Realpolitik 2.0

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The New Beginning of History?

The liberal world order as we know it has been discredited and is coming to an end. That was the message Russian President Vladimir Putin sent to the world in his expansive FT interview on the eve of the G-20 summit in Osaka. This is no surprise. But the same sentiment has also been floated in dozens of publications by well-established western scholars. What does this surprising example of East-West agreement mean? Will be there no more alliances and coalitions-of-the-willing based on shared values such as freedom and democracy? No more endorsing universal human rights, trusted agreements, and institutions? Are we returning to the 19th century, when seizing territories and nations was accepted behavior—even predominant—well beyond Russian borders?

There is a broad consensus that the unipolar liberal world order centered around the United States has ended. Putin’s now-famous speech in Munich conveyed the Russian president’s dismay with western primacy. Since then, this new reality has featured Russia’s war in Georgia; its illegal annexation of Crimea; invasion of Donbas; operations in Syria, Libya, and Venezuela; constant provocations against NATO members’ ships and planes; intrusion via computer networks and electronic systems; powerful disinformation campaigns; and direct support to right-wing and populist parties in the West. One can add Russia’s human rights violations, suppression of media, and even brutal killing of Kremlin critics at home and abroad.

And yet Russia did not destroy the liberal world alone. The rise of populism across the West and the rise of China has contributed to this new reality too. So what comes next, and what can we call it?

In this emerging reality, generally accepted rules are becoming obsolete and the United States, Russia, and China are all involved in constructing a new world order. Russia is fighting tooth and nail for a multi-polar model where great powers have clearly defined spheres of influence. While the EU is in disarray, China is seizing the opportunity to promote its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an effort to secure trade routes from its distant provinces to the EU, the biggest market in the world. The United States faces challenges to its democratic model with an electoral system that is vulnerable to external interference.

The fight is quickly moving, moreover, from the economic and security spheres to ideology and social values. Russia is a world champion in creating parallel “realities” that undermine belief in truth. Without truth, there are no values, only the brutal force of a powerful regime. China is influencing information and controlling how it spreads, insisting that its model of one-party control and social credit best suits complex modern societies.

This new reality and current order can be best described as the world of Realpolitik. A term once coined in Germany, it has much broader application today: “Realpolitik 2.0” can be defined as an entirely pragmatic attitude toward world affairs combined with information control and distortion with no remorse for weaker states.

Realpolitik means that a country can have two or more independent but contradictory policy tracks in parallel: yes, Russia might be an aggressor, but we can trade with it. Yes, Kim Jong Un is a brutal dictator, but we shake hands and walk with him across the demarcation line. Yes, we love Ukraine but the Kremlin-supported Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream gas pipelines will be built.

Despite Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, German businesses invested more than $3.7 billion in Russia last year, the highest levels in a decade. In the same year, bilateral trade between France and Russia grew by 11 percent to $17 billion. French firms currently have $20 billion invested in Russia according to FT. The French energy company Total recently acquired a 10 percent stake in a $21 billion gas project in Russia’s Arctic, in addition to its existing 20 percent share in a neighboring $28 billion gas project in the region. Turkey built Turk Stream in cooperation with Gazprom, despite being a declared strategic partner of Ukraine since 2011. Ankara also bought the Russian S-400 anti-missile system—even as it is threatened by Russia’s militarization of Crimea—and despite NATO membership and a strategic partnership with the United States. Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline is receiving $1 billion each from the French and German corporations Engie, Uniper, and Wintershall, despite the threat of U.S. sanctions on the project. “It’s about pragmatism, not appeasement,” a senior French official told FT. “You work with the Russians as much as you can, without compromising your position on critical issues.” This is cognitive dissonance, pure and simple.

“Realpolitik 2.0” is also marked by mistrust between people, people and governments, governments and states, states and international institutions, and among institutions themselves. The evidence is all around us: the rise of populism and nationalism; unprecedented income and social inequality at both the country and global levels as presented at the 2019 WEF Davos Summit 2019; and the impending widespread virtualization of society with augmented reality and artificial intelligence, which will directly impact daily lives in positive and negative respects across the globe.

Even traditional tools such as diplomacy are changing. Formal and official negotiations are replaced by individual talks with few details available to the public. Twitter has already become a tool to eliminate formal announcements. Social media updates diplomats more quickly about developments than traditional news outlets, although independent sources are still required to verify if the information is trustworthy. The implications of these changes are not yet clear.

All indicators suggest that we are on the cusp of a new turn of history’s helix. History shows us that the list of possible world models that will emerge is long, from dictatorship to democracy. Let us hope that a values-based approach to world affairs will not be lost on the way.


Ambassador Sergiy Korsunsky is Director of the Diplomatic Academy at the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine in Kyiv. His views expressed in this article are of his own and should not be attributed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.

Photo: "President Trump at the G20" an official White House photo by Tia Dufour in the public domain.

Sergiy Korsunsky

September 12, 2019