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Can the world recover from Trump, Putin and the collapse of optimism?

Russia expert Bobo Lo on what it will take to restore global stability, what Russia really wants and why more chaos and conflict is likely
Argentina G20 Leaders’ Summit 2018 – Day 1 Of Sessions
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - NOVEMBER 30: (RUSSIA OUT) (L-R) French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese President Shizno Abe gather with other world leaders for the family photo on the opening day of G20 Summit on November 30, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

In a disorderly world, it only takes a small spark to ignite a conflict that can engulf entire nations. So it was last week that world leaders held their collective breaths after the Russian coastguard attacked and detained three Ukrainian navy vessels in the Kerch Strait separating Russia from Crimea.

It was the first open conflict between Ukraine and Russia since the Russians annexed Crimea in 2014, and the first test of the shaky standoff between the Russians and Western nations, including Canada, that back the government in Ukraine.

This time, the spark did not catch. But according to Bobo Lo, a Russia expert and former Australian diplomat whose book Russia and the New World Disorder was described by The Economist as the “best attempt yet to explain Russia’s unhappy relationship with the rest of the world”, it’s just a matter of time.

Maclean’s caught up with Lo at the Bosporus Summit in Istanbul last week where he addressed global business leaders on the future of global security in an era of disintegrating international institutions and shifting power balances. His view is not pretty: the world, he says, must prepare itself for more chaos and, sadly, more conflict. Humans, he adds—with not just a small dose of pessimism—seem to be hardwired to not change until they are pushed to the precipice. And that precipice is drawing closer.

 Q: There are fears Russian aggression is eroding the international world order and U.S. President Donald Trump is helping him along. How do you see the relationship between Trump and Vladimir Putin and are they responsible for chaos the world is facing?

 A: Let me first address the implicit assumption in your question: Right now, there’s a popular narrative in the United States that Russia and China are both separately and together undermining the international system. I think that narrative is misleading.

The international system had already been badly undermined, not least by the United States and well before Trump. I think Trump is appalling, but let’s not kid ourselves: It wasn’t like the international system was in good or even serviceable condition before he became president. What Xi Jinping and especially Putin have done is to exploit the weaknesses of the international system and the decline of U.S. power and moral authority. They have acted, frankly, just as you would have expected them to act.

READ MORE: Round Two begins for Donald Trump. It will be messy.

Instead of seeing the breakdown of the international order as the fault of individual leaders, I see it more as a long-term trend starting with the U.S.-led military interventions in Afghanistan and especially Iraq. The problem with Iraq wasn’t so much the decision to invade but the modalities and rationale behind this decision. The United States was seen to circumvent international norms because it suited it to do so. This was one in a series of mistakes that dissipated the tremendous moral authority it enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

The really decisive event, however, was the 2008 global financial crisis which undermined the idea that the West was best. It called into question the worth of Western-led political and economic institutions and modes of behaviour. Meanwhile China, with its authoritarian model of governance, was seen to prosper through the crisis. This stark contrast led many people in the non-West to question the superiority of the West, and the assumption that liberal democracy and capitalism were inherently superior to authoritarian rule.

Which brings us to the biggest challenge facing Western democracies: to show that they are not only more virtuous, but also more effective than other forms of governance. This was the key to the triumph of the United States and its allies in the Cold War.

Q: That’s a major theme in your book—Putin’s view that the end of the Cold war was a disaster for Russia and the only way for it to be relevant again is to return to some kind of multi-polarity.

 A: Russia has always believed, even under Yeltsin, that it was, is and will always be a great power. The sporting adage that “form is temporary, class is permanent” really applies to Russian perceptions of themselves. They can suffer bad times, the economy can tank, there can be bad leaders, but Russia remains a great power nonetheless.

Everything the Kremlin does is directed to promoting this message and persuading others to recognize it as an abiding reality. At various stages, Putin thought that he might be able to re-create some kind of bipolarity, a cooperative bipolarity, with the United States. For example, after 9/11 he sought to position Russia as America’s indispensable ally. The trouble was that Washington and Moscow had fundamentally different views of their partnership. The Bush administration saw Russian help as useful but Russia as merely one of many subordinate allies and partners. Putin, of course, recognized that Russia wasn’t as powerful as the United States but he hoped that it would become Washington’s Chosen One. They would cooperate, not just in selected areas such as Afghanistan and strategic disarmament, but in co-managing the world. Russia would be, to all intents and purposes, an equal, certainly equal in status if not influence. Of course, the United States didn’t see Russia that way.

Subsequently, Putin placed his faith in engagement with the Europeans, in particular with French Prime Minister Chirac and German Chancellor Schroeder. But then the Orange revolution in Ukraine happened and Putin started to feel hemmed in.

I’m not trying to justify his behaviour, but he believed he was not getting any respect. In his view, the West was encroaching on Russia’s natural sphere of interests. This proprietorial mentality has only strengthened in recent years. It proceeds from the premise that if you are going to be a global power, or be recognized as such, you have to be top dog in your neighbourhood. That’s a minimum.

Q: So Russia was reaching out in some ways.

 A: It was trying to. However, the response [from the West] was: we’re going to act as we see fit. We can be partners, but on the basis of our rules. This was clear from the get-go. Also, think about some of the Bush administration’s actions at the time: It withdrew from the ABM treaty. There was a second wave of NATO enlargement to the Baltic states. Personally, I think enlargement was beneficial in many respects, but it did reinforce a mentality in Russia that the West was out to get them, that the world was this brutal Hobbesian environment where you had to rely on yourself if you were going to survive and prosper. You would need to be ruthless.

Q: That seems to be the message the Trump administration is reinforcing—the way of the world is dog eat dog, etc. Do you see that shift in U.S. leadership style as a victory for Russia?

 A: I published a paper recently with the Lowy Institute where I argued that over the next 6 years Putin will follow a course of strategic constancy and tactical flexibility. The principal goals will not change: regime stability and positioning Russia as an independent and indispensable centre of global power. What will vary, though, are the means to advance those objectives.

Sometimes, Russia will be a mean so-and-so, at other times it will project reasonableness, portraying itself as a responsible regional and global citizen. Of course, one of the advantages of Trump acting the way that he does is Putin can say to the world: Look, we are reasonable people. It’s the United States that’s the problem here, it’s the United States that is the wrecker of the international system, the breaker of international rules and norms. We, on the other hand, have consistently supported international institutions and international law. We work with other countries. We show flexibility. But don’t underestimate us. If you mess with us, we will mess with you and we will do it better.

Q: Looking at the multilateral system, there are some experts who say that the damage Trump has done so far is not permanent; it can be rolled back. But are we looking at a much more widespread problem?

 A: There are several issues here. Let’s begin at the point where we began this conversation: Is Trump the driver of the breakdown of the international system or was it already in crisis when he came along? I subscribe to the second view.

Trump has been able to do what he has because the international system was already in big trouble, and the political mainstream discredited not just in the United States but also in much of the West. He has been able to exploit those weaknesses. If Trump is not re-elected in 2020 can we pull all this back? I would say yes, but only if we have something positive to replace what we have lost. Who or what might give impetus to restoring international norms? I would argue that it’s going to need a whole lot more than merely electing somebody who is not Trump.

Q: What do you think is needed?

 A: It needs a lot of things. It needs better leadership, and not only in the United States. It needs a younger generation of political leaders. But of course, that can go wrong as well. Let’s not idealize a younger political generation and assume they’re all going to be card-carrying liberals with fine principles. A lot of them will be cynical opportunists. We really need to address underlying problems such as social and economic inequality and global climate change.

Q: Do you consider Canada as an example of good leadership?

 A: It’s a mixed story. Canada appears to be one of the better-led countries in the world and talks a good game. But as my wife, a member of the Green Party, points out, it is also one of the main drivers behind the development of fossil fuels. Trudeau is something of a glamour figure on the international scene, but he’s seen, in Europe anyway, to fold to Trump on the big stuff.

When Trudeau came, with Chrystia Freeland and Harjit Sajjan, to the NATO Engages conference in the margins of the Brussels Summit [last July], he spoke of the importance of standing up to Russia and defending the liberal world order and its values. But you couldn’t help questioning his real impact, for all his youth and dynamism. Maybe that’s unfair. After all, what can a middling power like Canada do to influence larger international trends, especially when the multilateral system is in such trouble? How much of a difference can Canada make under these conditions?

Q: So this really comes down to the collapse of the multilateral world order, which took years. How long will it take to fix it?

 A: A long time. It’s much easier to smash things. You can lose people’s trust very quickly and it’s much harder to recover it. People somehow have to regain their sense of optimism. When Barack Obama says that the world has never had it so good, I think: ‘Well, that’s easy for you to say.’ In many respects we are better off but saying that the world is doing great fails to understand why people feel the way they do.

Until we are able to address a number of fundamental problems, we are not going to become more optimistic. It may be, and God forbid it should happen, that we have to experience some kind of existential crisis. It could be a major war, a pandemic, some spectacular climate change-related disaster, something which affects how people feel right now. The problem with long-range forecasts—that the world will get hotter by three or four degrees by the end of the century, for instance —is that the end of the century is still more than eight decades away. People don’t get the urgency. It’s a childish and very short-sighted view, but that’s how people feel.

Change really has to start from within each country. We can hardly expect a collective eureka moment where people think: The international system’s falling apart, we need to do something. Unfortunately, things are likely to get much worse before there is any real action. Because right now, the state of affairs in the world does not seem so critical that leaders feel the need to take the big and courageous decisions.

Q: What does worse look like?

 A: Worse means wars. I don’t discount the possibility of a major war. It’s not particularly likely but it is much more so than it has been for quite a while. If war happens that may prove to be a wake-up call. You just have to hope that it doesn’t come at such a catastrophic cost.

What if there is a major environmental disaster? Let’s say the California fire doesn’t kill a couple hundred people, but tens of thousands? You wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it may take a series of major disasters for leaders to snap out of their complacency. After all, there would have been no European Union without the Second World War. People realized that such a conflict could never be allowed to happen again, that we had to find new solutions, develop new approaches.

Extraordinary as it seems, the collective tragedy of the First World War was not enough to create that sense of international community. It took the Second World War, and the atomic bomb, to wake people up. It is said that history does not repeat itself, that history is always new, but in fact we forget the lessons of historical experience.