At the Gaidar Forum in Moscow, Russian and foreign experts discussed the role of the great powers in shaping the current system of international relations, as well as the potential ability for Russia and the U.S. to find common ground in 2016.

G20 Summit Leaders Carved Stone Seals By Artist Qian Gaochao In China. Photo: TASS

The role of the great powers in the world order was among one of the most popular topics discussed by Russian and foreign experts and officials during the Gaidar Forum taking place Jan. 13-15 at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in Moscow.      

“Economic and geopolitical challenges go together and it is not unique for Russia,” Robin Lewis, director of RANEPA’s Master of Global Public Policy Program told Russia Direct. “The challenge is to move ahead economically by relegating the political issues to a different area.”

According to Lewis, Russia is currently in a position where politics dominates the economy, which creates imbalances. He pins his hopes on “a collective effort” between Russia, the United States, Europe and other countries “to get back to the old normal, the one in which trade and development and investment takes precedence” as it was previously, before political upheavals caused by Ukraine and Syria.

“This is really a burning global issue of how to move together with collaboration, trade and investment despite seeing the world differently,” said Lewis.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) and the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, echoes this view.

“It is impossible to separate what happens inside Russia or inside any other country in our days from how the international environment is being shaped by multiple trends and processes,” he said, implying that great powers such as China, Russia and the U.S. should work together.

In fact, the foreign policy experts who took the floor at the Gaidar Forum agreed with the concept of “immediate exposure to globalization” reiterated by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on the first day of the forum. He meant that the decisions undertaken by a country could affect other states and have a long-term ripple effect.      

To convey the idea of the urgent need to bring great powers together to solve global challenges, one of the participants of the discussion, Andrei Kortunov, the general director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), compared foreign policy with investment strategy, countries with investors. To follow his logic, both have resources and assets: for countries, these include territory, human capital and the level of education of the population.

“It also might involve the quality of leadership, the quality of diplomacy,” he added. “All of these assets can be invested. The way that you invest your assets defines your efficiency and quality and your natural future.”

To cope with the current challenges, countries should be good investors in the geopolitical arena, according to Kortunov. First, they have to diversify their assets and resources to reduce risks and use their potential efficiently. Second, the great powers should care about the liquidity of their investments and avoid freezing their assets. Third, they should take into account the social impact of their investment.

“If you look at Russia from this point we have to recognize that the level of diversification of Russian foreign policy assets is limited,” Kortunov warned.

First, Russia can definitely rely on military power, specifically, on its nuclear arsenal. Second, it has natural resources and commodities. Third, it has its own position in the hierarchy of international institutions such the UN Security Council.

“But beyond that we don’t really have a diversified portfolio of instruments and assets that we can use in our foreign policy,” said Kortunov, suggesting that Russia should adjust its “investment portfolio” to the current political situation. Particularly, Russia should deploy its soft power more efficiently, with more social implications for other countries, potentially unfreezing its cooperative potential with other great powers such as the United States and China.

 Also read: "How to re-brand Russian soft power"

Another speaker at the event, Zhe Sun, professor at Tsinghua University and China Initiative Senior Research Adjunct Scholar at Columbia University, believes that the unfavorable attitude of Americans toward the Kremlin will hamper attempts to improve Russia’s relations with the U.S. Likewise, Timothy Colton, professor of Harvard University, says that people in the U.S. are anti-Russian by nature, that Russia is considered an enemy state.

However, Moscow and Washington can do a sort of benchmarking in the field of international relations by taking a closer look at the U.S.-China relationship. For example, Russia can learn lessons from the U.S.-China experience of dealing with differences, suggests Professor Sun.

Despite occasional tensions between Beijing and Washington (fueled by China’s overtures in the South China Sea and U.S. concerns over China’s cyber potential), there is “substantial cooperation” between China and the U.S. in different fields, including environment, business and investment, even cybersecurity.

This leads to “limited confrontation” between the countries and creates a big potential for extensive cooperation, Sun argues, implying that confrontation between Russia and the U.S. might be at least limited.

However, Lukyanov warns that the concept of “limited confrontation” is “very tricky,” as indicated by the experience of Soviet-American relations, because some unpredictable incident might happen and go out of control. Meanwhile, Alexander Gabuev, an expert from Moscow Carnegie Center, point outs that one of the problems is the fact that China’s leadership is becoming increasingly suspicious toward Washington, with nationalism and anti-American sentiments growing within the country.

So, the Kremlin can view U.S.-China relations as an example, but taken with a pinch of salt.    

Colton argues that today U.S.-Russia relations seem to have “reached the bottom,” although there is “no guarantee.”

“The deterioration [in Washington-Moscow relations] that was a year ago was very dramatic, our relations reached the worst state since 1983,” he said during a Gaidar Forum discussion, expressing captious optimism that some “stabilization” in relations might happen and the two countries will cooperate.

2016 is important in this regard, because it is “a year of political choice in the United States and, to a limited extent, in Russia,” Colton said, meaning the U.S. presidential elections will shape the context of their bilateral relations, while the Russian parliamentary elections will have “an indirect effect” on the Kremlin’s foreign policy because these elections might lead to “a serious political crisis in Russia.”

Colton expresses hope that the next American president will reassess Washington approaches toward Moscow. Likewise, his colleague from the U.S., Cynthia Roberts, professor at City University of New York and Columbia University, expresses the hope that U.S.-Russia relations reached “the bottom” and Moscow will negotiate with Washington more frequently, in a productive manner.

But, at the same time, she admits that Washington is “hawkish” toward the Kremlin and “there are many uninformed candidates,” those one who don’t know about Russia a lot and have no ideas of how to deal with it. The result of this might not be positive.     

In this context, Sergey Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, who attended the Gaidar Forum, admitted that trying to find who is to blame is not the best approach and is “very simplistic.” He both expresses hope for improvement in relations and regrets that foreign policy and diplomacy “are deliberately separated” today, suggesting that this should be alleviated.