Cooperative Development in a Multipolar World

This text of this paper formed the basis of a lecture given at The Institute for Political and International Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (IPIS) in Tehran, Iran, on 1 February 2017.Dr. Vladimir Yakunin addressed a series of lectures to high-level representatives from politics, business, academia, and the media, at renowned institutions in China and Iran in the opening months of 2017.

Vladimir Yakunin assesses a series of world order and development challenges in the following paper, with the imperative to raise the bar for policy research. He contextualises the significance of Iranian and Russian activity amidst the reformulation of global development agendas and institutions, the specifics of bilateral relations, the complexities of political influence on economics, ongoing struggles against terrorism, and the importance of infrastructure.

A Lecture by Dr Vladimir Yakunin: Cooperative Development in a Multipolar World

Today’s professionals in the field of policy research are confronted with a constantly changing and challenging environment. Consequently, the quality of our analysis, findings, and labour has to be that much higher.

It is indeed true that the world is highly unstable, possibly even in a crisis. This situation is regarded essentially from an economic perspective. Crises in the economic sphere are always the most discernible, and have the greatest repercussions on governments, businesses, and among the general population. The crisis that afflicted humanity towards the end of the 20th century only became a popular topic around 2008, once the world economy went into a recession. In the meantime, scientific assessments warrant a more detailed analysis.

The Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC) forecasted the critical phase of the crisis far before the 2008 events on Wall Street, and identified it nine years ago as systemic. When we speak about the system, we mean the overall architecture of the global international structure, which consists of numerous subsystems, whether they are local or regional political formations, sovereign nations, or emerging or developed countries.

Not so long ago we were discussing the limitations of a unipolar world, and today we are observing a shift in the global balance of both power and responsibilities. The present emergence of new positions of power and the empowerment of many countries on the international stage can generate not only great advantages but also lead to new challenges. The question is, how can such conditions ensure development?

Current Challenges

Last year, the global crisis expanded and became obvious through the United Kingdom’s European Union BREXIT, as well as the election of a new President of the United States whose opinions conflict in many ways with the essential elements of neo-liberal globalisation. We should not expect much political composure in the present year: US-China relations are uncertain, Europe is facing elections that may enhance the position of Eurosceptics, and China will hold its Party Congress, during which major decisions will be made regarding the country’s future expansion. This political landscape affects practically all of the world’s political players, including the US, China, and the EU.

Consequently, what should we anticipate from other countries such as Russia and Iran, which have rather complex relations with many of the players in world politics? My answer as a political scientist is the following: we must carefully explore and scrutinise the overall environment because many existing theories and models are no longer viable. Furthermore, we must objectively explore the major challenges, not succumb to emotions, and operate rationally and precisely—particularly when it comes to one’s own national interests. This appears to be the principle trend in world politics.

World politics are becoming increasingly “nationalised”—many people have taken note of this trend. Those who support liberal ideals describe this trend as a nightmarish growth of nationalism, protectionism, and populism (such was the position of most attendees at the recent Davos Forum). Some consider this as a return from “ideocracy” to “real politics”, and “normal statehood”.

Conflict – People and the Elite

This trend includes a conflict between the people and the elite that became apparent during the elections in the US. As indicated by Trump during his inaugural address: “Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.”

The people want development, and this does not necessarily translate into GDP growth; rather, it means fighting poverty, creating jobs, and strengthening the quality and availability of education and healthcare. Indeed, the American electorate reproached the singular pursuit of power shown by the West’s elite.

However, as can be recalled, this is the same conflict that was used to enflame the revolutions that took place from Tunisia to Ukraine, when the only recipe offered was the construction of “proper” regimes. As has been revealed, the capitals of democracy and liberalism—the UK and the US—have the same problems. These are serious reasons for jointly identifying a way out of this complex situation so that these issues do not result in deadlock.

Glimmer of Hope

There is, however, room for hope regardless of this bleak speculation. As mentioned by Václav Klaus, a dear friend and active member of the Dialogue of Civilizations, “Britain has chosen democracy, unshackled from the excessive bureaucracy of the European Union”. President Trump, practically at the same time, promises the world not to impose US values, while Xi Jinping suddenly comes forward as the major champion of a global world, calling upon all nations to say “no” to protectionism and further expand free trade.

We should perhaps, pay attention—if one globalisation model did not meet its expectations, it does not mean that we should reject a unified world and go back to our close-quartered nations. We need a new equilibrium. As mentioned by a recent German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “The world order of the 20th century ‘is over for good’ now that Donald Trump has taken office. The order of the 21st century and the way the world of tomorrow will look is not settled; it is completely open… We will pursue a dialogue with the new US administration.”

We all need to review the basis for modelling world order and try to change it in such a manner that each nation preserves its potential to be heard. Dialogue is essential for this.


The most important part of a dialogue is the desire to communicate with one another. Just as important is to know and understand each other. The United States’ declining level of understanding about Russia did not help in regard to thest conflict around Ukraine. The paper entitled The Ukrainian Crisis: the West’s Challenge and Russia’s Reply, was commissioned last year by the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, and demonstrated the sharp decline in expertise on Russia among major American think tanks.

Indeed, to what extent are Russia and Iran familiar with each other? There is a lot to be done in this regard, as the future of the world greatly depends on the quality of dialogue between countries.

There are plenty of tools at the disposal of an NGO like the DOC: every year in Rhodes we assemble for the Dialogue of Civilizations Forum, organise exploratory projects, publish a scientific journal, and are even launching an international master’s degree in English at the Moscow State University. This is what a non-government organisation, aided by myself and other scholars and professors, can achieve. However, united we can be much stronger.

Creating a New Development Agenda

If criticising the West, one should not forget some current issues in many other countries, including Russia and Iran. This essentially concerns the living standard of the population and its potential for growth. In an open world, everyone has the possibility of comparing and choosing where to live. Our mission is to multiply the expansionary potential of our own countries and among our neighbours in such a manner that people do not have to migrate to better horizons, thereby empowering them to build a brighter future at home. Here, I fully agree with Donald Trump when he exhorts his fellow compatriots to rebuild their country with their own hands. The Chinese initiative titled One Belt—One Road, which is based on the concept of intensifying one’s expansionary potential through cooperation in one’s neighbouring countries and communities, should also be supported. A concept for the realisation of such a project—the Trans-Eurasian Belt RAZVITIE, which was reviewed by the Russian Academy of Sciences (more on this later), has also been proposed. One recent paper was devoted to this project: China’s Global Eurasian Project. This year we may see demonstrated that infrastructure can become the basis for the integration of new projects.

The DOC’s work also consists of, for instance, researching how the Chinese initiative is perceived by various countries. This is yet another reaffirmation of the need for dialogue, because oftentimes we may be blinded by some delusion or prejudice; this also applies to policies amongst nations.

Development of International Institutions

This paper is directed at specialists in the policy field, and I cannot fail to mention a most important problem: the creation of new, efficient international global institutions. The one-sided application of global institutions, which some countries were subjected to by the imposition of sanctions, forces us to review the world’s architectural order.

The unfair application, and oftentimes neglect of global and international institutions combine to encourage inequity and the use of force. In the last few years we have seen how the use of military force has gained prominence in world politics. The United States, for instance, has by no means reduced its military potential, as witnessed in the report entitled American Military Presence in Various Regions of the World as a Component of Global Supremacy. Indeed, its military potential is only growing, even though the focus is shifting. But one thing is certain, no single country in the world is capable of confronting the global military supremacy of the US.

We have seen the compelling growth of China’s military over the last few years, which was documented in the report entitled China’s Military Might as a New Factor in World Politics. Unfortunately, protecting one’s sovereignty by military might is still necessary, and Russia devotes great importance to national security. It is most important to inform the world about one’s national interests in order to determine the means for their protection prior to resorting to force.

Russia is presently devoting a lot of attention to consistency, transparency, and predictability in its national security. Key national interests are identified in the high-level document titled National Security Strategies, Adapted to the Shifting World Environment. The last edition of this document was approved on 31 December 2015, in accordance with the lessons learned from the conflict with various Western countries regarding Ukraine.

Great attention is being paid to the provision of strategic stability and to equitable strategic partnerships in a factually multipolar world. New regional and international institutions have been created for this purpose: the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The consistent interest and participation of Iran in these projects is strongly welcomed. Nevertheless, much remains to be done on an international level, not only with regard to security, but also with regard to the economy and trade. Joint reflections on the ways of building a new world governed by strict rules and agreements, but not through coercion and fear, are necessary.

Bilateral Relations

Generally, when considering bilateral relations in today’s world, we begin by studying the respective countries’ history. This has become a sort of cliché, however inevitable it may be. Tradition and historical experience not only predetermine the character of reciprocity between two countries, but also greatly influence it. An Iranian saying claims that: “You may go where you like, but leave when allowed”.

That could possibly be the best and most concise description of the model that has served during almost five centuries of relations between Russia and Iran. They met unexpectedly in the 16th century when Russia reached the Caspian Sea, but could not be parted from each other, even though there were periods when their relations were somewhat complicated. They have much in common –histories, geography, and for the longest time, certain common development challenges.

The necessity of intensifying bilateral relations between Russia and Iran is evident. Both sides fully agree with this. Iran is coming out of its international isolation and is starting to implement its development project for the Middle East. Its historical and geographical cooperation with Russia plays a major role in this regard. In addition, Moscow considers Tehran to be a key partner.

Some 20 years ago, there was a conviction among experts in the field that the West’s global project would solve the problems of the Middle East through the democratisation of the region’s countries and their participation in the global economy. It is now obvious that this was only an illusion. The Middle East is disorientated and unstable, and the consequences are felt by practically all of the neighbouring countries.

An Iranian saying claims that: “You may go where you like, but leave when allowed”. That could possibly be the best and most concise description of the model that has served during almost five centuries of relations between Russia and Iran.

Russia is honestly interested in the resolution of the Middle East’s problems, and Iran’s participation and contribution is indispensable. Besides the alarming political context, the economy always plays a vital role in bilateral relations. This area has a lot to be gained from through cooperation.

The Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute

The Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute has been, since last year, involved in the exploration of intercultural and inter-civilisational relations in the contemporary world. We conceptualise this phenomenon on general theoretical and philosophical levels, and use current events to draw practical conclusions.

We assume that inter-civilisational dialogue consists of several key elements that we have identified and are studying on a practical basis. Among others, these issues include global economic development in an environment of obsolete formats and approaches, the struggle of civilisations with the new barbarism of terrorism, and the development of an infrastructure that will serve as a development tool for stable relations between countries and communities.

The Economy

The economic sphere of activity is subjected to an ever and rapidly changing environment, which ten years ago seemed to be under control. Nevertheless, the global economy is going through some rapid changes. It did not meet its key challenge, that is, our multifaceted world could not be brought to a common cultural denominator, one that could govern all of a society’s sectors, including the economy. The world’s economic environment, which until recently was perceived as being universal, is disintegrating into several clusters, and the United States is attempting to develop one itself. Obama’s administration did a lot for the realisation of this issue, but met some serious problems. The new president has a different outlook on this question; the perspectives of the transatlantic and transpacific partnerships are not clear.

However, these must be considered them from another perspective. Eurasia was always considered, essentially, a subject of international economic integration. The time has come to make it a reality. Russia and Iran, whose economies are among the largest in the region (7th and 19th , respectively, in GDP),[1] must assume key roles in this regard.

However, we are witnessing some processes whose importance has not yet been recognised by many. For decades it was considered that the economy is the foundation of intergovernmental relations and politics. In 1991, this conviction in the West became a certainty: the financial prosperity of the United States and its allies was interpreted as a visible confirmation of the historic validity of their values and the universality of their political systems. Accordingly, it was considered that espousing these “proper” values contributes to a country’s rapid economic recovery and the subsequent transformation of its political structure in accordance with the principles of a liberal democracy.

Eurasia was always considered, essentially, a subject of international economic integration. The time has come to make it a reality.

It was also assumed that China would follow in this direction. The liberalisation of the Chinese People’s Republic in the Post-Mao period, together with the beginning of rapid economic growth, seemed like an indication of the imminent westernisation of China. The fact that this did not happen in the early 21st century is still poorly understood in the West.

I believe that the problem consists of the fact that the role of the economy and politics has been reversed. The former is now determined by the latter, whether you like it or not, and economic growth declines unless it is supported by political will. The creation of a unified Eurasian economic environment should be, first and foremost, fortified by a secure playing field.

Non-western policy researchers are confronted with a more complex issue than their Western colleagues, which can only be resolved cooperatively. This will hardly be possible without Russia and Iran.

The Civilisational Struggle Against the New Barbarism

In the present system of regional and international relations between the two countries, Iran and Russia are both facing common challenges and menaces while at the same time benefitting from diverse and extensive possibilities for a productive relationship in politics and security. Such challenges and opportunities can be illustrated by the events in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the problems related to the Caspian Sea, the situation in Afghanistan, the fight against drug trafficking, the fight against terrorism and extremism, preventing NATO’s expansion, the situation in the Middle East and Syria, and other critical international issues such as nuclear disarmament. Cooperation in resolving these crucial and vital issues in light of a political will at the highest level can propel the relationship between Iran and Russia to a strategic level.

Regardless of the pressure from the United States, Russia’s administration initiated a rapprochement with Iran, a country that was at the time labelled by the West as part of the international “axis of evil”. Russia could by no means share this Western position. Unlike the United States, which labelled Iran as an aggressive terrorist nation, Russia considered Iran to be a stabilising factor for constructive cooperation along its southern borders—an area that hosts the newly-created Central Asian and Transcaucasian republics. These republics are subjected to internal crises and attract foreign governments interested in unilaterally assimilating their natural and human resources and appropriating their commodity markets.

Russia and Iran have been actively opposing international terrorism and providing political and military support to the Syrian government in its struggle against ISIS.

The common position of Russia and Iran in regard to international terrorism is consistent and based on a comprehensive approach: allowing the destabilisation of Syria means planting a bomb with the potential to engulf the entire Middle East. The convergence of views is not accidental: Iran, just as Russia, is being pressed by Salafi-oriented terrorist organisations (Jundallah is such an organisation operating in Iran). Let us not forget that Iran assumed a constructive position with regard to the crisis in the Chechen Republic, which was brought about by the activities of radical Salafi forces in the mid-1990s and early 2000.

Russia has a certain amount of experience in creating balanced systems in international relations and would welcome Iran in jointly implementing a stable regional security system throughout the Middle East and Central and Southern Asia. The potential participation of Tehran in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) represents a great benefit in this regard. The terrorist threat is of current concern not only for Russia and Iran, but for all members of the SCO. This is evidenced by the talks held in September 2013 in the Iranian Embassy in Tashkent between Iranian representatives and Zhang Sinfen, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), SCO. The SCO could greatly benefit from Iran’s long-standing experience in opposing Afghanistan’s drug trafficking, as well as Iran’s capacity with protecting investments in Afghanistan.

In this respect, let me quote Iran’s Ambassador to Russia, Mr. Mehdi Sanai, who in 2007 noted: “Upon the assumption of power by Vladimir Putin, its focus on both the West and the East, its cooperation with Iran, have become an integral part of Russia’s foreign policy… Russia and Iran hold the same concerted policies with regard to international strategies, and to regional issues. Both countries reject double standards and believe in the struggle against terrorism and drug trafficking, the need to solve international conflicts through dialogue”.[2]

Developing Infrastructure as a Means towards Stable Relations between Countries and Communities

During the course of my career I have devoted great efforts to the development of transportation infrastructures. This was the case with my previous professional functions, but most importantly, it was conditioned by geographical, political, and economic situations; Russia spans Eurasia and borders various nations, cultures, and civilisations. Understanding Russia’s development and governing principles in assimilating the Eurasian expanse in today’s global transformations means understanding that the platform for constructive and creative development is only possible by merging political and economic interests in accordance with mutual values. In 2011, the Russian President voiced a corresponding formula in his paper titled A New Integration Project for Eurasia, in which he wrote: “The Future in the Making: But these times call for a close integration based on new values and a new political and economic foundation. We suggest a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.”

As you may know, the Eurasian Economic Union was created based on transparency; integration proposals were made in the West with the European Union, and in the East with China and other Asian countries.

As a response to the President’s directive, an integral unified development project for the Eurasian continent entitled Trans-Eurasian Belt RAZVITIE was developed and submitted to the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2014. The foundation of this project consists in the development of infrastructure—primarily transportation—as a platform for the formation of both development belts and corridors within the country and internationally. The creation of a unified market and logistics infrastructure in today’s globalised world is often strained by the competition for markets and delivery and supply channels between nations and trans-national companies. The consolidation of a country’s position within the international logistical network is directly associated with its GDP growth and role in the global economy. I recommend proceeding in accordance with a philosophically-based, mutual development strategy rather than open competition, whereby transportation corridor projects are not limited to the actual physical structure, but makes provision for economic cooperation and interdependency.

An integration union is easier to achieve in areas that require transportation corridors. Russia is located between world trade centres that determine the development of logistic networks in the west and east, as well as the south and north. The countries of the EU and Asia-Pacific rim represent centres of economic gravitation for Eurasia’s West and East, respectively, while India plays an increasingly greater role in the south.

Sanctions have been removed from Iran and it is now assuming an active role in the world economy, which increases its capacity and appeal for joint projects.

Russia and Iran are now actively furthering their economic cooperation in trade, energy and finance, strengthening their interaction in the field of security, and there are good perspectives in the transportation field. Exploring their areas of cooperation in a complex manner in the context of a new “development belt” that includes neighbouring countries, is to be recommended. In other words, rather than  simple project realisation in various sectors, a systemic, synergetic, mutual development environment that entails the movement of resources, goods, and services, as well as the implementation of technologies, and also attracts investments, should be fostered.

Such an approach is presently being lobbied for by China in its Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) initiative. China was actually the first country to support the idea of a Eurasian Integration as an extrapolation of the SREB and the Eurasian Economic Union.

In the medium-term we can expect an increase in regional trade and economic integration in the Central Asian region among countries of the SCO, which will increase the movement of goods along transportation routes. An important factor in economic development for new regions, particularly in centres facing the potential commercialisation of natural resources, is the facilitation of transportation and delivery and their participation in a general cooperative effort in the field of transport. Such a policy for an anticipated geographical expansion and range of transportation services will unconditionally stimulate economic growth on a state-of-the-art innovative basis in those regions adjoining international and regional corridors.[3] Russia and Iran are already capable of actively initiating projects in order to offer an efficient north-south transportation corridor. In view of the present dynamic expansion of their economies and of global economies in general, we can envision the potential expansion of not only the natural resources and energy sectors, but also technology-based sectors such as machine building and IT.

Last year, collaboration between Russian and Western experts produced a review on the SREB as China’s global project for Eurasia. The reaction that nations across Central Asia and Russia had to this project in China was analysed. Iran’s reaction is now being evaluated. In the future, joint endeavours should supplement the Trans-Eurasian Belt RAZVITIE with a southern perspective, and therefore the collective efforts of politicians, businessmen, experts, and academics will be necessary.


I would consider this as an invitation to dialogue—a wide-ranging dialogue that could be conducted in the framework of the Dialogue of Civilizations Forum, in the context of various research projects, the preparation of expert and scientific publications, as well as educational activities. Many unexpected difficulties and barriers may arise, including language-based ones. However, discovering each other in this context will make it even more enriching, and the results achieved through a difficult but common effort, definitely more valuable.



[2] Iranian-Russian relations: problems and prospects


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Vladimir Yakunin

Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, Head of the Department of State Governance of the Faculty of Political Science, Moscow State University, RU

Russian business leader and philanthropist. Former President of Russian Railways (2005-2015). Head of the Department of State Governance of the Faculty of Political Science of the Lomonosov Moscow State University. Doctor of Political Sciences; visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics; visiting professor at Peking University; Honorary Doctor of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry; Member of the Russian Academy of Social Sciences. Vladimir Yakunin graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Mechanics as a Mechanical Engineer in 1972. After completing military service he worked with the Administration of the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the USSR for Foreign Trade and as a department head at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute. In 1985-1991, Vladimir Yakunin was Second and then First Secretary of the USSR’s Permanent Representative Office at the United Nations. In the 1990s, Vladimir Yakunin occupied various positions in business and public service, including high-ranking positions in the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation. Yakunin served as Deputy Minister of Transport and as first Deputy Minister of Railways. In 2005 he was appointed CEO of Russian Railways, Russia's largest employer, a position he held until 2015. Vladimir Yakunin is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the St Andrew the First-Called Foundation and a member of the Russian-French Trianon Dialogue Coordination Council. In 2013, Vladimir Yakunin founded the Endowment for the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations, aimed at supporting research in the sphere of political and social sciences, religion and culture, developing communication between countries on political and economic matters, and seeking compromise in cases of social unrest and international disputes. In 2016, together with the Former Secretary General of the Council of Europe Walter Schwimmer and Professor Peter W. Schulze of the Georg-August University of Gőttingen, he founded the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. Vladimir Yakunin was appointed Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Institute. Vladimir Yakunin has received around 30 state awards, both Russian and international.