Squeezed between networked citizens and assertive non-state actors, states will have to balance between liberalism and realpolitik to adjust to the new geopolitical reality of the 21st century.

U.S. President Donald Trump [pictured left] seeks to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal and increase its military budget by $54 billion. Photo: Donald Trump's official Facebook page  

Numerous mantras and truisms about “predictable unpredictability” have become commonplace among pundits and politicians today. Paradoxically, quite predictable moves from global and regional stakeholders make the world less predictable and more vulnerable today. Here are three examples to illustrate the trend, from the United States, Russia and China.  

U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal and increase its military budget by $54 billion (which is about 80 percent of Russia’s entire military budget in 2015). The White House announced this plan on Feb. 27 and the Kremlin might have seen it as a warning signal. Yet, in fact, Trump makes no bones about his desire to negotiate with partners from a position of strength. And this move should surprise neither politicians nor experts.

Likewise, Russia’s policy in Eastern Ukraine seems to be no more astounding. Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 18 decree to recognize Donbas passports, Eastern Ukraine’s separatist republics — probably, with the tacit approval of the Kremlin — announced that they would adopt the Russian ruble as their official currency. By the same token, the West and Ukraine might first see the stance as a warning and only later as a predictable signal.

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Finally, China’s ongoing maneuvers in the South China Sea fuel tensions with its neighbors and the U.S. in another part of the world — the Asia-Pacific, as Beijing has recently spurred its military buildup in the region by deploying new missile systems and facilities on the Spratly and Parcel Islands. Again, it sends the U.S. an unwelcome message: Washington will likely see it as a direct challenge to America’s leadership in the region.

However, oddly enough, in such a turbulent and unpredictable environment, some experts cannot resist the temptation to forecast what the world will look like in 100 years. By looking ahead to the long-term future, they try to escape the comfort zone of conventional analysis and come up with relevant solutions in a chaotic world, no matter whether their forecasts will ever come true or not. On the other hand, other pundits choose another, more straightforward, tactic — they simply label the traditional chessboard view of geopolitics as outdated to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The world in 100 years

The futuristic approach is vividly conveyed in a new book released by the Russia International Affairs Council (RIAC), “The World in 100 Years,” which was presented in a Moscow library in mid-February. Written by 55 Russian pundits, it brings together forecasts about the world in the 2100s and its different aspects, including politics, economies and social life. Its initiators, RIAC’s Ivan Timofeev and Timur Makhmutov, describe the book as “an intellectual provocation” or a “collective brainstorming.”

“The authors of the book describe 55 different scenarios, which outline a general picture of the future,” Makhmutov said.

The problem is that many experts have a narrow planning horizon — three or four years due to the need to deal with the current agenda and the lack of certainty in general. Today, planning even within the 10-20 year timespan is challenging, not to mention 100 years. That’s why a futuristic approach might seem like a breath of fresh air. The goal is to push experts to expand the planning horizon of pundits and decision-makers and, thus, “foster imagination, reassess their views and look into the future,” said Makhmutov.

Timofeev calls such an approach “out-of-the-box thinking.” Even though it is not based on rigorous research and analysis, it could be helpful in dealing with future global challenges, at least as long as the traditional technologies — brick-and-mortar infrastructure, energy facilities, conventional weapons and military equipment — persist (and they will, according to Timofeev).

“The high speed of technological changes always co-exists with their rigidity,” Timofeev said, pointing out that this aspect creates demand for futuristic analysis.

The old and the new in turbulent co-existence

The co-existence of the old and the new is commonplace for today’s geopolitics and expertise. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, a foreign policy analyst as well as the president of the think tank New America, implies in a recent article for Foreign Affairs magazine, attempts to look at the world only through the traditional chessboard view (which is common for realpolitik, with its adherence to national interests) might create problems in the 21st century networked world.

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“Think of a standard map of the world, showing the borders and capitals of the world’s 190-odd countries. That is the chessboard view,” Slaughter writes. “Now think of a map of the world at night, with the lit-up bursts of cities and the dark swaths of wilderness. <…> . That is the web view. It is a map not of separation, marking off boundaries of sovereign power, but of connection.”

In fact, seeing the international system as a web prioritizes not the states and their interests, but rather, their networks. To a certain extent, such an approach shies away from realpolitik as a tool of dealing with other countries, non-state actors and global challenges, including the terrorism threat; drugs, arms, and human trafficking; climate change; pandemic disease carried by air, sea, and land.

“In this world, problems and threats arise because people are too connected, not connected enough, or connected in the wrong ways to the wrong people or things,” Slaughter argues, pointing out that today most politicians act as chess players, and see the world “as if they lived in the seventeenth century” and fail to navigate in the networked world.

According to such logic, the national leaders will have to build and maintain a transparent international order to succeed in the 21st century. Open societies, open governments and an open international system are supposed to be three essential elements of the networked world, the cornerstones of liberalism.

Such a concept seems to relegate realpolitik to something secondary. Sergey Medvedev, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, echoes this view. According to him, the mantra about the need to defend national interests oversimplifies the complicated nature of the globalized and networked world. It cannot meet the challenges of the 21century, he said during the Feb. 14 discussion held at the Moscow-based DI Telegraph center, as part of the Inliberty educational project.

According to him, Russia and other countries “should think beyond the box of traditional and realistic thinking.” He describes the focus on national interests as “the Russian backward game, a parochial response to the complexity of the globalized world.” Attempts to stick blindly to national interest lead to autocracy and the domination of the state. And prioritizing the interests of a state (or rather a separate ruler and his clique) over the interests of an individual might be flawed and dangerous, Medvedev warns. He gives an example: Russia.

By controlling the media consumption of the Russian people, the Kremlin tries to impose an idea on the population that there is “a Russia that has a certain national interest and projects this interest onto the external world. This is the geopolitics that ‘zombies out’ the population,” concluded Medvedev.

In contrast, Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities based in Moscow, doesn’t believe that the concept of national interest is outdated. On the contrary, recent events in the 21st century — including civil wars in Libya, Syria and Ukraine as well as Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. — indicate that realpolitik is in demand as an effective tool.

“The national interest will still be dominant,” he told Russia Direct during the Feb. 17-18 Meeting Russia event, a public diplomacy program for young leaders. “High expectations [for a new open and liberal global order] are also dangerous, because they might lead to high disappointment.”

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It remains to be seen if the chessboard view will be viable and overshadow the liberal concept of the world within the next 100 years. But one thing is certain: states will have to balance between two concepts and adjust to a new reality. They might find themselves squeezed between active citizens and assertive non-state actors.

The state might be not above, but rather in between, while playing a mediating role, predicts Makhmutov. This means that those national leaders, who place their bets on innovation, emerging new technologies and human capital, are likely to be more viable in a networked world.

Most importantly, in such an environment, policymakers should combine two approaches to navigate successfully in the 21st century. They need to be a blue sky visionary, capable of looking ahead 50 to 100 years, and they need to be a down-to-earth pragmatist, dealing with the day-to-day routine. Only by combining both approaches will they be able to respond to the inevitable “black swan” events in the world.