Reflections from the 17th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club

Reflections

ADC Forum had the honour of being part of the Valdai Discussion Club’s meeting and its discussion with President Vladimir Putin in October. CEO Anton Roux also was the only Australian to be given the opportunity to taken part in a Panel discussion with the President and to ask him a question.

 

  • This reflection recognises that the Club’s session was President Vladimir Putin’s second similarly themed speech during the pandemic since the UN General Assembly speech he gave at the end of September.
  • There is a lot of talk of “deglobalisation” around the world in concert with the rise of increased nationalism. However, the world of “thought leaders” is driven by trends and a desire to stand out as smart with the latest neologism rather than necessarily any clear eyed, real world insight with constructive intentions. In addition, Western thinking has been too black and white, and tending to swing pendulum-like from one pole to another over time, rather than embracing the broader human capacities of paradoxical logic and simultaneous possibilities, which is something different to pure inconsistency, or the hypocrisy which so offends.
  • President Putin made the case that resilient states are important and that their best qualities and their sovereignty is constituted by, and emerge from, their own traditions and culture rather – than having institutions implanted upon them. Of course, what one really hopes is that action and practice follows rhetoric rather than sitting inconsistently adjacent, as is too often the case in the practice of international relations, in a world still trying to get along where there is no clear level and process of accountability above the level of nation states.
  • The President referenced Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to argue that states should, when they wake up in the morning, do the tedious work of tidying up themselves first before seeking to tidy up the planet. Although he recognised that this is a constant source of work, without an identifiable beginning, it must, therefore be our combined fate to continue to do both simultaneously.
  • Ahead of advocating for the critical work which humanity must do to preserve the environment, the President lamented that humanity seems to have lost its way, raison d’être and sense of values, purpose and mission for planet earth, indicating that the radical solutions and openness of young people was desperately required. He urged greater “frugality” and a reduction in over consumption towards “reasonable sufficiency” to preserve the natural resources of the planet and to counter anthropogenic influence on the climate, as well as to prevent the outbreak of diseases when the harmony between humanity and the planet is out of balance. It is notable that Russia has also just banned the export of timber this year in recognition that the great forests of Russia are a critical source of exchange and life for the planet, not to mention carbon credits once the science and standards of measurement have been more fully worked out. As we all talk about the impact of carbon dioxide, the President reminded us that the Arctic permafrost (which takes up 65% of the territory of Russia) is a major source of methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent a contributor to climate change compared to carbon dioxide. It is anticipated that 25% of the Russian permafrost will melt by 2100 which is a serious danger with expected positive feedback and non-linear climate changes. He suggested that we do not want to head towards anything like the climate of the planet Venus with average temperatures of 462 degrees Celsius from its historical, runaway climate change. Or that we continue to irreparably destroy planetary biodiversity, along with jeopardising our economies and infrastructure which all depend upon a stable climate, thus endangering people too.
  • Russia seems to have recognised that most states have focused their attentions internally over the months of the pandemic and taken the opportunity to express the sensible view that the world’s international, multilateral institutions are worth preserving. He particularly singled out the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.
  • While the President noted the importance of these liberal, global institutions to provide the only governance architecture we have available to solve the world’s collective global and complex problems, his speech also served to highlight the lack of support for these institutions during the past year by some Western countries who have been calling particular institutions out for incompetence, corruption and acting to take away funding support. He did not forget to add either that egotistic and vested interests have been corrupting forces on these institutions. It was always recognised that a shifting balance of power in the world would needs to reflect new levels of standing in the international community, on the provision that the most important thing was to follow the rules of the liberal international order. The reality is that new levels of standing affords also greater ability to change the rules. The President also singled out, even in the Security Council, the rise in importance of some countries on their way to becoming superpowers, such as China and Germany, others such as India, Brazil and South Africa, and the fall in others such as France and the UK, and that there was not a case for US exceptionalism. He also mentioned the value of other interest-based organisations which are achieving successful levels of cooperation, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and OPEC and, in particular the multilateral organisations which are critical for achieving cooperation on terrorism, global economic development and public health. While arguing for stabilising the status quo, he also drew attention to the massive uncertainty, increased volatility and forces of transition gaining momentum in the world today.
  • The President talked about prioritising “life and safety of people” as the most important factor during the pandemic, which he said was a choice stemming from “the culture and the spiritual traditions of the Russian nation”. However, it was a cause to remind us that only capable states can efficiently address crises, and certainly some states have been left dangerously exposed with their lack of preparedness, social trust and cohesion. He talked about state power coming not from having a strong military, political systems or particular institutions, but coming from the trust of its citizens – from people. Each country has its own traditions and values which he stated as the core of a state’s sovereignty and the core of what provides social cohesion, but I think it is also fair to say and critically important that institutions become important representations of a country’s values, traditions and culture, in that they help to organise what would otherwise be more deregulated and chaotic, and so while political systems and structures might not have legitimacy if they are not trusted or supported by people, they are essential functional instruments of representation of societies. He talked about the importance of working together and the need to guard against vested interests and foreign interests. I don’t think anyone would disagree with those statements and it is fair to say that advanced democracies are still not doing enough to counter the effects of vested interests and foreign interests (regardless of how benign the intentions might be).
  • He said that “true democracy and civil society cannot be imported” and even if that were theoretically possible, surely there have been many examples of failed attempts in recent decades from do-gooders. This sovereignty of their civil society needs to be at the top of the national agenda for decades to come, he said. He reminded participants that Russia struggled to survive as a nation for some time, to save itself from breaking up, and that there are still forces in the world hoping Russia might just fade away.
  • More than what is often called the humble servant model of leadership or service-based leadership, the President referred to heads of State as mere vassals to deliver and facilitate for the real masters who are the people. Often those in liberal societies do not see leaders they would consider authoritarian as having that kind of a mentality, and certainly not all heads of authoritarian states or liberal states for that matter, would operate in such a fashion, although neither is that the reason why liberal states exist either.
  • He also discussed the boundless digital space of our contemporary world and how COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of the digital commons and its risks, and that we need to do more to secure and create legal frameworks for this global commons, including the employment of “confidence building measures” as an effective mechanism for building trust and cooperation as a practice taken from the Cold War era. He highlighted that information security and protecting cyberspace needs to be a high priority and bilateral dialogue between Russia and the US needs to be opened up. He pointed out that Russia was keen to pursue this strengthening of the open-ended cyber information domain more broadly with nations.
  • In the post-speech discussions, the President lamented the current lack of US response to a number of cooperation measures already put forward and the lack of humanitarian support to the common people of a number of countries, not Russia in this case, suffering disproportionately from imposed economic sanctions during the pandemic.
  • After initially expressing justifiable disappointment at the international community’s efforts to come together to fight the pandemic, he then ended by exhorting the world, and its youth with their creative will to solve impossible tasks, to come together to solve real threats like environmental destruction and climate change, and to move beyond the bickering of concocted problems. Only by putting aside each of our silo mentalities, can this even begin to be possible, he said.
  • Observation: It is not possible to leave the discussion without the space in one’s mind that the President with wisdom and realism, left participants in the discussion with a sense of inspiration. 
  • I would very much like to believe the arguments I have heard during the President’s speech. He comes across as a very sympathetic person and his speech was thoughtful, heartfelt, insightful and considered, and while I am not naïve, I agree with many of the sentiments and proposed pathways, not only for his Russia, but for each of our nations as well as the human community. I am sure many others would too. I also would like to see a world of greater cooperation. While not everyone shares our values, culture or political systems, either superficially or even at a deeper level in some cases, we do need to try harder to understand one another and work together. Not only with those who see the short-term goals and impacts of immediate policy, but critically the long-term practical results cooperation and shared values can create. 
  • Perhaps it is time for Australia to help peel back existing silo mentalities and advance the best strategic movements for humanity in directions which are increasingly starting to make sense, not just for the nefarious antics of today, which are the challenges faced by our diplomats and national security apparatus, but for the strategic logic of the long-term, which we should endeavour to shape.

 

Anton Roux

 

27 October, 2020