The Davos Group of nations recently held its annual meeting electronically, the coronavirus preventing attendance in person for the first time. The United States was represented by John Kerry, one of many Democrats recycled from the Obama years. Russia was represented by its president, Vladimir Putin, and China, for the first time since 2017, by its president Xi Jinping. The western media largely ignored the contribution of the latter two but what they had to say was significant and worthy of closer examination.
Putin had received a copy of a book in 2019 from one of the main conference organisers, a personal friend Klaus Schwab. The book was entitled The Fourth Industrial Revolution and was written by Schwab. Putin used the contents of the book as one of the main themes of his address.
The theme of the book had obviously been overtaken by the events of 2020’s coronavirus, but it still provided several important talking points that Putin used to structure his speech. He noted that the Covid 19 illness had accelerated numerous pre-existing structural problems in the world economy, particularly what he referred to as the cumulative effects of sub-economic problems that he identified as being the fundamental reason for unstable growth.
That unstable growth has led to a growing exacerbation of many international problems. Referring to the growing inequality in the world’s economy, he laid the blame squarely at the door of the richest 1% who dominated income and profits. This led in turn to a growing exacerbation of many international problems.
Expecting these problems to be identified, much less addressed, was unlikely, not least because the mainstream media is unlikely to identify the source of the problem, given that their owners are overwhelmingly from the same 1%. The degree of foreign policy propaganda rhetoric was growing. Although he did not say so directly, it is obvious that Russia has long been a victim of mass disinformation from the western media.
Putin pointed out that he could expect the nature of practical actions to become more aggressive, including pressure on countries that resist the attempts by unnamed powers, but clearly alluding to the United States, to use illegitimate trade barriers, sanctions and other restrictions in finance, technology and cyber space to control the recalcitrant.
The end result of such a game, with no rules, or at least a set of rules for the elites which can be modified at will, critically increases the risk of unilateral military action.
Putin identified four priorities which the world must adopt to avoid these disastrous consequences occurring. First, there should be comfortable living conditions for everyone. This will be extraordinarily difficult to attain and he offered no real clues as to how the problem might be overcome.
Secondly, the aim must be for everyone to have a job that would ensure sustainable growth and income, and access to lifelong education which he defined as being absolutely indispensable.
Thirdly, people must be confident that they will receive high-quality medical care.
Fourthly, regardless of family income, children must receive a decent education.
These were not exhaustive demands, but they arguably provide the essential basis for a civilised life. Many countries have already achieved this, including the Scandinavian countries and New Zealand. Even among the so-called developed world there are glaring inequalities and they will not be overcome in the immediate future.
This grim reality was acknowledged in Putin’s final comment when he said that competition and rivalry between countries never stopped, do not stop, and never will stop. The challenge will be to ensure the rivalry does not deteriorate into war.
Xi for his part identified four major tasks facing the contemporary world. First, the world needed to “step up” macro-economic policy coordination to promote strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth in the world economy.
Secondly, he said, the world needed to “abandon ideological prejudice, and jointly follow a path of peaceful coexistence, mutual benefit and (using a phrase with which he is identified) win-win cooperation.”
Differences in societies is not itself a cause for alarm. What did bring alarm, he noted, was “arrogance, prejudice and hatred.” Xi quite bluntly identified a major problem as attempts to “force one’s own history, culture and social systems upon another.”
That final phrase needs to be read and absorbed by many western leaders, including notably Australia, who perceive the growth of China as an existential threat to their own existence. There is no evidence to support these fears, but they are a constant refrain in western media analysis.
Thirdly, Xi said, the challenge is to close the divide between the developed and the developing countries. The growth of developing countries would put prosperity and stability on a more solid footing.
Fourthly, we needed to come together against global challenges. No global problem can be solved by one country alone, and wilfully imposing decoupling, supply disruption and sanctions to create isolation and estrangement would only push the world toward divisions and confrontation.
And what may be perceived as a direct challenge to western claims to enjoy a monopoly on support for their interpretation of the law, Xi stated that “we should stay committed to international law and international rules, instead of seeking one’s own supremacy.” International government, he said, should be based on the “rules and consensus reached among us, not on the order given by one or the few.”
That last phrase alone would be enough to set a rumble among the western powers, who for too long have claimed a monopoly on the “rules based international order.” What they really mean is their rules and their order. Xi was sending a clear message that those days are over and international law means just that, rather than the preserve of the wealthy few whose dictates for the past 70+ years have been the source of endless strife and benefits accumulating for the rich few.
It is doubtful that the west will listen to either Putin or Xi, much less modify their behaviour. The world however has changed. The sooner the old western powers recognise that change and modify their behaviour, the sooner we are likely to achieve the goals set out so clearly by both Putin and Xi. The limited coverage their speeches received in the west does not augur well. As the multiple series of agreements being made by diverse nations in the greater Eurasian region demonstrate however, the old world is rapidly disappearing. The sooner that is recognised the safer the world will be.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based former Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.