Experts from the Valdai Discussion Club outline the most important challenges facing the world today and suggest how to deal with them in a new book, The World on the Edge: The Coil Unwinds.


President Barack Obama, center, talks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, center right, as they arrive for a group photo with other leaders for the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. Photo: AP

In 2014 and 2015, all the controversies of the post-Cold War world came to light. During this time, the Kremlin was increasingly outspoken and vocal about what it calls the “world order.” The Kremlin’s attempts to reassess this world order became the focus of Russian and foreign experts of the Valdai Discussion Club.  At the end of 2015 they released a book in Russian with an apocalyptic title: The World on the Edge: The Coil Unwinds.

The title of the Valdai book appears to allude to the title of another famous book, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, by prominent American environmental analyst Lester Brown. In that book, Brown argues that, “We are facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency” and “our challenge is to think globally and develop policies to counteract environmental decline and economic collapse.“

“Can we change direction before we go over the edge?” This question asked by Brown is also addressed by Valdai’s experts in their book, but through the lenses of a different field: international relations. In fact, they try to straddle between two extremes — between the positions of doomsayers and eternal optimists — and look at the problem from a half-full, half-empty perspective.

“The world is always in a state of transformation and on the edge of survival, because human existence is fragile,” writes Andrei Bystritsky a professor at Higher School of Economics in Moscow in the forward to the book. “The 21st century is no more stable than the world in the times of Attila [King of the Huns from 434-453].”

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Well-known Russian expert and head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the book, echoes Bystritsky’s view. “The fascination of long-waited economic and political polycentrism is fading away with its real emergence,” he wrote in the forward. “After all, multipolarity itself doesn’t resolve the problem, but rather exacerbates it.”

Explaining the metaphor of the unwinding coil, Lukyanov argues that the changes in the post-Cold War world have been “dormant and they were everywhere and took place very quickly.” Far from strengthening the world, this dormant energy of the unwinding coil is increasing pressure on the global security architecture. And without wise leaders, who are ready to come up with a roadmap of a new project, the power of the compressed coil “threatens to destroy the building,” Lukyanov argues.    

The book brings together the articles of the Valdai Club written by both Russian and foreign pundits, including San Francisco State University’s Andrey Tsygankov, University of Kent’s Richard Sakwa, Dartmouth College’s William Wohlforth, Hudson Institute’s Richard Weitz and others.

One of the advantages of this book is that it gives a broad perspective on global affairs and presents the problem of the world order from different angles. The coverage of this book ranges from the role of strong government in domestic and international affairs to emerging institutions and alliances; from the political and economic challenges of the multipolar world to the role of the West in this changing world; from nonproliferation to innovation, technologies and social problems.

However, skeptics could raise their eyebrows at the content of the book and see such diversity of topics as its major flaw. Indeed, this book is very eclectic in its nature, much like a patchwork quilt.

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On the other hand, this may be seen not only as a disadvantage, but also as an advantage, depending on the perspective one looks at the book.  After all, it brings together articles on various topics under one clear, primary idea: The world seems to be coming apart at the seams. Such an approach makes this intellectual collaboration interdisciplinary and complex, an approach that cannot help being welcomed in such a sophisticated field as global affairs.

What the book lacks

Despite the book bringing together foreign and Russian experts who present different perspectives and in-depth analyses on global affairs, it lacks an opposite take from those Western pundits who are inherently skeptical of the Kremlin’s interpretation of international events. For example, almost all the articles in the book seem to present a one-sided view of the role of the West and particularly, the U.S., in destabilizing the world.

The key idea that penetrates the book seems to be not only the triumph of multipolarity and its challenges, but also the destructive role the U.S. and the West play in pushing the world to the edge. Many of the book’s contributors try to persuade the reader that the U.S. is driven by double standards and to a certain extent is negligent of international law, that Washington tries to maintain what the authors of the book call U.S. hegemony and impose its values and principles on others.

However, the book contains no articles that would look to point out Russia’s double standards and its role in destabilizing the world and redrawing the map of Europe. There seem to be attempts to justify Russia’s policy in Ukraine, but no words about the fact that the incorporation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s intransigent support of the Donbas rebels and Syrian President Bashar Assad contributed to making the world even more turbulent and unstable as well.

Although the book makes a convincing argument based on facts, it would be still more persuasive if it presented a more balanced approach rather than a not-so-subtle finger pointing at the West’s flawed foreign policy mistakes