

These scenarios are not mutually exclusive and can appear in succession. It seems in today’s world order that the major players lack reliable interaction mechanisms in the event that the worst-case scenario comes to pass. All sides are increasingly inclined to see containment as the best option, complete with all the ensuing consequences such as the “spiral of fear”, “Thucydides trap” and “security paradox”.

A war provoked by stupidity is quite possible in this kind of situation.