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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Overcoming the Hobbesian Instinct

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An ancient Chinese proverb says, "Making a prediction is difficult -- especially in regard to the future." I would go a step further and say, "We have absolutely no idea what the future has in store for us." There are plenty of instances in the last century of how unexpected, epochal events in global affairs have caught us completely by surprise.

In his memoirs of a trip through Europe in 1911, British historian Arnold Toynbee noted that Europe had enjoyed 40 years of peace and that the borders between states had effectively been eliminated. After traveling from one country to another, Toynbee returned home in high spirits, confident that Europeans had a bright future of integration, peace and prosperity. Just three years later, World War I broke out, and 20 years after that -- World War II. Neither the brilliant historian Toynbee nor most of his contemporaries could have imagined this tragic chain of events.

At the dawn of the 20th century, who could have foreseen that the Romanov dynasty and the Russian Empire would collapse to be replaced by Bolshevism and Marxism-Leninism? In addition, few could imagine that the enlightened German people could vote Adolf Hitler into power. The Japanese also surprised the world by replacing their "tea ceremony" culture with a highly aggressive militarism that subjugated so much of East Asia in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Another shock came shortly thereafter with the collapse of the 2,000-year-old Confucian Middle Empire and the emergence of a Maoist state in which youth brutally stamped out the ancient and refined civilization of their forbears chanting, "We will crush Confucius like a rat in the road."

The list could be continued, but one thing is clear: The future is unpredictable. This is particularly true in the complex and highly unstable 21st century.

After the end of the Cold War, the world was filled with hope that a new period of peace, cooperation and prosperity would reign. After all, it seemed that the two greatest superpowers had finally ended their long and bitter ideological, geopolitical and military standoff. What's more, economic cooperation among nations increased significantly in the early 1990s, strengthening the notion of a largely integrated global community. But this did not last long, as religious, ethnic and geopolitical conflicts replaced the shortlived, post-Cold War euphoria. And this was inevitably accompanied by a renewed rivalry between the United States and Russia.

The United States, ecstatic with its perceived victory in the Cold War and its increasing power as the only remaining superpower, presented itself as the leader of democracy, freedom and everything else considered progressive in society. Moreover, Washington's ambition for leadership quickly grew into an appetite for global hegemony. This was met with resistance in international relations, provoking an anti-U.S. coalition and leading to a new level of confrontation and conflict in the global arena.

Meanwhile, a second problem was developing in Asia. China was growing in economic and military might by leaps and bounds. And although Beijing continued to behave properly and swore that it had no hegemonic intentions, nations around the world spoke increasingly about the need to constrain the "Yellow Dragon."

Russia became a third source of tension. After "getting up off its knees" during the oil-boom years, it announced its policy of protecting its "privileged interests" among the former Soviet republics. Needless to say, many countries located near Russia and in the West were opposed to the Kremlin's version of the Monroe Doctrine.

The result is that we are once again moving toward confrontation between multiple power centers, a precarious state of global affairs that has historically led to military confrontation. Despite all the hyped-up, optimistic vision of globalization ushering in a Kantian-like global triangle of perpetual peace and prosperity, it turns out that economic integration has proven unable to prevent another round of fierce geopolitical rivalry.

With the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001, it seemed that the superpowers had united to combat a common threat. Unfortunately, that did not last long. It took only two years after Sept. 11 for the superpowers to resume their traditional rivalry and friction.

Then came the economic crisis of 2008. The severity of the crisis knocked the United States down several notches in terms of its superpower status. Not surprisingly, Washington is now speaking a different language with Russia -- one that includes a "reset button" to improve relations. Will it work this time? I certainly hope so, but there are serious obstacles in the way.

Amid the economic crisis and after the unsuccessful, misdirected policies of former President George W. Bush, it is likely that U.S. President Barack Obama will no longer pursue a hegemonic foreign policy. But this certainly does not mean that Obama will give up U.S. ambition to be the prominent global leader in international affairs. The problem with this is that other players --namely, Russia, China and the European Union -- share similar leadership ambitions. And with these competing and conflicting ambitions, the potential for tension and confrontation remains. What's more, world leaders, with the strong backing of their respective military-industrial complexes, never tire of exploiting -- or inventing -- external threats to strengthen the state and their personal authority.

On the one hand, the global economic crisis certainly helps bring the superpowers together. The Group of 20 summit in April is a good example, demonstrating that a cooperative multilateral effort is required to address a serious crisis affecting the entire world. On the other hand, we know from experience that when the crisis cripples domestic industries, nations inevitably revert to protectionist measures, and this only damages international relations. But the greatest potential source of tension and conflict among leading nations in the next decades will be the cutthroat competition for energy resources.

As far as U.S.-Russian relations are concerned, the most heightened rivalry is in Russia's backyard. To avoid turning that rivalry into a confrontation, both sides need to change their policies. The United States must give up its passion for anti-Russian polices in the former Soviet republics, but at the same time Russia needs to acknowledge the right of these independent countries to formulate their own foreign relations, including direct contacts with the United States and with various economic and security organizations in Europe.

Which will prove stronger -- the desire for cooperation or the instinctive, Hobbesian urge to fight for global influence and resources? Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, "The United States invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative." We can only hope that not only the superpowers but all countries of the world will choose the path of increased cooperation. Only then will we be able to build the peaceful and prosperous future we would all like to see.

Yevgeny Bazhanov is the vice chancellor of research and international relations at the Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy in Moscow.