ID Conference: Richard Sakwa about Inequality, Diversity and International Politics

Meet our keynote speaker – Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent and Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RISI). His talk at the IDC 2020 will explain how diversity and inequality are present in the current international political order and why realists’ ideas are back on the agenda for the globalization context.

ID Conference: Richard Sakwa about Inequality, Diversity and International Politics

Photo courtesy of Richard Sakwa

The keynote lecture of Prof. Richard Sakwa will take place on November 5, 2020 at 12:00 (Moscow time, GMT+3). More information is available here.

– What is the topic of your presentation and what are the main issues you will touch upon?

– The theme of the Conference is inequality and diversity in both international and domestic contexts, and I will be focusing on the international aspect of it. The title of my talk is «Sovereignty and realism: inequality and diversity in international politics». My basic argument is that the international system is neither democratic nor equal. It is made of allegedly 200 equal sovereign states and implies a fundamentally important principle of a normative foundation of the international system established after 1945 and codified in the UN Charter. But when the UN was established, empires still existed, which is a sign that it was not equal and inclusive. This normative principle acted as a foundation for decolonization, and now we have nearly 200 members of the UN. Sovereign equality was immediately challenged by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. So even in a foundational moment it was not a contradiction but a «healthy compromise» between the principle of national sovereignty and a system of managing international politics. We have a level of horizontal equality but at the same time an element of institutional hierarchy.

Apart from this institutional framework, we have a realists’ argument that this hierarchy is a function of the structural characteristics of international politics, that inevitably great powers will dominate. And in fact, if the great powers do not dominate it, then we will have completely uncontrollable anarchy, the emergence of alliance systems, bloc politics of the sort that existed during and after the Cold War. Acknowledgment of this fact led to the United Kingdom and France being relegated from «top-dog» powers after the Suez debacle and allowed US hegemony to emerge. In those days we had the Soviet Union and a bipolar system. But after 1989 the Atlantic power system called itself a liberal international order and claimed to have certain dominating powers over the international system, which was established in 1945. In other words, a new type of hierarchy based on the West, as it is sometimes called, acts as an attempt to maintain hierarchy not in the colonial and institutional arrangement but as normative superior. And there is a huge complication in that, and one of my key points that I would like to outline is that this claim of universalism is by definition not only challenging but disruptive, because some countries cannot accept that. This new form of normative imperialism reproduces the old negative hierarchy.

– Can we say that the world is moving towards diversity and inequality? And if yes, what are the possible drivers of this progress?

 I am not sure. Inequality depends on how you define it, but I think we see two tendencies going on at the same time. On the one side, we are seeing the imposition of bipolarity – the Beijing-centered world and Washington-centered world – which is much weaker than the Moscow-Washington bipolar system.  Indeed, Washington is now demanding more and more of its allies to ally with it. There would be bloc politics that by definition includes inequality. Beijing’s magnetic pole works in a different way. «One Belt One Road» initiative is a synonym of its foreign policy in some way.

There is diversity in the sense that those medium powers refuse to make that choice. The ones that do go along with it – the UK, France, the European Union – certainly are allies to Washington, but they do not want to be subordinates. And bloc politics and bipolar systems mean hierarchy and subordination. At the same time, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Japan certainly want to defend diversity, including cultural and civilizational diversity. It is not only a matter of international security but a question of the value of sovereign internationalism.

But inequality is also deeply embedded within the states. We see a greater inequality in many ways, because of the nature of capitalism as it developed from the mid-1970s, the financialization and deliberate destruction of the welfare state, and the privatization of public services by neo-liberal agendas. The COVID pandemic has reinforced the importance of state actions because ultimately it has been a state that has been a driver of pandemic policies, At the same time, it has exposed those inequalities of the neo-liberal forms, like health or ethnic inequalities.

– How is the current pandemic influencing the world order? Will the notion of sovereignty gain more importance in the political realm?

The political effects of the pandemic are majorly discussed now. My bottom line is that there are two things going on right now. One of them is that pandemic has accelerated and accentuated the tendencies that existed before – elements of the second Cold War, domestic inequalities. The second thing is that this crisis is, just like the virus itself, particularly slippery: it changes its forms and symptoms. And the main problem with this crisis, as with the virus itself, is its delayed effects. This is a negative crisis – there is almost nothing good coming from it and it is wholly negative and simply destructive.

Are we witnessing the crisis of political order? Domestically, yes. We see the reassertion of the nation-state. Globalization as it was defined in the era of neo-liberal globalization has important downsides. Not just the vulnerability of extended supply chains and the export of  jobs to lower-cost markets of China, Vietnam, Malaysia, but the export of the rights of citizenship, the erosion of what it means to be a citizen and a part of a political community with rights and obligations, – that was all undermined.

I argue that socialism is back on the agenda – humane democratic socialism, nothing like Soviet socialism, of course, but the one which was being grasped by Czechoslovak reform movement in 1968 and also popular (for a time at least) in Russia when it was proposed by M. Gorbachev. But it is more than social democracy. It challenges in a positive sense the fundamental ways to reorganize society, which is human-centered rather than capital-centered, seeing humans as more than just a labor power. And more than, it has to restore the dignity of labor for service workers. We see those who work at hospitals sacrifice their lives to help those suffering from COVID. At the end of all this, if we recognize that the public sector workers need to be paid decently and treated as citizens, then perhaps something positive will come of this crisis.

– What are your expectations from the Conference? Any thoughts on the online format?

– There is an advantage to an online format in the fact that you can sit in your armchair with a cup of tea while participating. It is better than nothing. But I do not enjoy teaching online, for example, because you do not have the interactions. The whole point of the conference is in what is happening in between the sessions than in the lines themselves. The talk is only part of it – the informal interactions I will miss a lot. I was looking forward to going to St. Petersburg and meet people, talk, and exchange ideas with colleagues. Unfortunately, what happens with online events is that they become largely one-dimensional, just functionalistic without the «fun» in the beginning. Still, better than nothing, and I look forward to the conference.

Interviewed by Angelina Silaeva