The 13th meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club focuses on the transformation of the international world order and the interplay of the three global powers: the U.S., Russia and China.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, walk in to their meeting room in Geneva, Sept. 9, 2016, to discuss the crisis in Syria. Photo: Pool Photos via AP

“The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow” is the official theme of the 13th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, which starts on Oct. 25 in Sochi, Russia. Traditionally, it gathers together experts, professors, former officials and diplomats from around the world and is seen as one of the most influential discussion platforms within Russia.

The general topic for the 13th Valdai meeting is quite timely as the world is currently going through a transformation process: borders continue to move, institutions of global governance transform, alliances change and global centers of power shift.

During the first session at Valdai, the panelists discussed the problems that are caused by those transformations and debated the changing structure of the “world of tomorrow.”

World of tomorrow

The majority of participants in Valdai agree that there are three global powers today: the U.S., China and Russia. All three actors have their own views on how the world should look and how the transformation of the current international system should proceed.

One of the major questions in today’s international affairs is how the relations between these three countries will evolve. U.S.-Russia relations, China-Russia relations and U.S.-China relations will definitely have a huge influence on the pace and character of the transformation of the existing international order and will largely define how the “world of tomorrow” will look.

Chicago University professor John Mearsheimer, known for his neo-realist views of the world order, sees the current state of world affairs as a “transitioning out of unipolarity into multipolarity” and views it as the “return of great power politics.” In recent years, the United States has been forced to confront two meaningful challengers, Russia and China, which naturally puts certain limitations on its global power and will influence the shape of the future world order.

In fact, Mearsheimer argues that international relations in the 21st century will be defined mostly by U.S.-China relations, not by U.S.-Russia relations, as China is growing stronger and provokes “intense security competition with the U.S.” This raises a very important question here: How will Russia fit into this competition?

According to Mearsheimer, there are three possible options. First, Russia aligns with China; second, Russia aligns with the U.S. and third, Russia remains neutral. At the moment, it looks more like Russia is aligning with China. Russia was basically provoked by the U.S. and its elites, which “failed to appreciate Russia’s legitimate security concerns by pushing NATO’s eastward expansion.“ That led to a change in security dynamics.

The U.S. drove the Russians into the arms of the Chinese and there is no guarantee that the U.S. will be smart enough not to antagonize Russia further pushing it to the Chinese,” explains Mearsheimer.

Thus, according to Mearsheimer, the world is doomed to be a place for eternal security competition among the great powers. This is basically a zero-sum game.

In contrast, former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd argues that the zero-sum game is not inevitable and cooperation between the powers is possible – but it largely depends on the leaders and their decisions. He disagrees with Mearsheimer and his determinism about the impossibility of reconciling mutually exclusive interests of the great powers and argues that leaders have the power to reconcile and, thus, change the status quo.

“Leaders do choose how to act,” Rudd points out. “The amount of uncertainties exceeded the amount of certainties, which made the existing system way less secure and stable.”

Rudd suggests that this situation might be fixed and claims that one of the options to make the world function better is a bigger role for the G20, where the leading players must develop strategic agreements on the functions of the international system.

Sergei Karaganov, the dean of the School of International Economics and Foreign Affairs of the Higher School of Economics, sees the “world of tomorrow” as a system based on liberal economic rules, where countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity are observed and their interests are considered. He also argues that the currently emerging new global system will be characterized by political pluralism and every country’s right to choose its own way for development.

According to Karaganov, this is exactly what Russia and China have been doing in recent years – changing the unipolar world order imposed by the U.S. after the end of the Cold War with Moscow doing it more rigidly and China using a softer approach. In fact, the emergence of large economic and political blocs, such as the ones being built now by Russia and China in Eurasia, contribute to this change.

The chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, Fu Ying, explains the Chinese reluctance to take a more rigid stance globally: “China views the U.S. dominated world order as a mess and this is why it does not want to take over it. Why should China repeat mistakes that the U.S. made?”

It is quite noticeable that the Chinese view on the “world of tomorrow” has a lot in common with Russia’s, although it contains certain differences. Ying noted that in general China supports the existing international world order with the leading institutional role of the UN in it. However she suggests that it needs to be improved nonetheless. She sees a key reason for such improvement as making the current system more inclusive and making it a place where all countries’ interests are considered.

As an option to reduce the risk of any major confrontation between the powers in the future, Karaganov offers to strengthen the role and the importance of nuclear weapons in the modern international system, arguing that this is the only factor that saved humanity from the catastrophe during the Cold War and is still saving the world today.

Russia and Europe’s future

Currently the European Union is in its most serious crisis since its launch. This summer’s decision of the United Kingdom to leave the EU, the rise of the right-wing populist parties in Europe, the refugee crisis – all uncovered the disagreements among the EU members and brought public dissatisfaction with current EU politics to light. As a consequence, Europe is losing its influence. As Rudd pointed out, Europe is losing its political significance.

Karaganov is convinced that during the next 10-15 years, Europe will be “melting down.” However, it does not mean that Europe will lose its power and influence forever. The key reasons for Europe’s decline, according to Karaganov, is the elites’ inability to solve European problems. He argues that it is not going to change in the next decade as the current elites will stick to their current position. “In 10 or 15 years when the European elites will be changed, Europe will become strong again,” claims Karaganov.

In addition, he explains that Russia’s plans to develop the Eurasian Economic Union are closely connected with this timeframe and are tied to this EU decline. In other words, Russia is using the European crisis, which will last for another 10-15 years, to develop a relatively strong and competitive economic integration union that will inevitably become a key player whose interests will have to be taken into account.

Mearsheimer argues that with the rise of China, Europe will strive to maintain good relations with it, while the U.S. will pay more attention and resources to Asia in an attempt to deter China’s influence. This eventually will lead to the deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Europe. Thus, this potentially opens the window for improvement of relations between Russia and Europe in the future.