How to stop the next cold war

We need a national democratic internationalism to prevent our leaders from stumbling into conflict.

Phil Mullan

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Topics Politics UK USA World

There are periods when history seems to speed up. The past very strange half-year provides a vivid illustration of this, due to the pandemic with its lockdowns and other-social enforcement measures. Many pre-existing developments have either come more clearly to the surface or have accelerated, not least when it comes to international relations.

As a consequence, though it was written pre-Covid, many of the themes in my new book, Beyond Confrontation: Globalists, Nationalists and their Discontents, are now more apparent and tangible. Certain responses to the pandemic have begun to lift the lid that had been covering some of them up. The other side of that coin is that sections of the book that might kindly have been regarded as interesting observations on somewhat hidden phenomena have instead become statements of the obvious.

For example, the book spells out the dangerous rise of ‘murky’, non-tariff protectionism implemented by supposedly globalist, multilateralist governments. Yet now, cosmopolitan commentators are openly justifying the necessity for autarkic economic policies as the legitimate pursuit of ‘resilience’ and ‘national self-sufficiency’. This applies not just to the production of PPE, ventilators and vaccines, but extends also into other established healthcare and manufacturing products, as well as digital technologies.

In light of these pandemic effects, here are three of my book’s main propositions that are most relevant to the contemporary period:

First, that today’s enhanced international disorder is unlikely to go back into hibernation.

Second, that most of what today’s Western leaders are saying and doing is making this fraught situation more perilous, even though that’s mostly not their intent. They think they are preserving order and stability.

And third, in order to reverse these divisive and confrontational trends, there is an alternative approach we can pursue within the old West: it is national democratic internationalism.

This trio of propositions breaks down, first, into three trends that are fuelling conflict. Then, three aggravating threats from the West’s political leaders, and finally, three alternative political principles which are relevant to all Western countries to help us move beyond confrontation.

The first proposition means that the ‘Great Western Delusion’ is dissipating. This delusion was the belief that took hold during the post-Second World War years that the world had entered a permanent era of international order and peace. Big nation rivalries were supposedly a thing of the past, not just unfashionable but obsolete. Later the ever-expanding inter-linkages of ‘economic globalisation’ seemed to reinforce this assumption. Fewer people now retain this delusion, given how three of the underlying drivers for the unravelling of the postwar global order have been further magnified by the impact of the pandemic.

First, the relative shift in the production of economic value from the West to the East continues. And so far, the diverging paces of the post-lockdown recoveries in China and America point to this speeding up, rather than the deceleration that some had been predicting just a short time ago. As a consequence the unstable mismatch between economic and political influence in the world is likely to worsen.

It’s worth emphasising that what’s happening today between the US and China is not a classic great power struggle, in which one hegemon replaces another, similar to how the US replaced Britain during the mid-20th century. Whatever international ambitions the Chinese government has, however aggressive it is abroad, there are enormous economic and political barriers – both internally within China and externally – to China replacing the US as the dominant global leader. The near-term, and probably medium-term geopolitical future is therefore less a sea-saw with declining and rising powers, but is more likely to be a protracted era of messy and potentially dangerous international disarray.

The second source of this disorder is that the abysmal state of industrial production and investment within most of the advanced countries is not only continuing but is also becoming harder to camouflage. As a result, we are seeing more overt competition within the developed industrialised world, and the extension of discriminatory protectionist, autarkic policies that incite extra political friction. A clear example is the recent tightening of measures to control inward takeovers of businesses. This is not just directed at Chinese firms, but also at those based in supposedly friendly nations. For instance, early on in the pandemic, the German government blocked an attempted US takeover of one of its vaccine businesses.

Such intra-Western tensions are in themselves detrimental to international stability. The open rivalries within the old Western alliance make it even tougher for it to come up with a cohesive, shared approach to manage the fair incorporation of China and other rising powers within a new international settlement.

The third source of confrontation derives from the deepening political and cultural malaise of Western countries, which goes far beyond the effects of economic atrophy. Historically, leading politicians have often responded to unsettled conditions at home by seeking to externalise their problems, instead of getting to grips with them directly. Hence the traditional search for foreign bogeymen in times of domestic trouble.

Indicative is that in recent months we have already seen increased militarism overseas. British Typhoon jets and American B-52 bombers recently conducted sorties along the Ukrainian-Russian border. Meanwhile, the French government has been even more active abroad. As well as sending its warships into the eastern Mediterranean as a warning against Turkey, it has adopted a more overtly interventionist stance in one foreign flashpoint after another, including in Libya, Lebanon and Mali.

And topping these, of course, we have the intensified campaign against China as the modern source of evil. The White House has declared a new ‘cold war’ with Beijing, to which France and Britain seem to be signing up, though with some resistance so far from other countries, like Germany and Italy.

The second proposition is that going beyond this familiar scapegoating of foreigners and the extension of protectionist policies, some novel specific responses of Western political leaders these days are aggravating this already highly combustible international cocktail. This does not derive from any rediscovered staunch pursuit of national interests, but from the exact opposite. What’s characteristic today, and consistent with the political classes’ overall lack of vision and objective, is that their mostly incoherent muddling through is catalysing disorder not just at home but across borders.

These provocations come from politicians of the globalist, multilateralist inclination, as well from unilateralists – from Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden as well as Donald Trump, from Emmanuel Macron as well as from Boris Johnson. Their varied but parallel attempts to hang on to the international status quo, with the US and the wider West on top, are not reducing the prospect of confrontation, as they claim and desire, but are aggravating it. In at least three ways, their small-c conservative propensities are making the international situation worse.

First, their collective inclination to pursue preservationist economic policies that block the long overdue restructuring of their dismal economies perpetuates all those divisive strains I have just mentioned. So far the pandemic hasn’t seemed to shake this resolve to protect their old economies. However, though that’s certainly a debate that could and hopefully will unfold in the months ahead as the need for creating new employment becomes more pressing.

Second, the West’s dogged attachment to its much-trumpeted ‘rules-based international order’ has itself become a cause of resentment and animosity. This order, created in the 1940s, was institutionalised through a rigid, top-down, anti-democratic and anti-national framework. This makes it near impossible to reform, notwithstanding various efforts over the years to freshen up these old institutions.

While most Western politicians do recognise that the rising nations need to be included in some way in global governance, so far this has always been on the West’s terms and within the old order. This approach backfires since it reinforces the subordinate position of the rising nations and only impresses their sense of exclusion from real influence. This is felt not only in China, but also within many other fast growing countries, from India to Indonesia and Brazil. Instead, the outdated framework needs wholesale replacement, with new international arrangements. And to be durable, any new set up can’t be imposed by the old powers but rather needs to emerge from negotiation between all nation states.

A third conservative input from Western leaders is the international culture war that they have launched – aimed at excluding China from being treated as an equal because of its divergence from traditional enlightenment values. This is summed up in the recent attacks on China by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, for not adhering to the supposed Western norms of freedom, tolerance and democracy.

There are a couple of obvious hypocrisies. First, that it was antipathy to progress and development within certain Western circles that fuelled much of the earlier China-bashing, not least from some environmentalists. Second, there is the rather large matter of how unfree, intolerant and undemocratic many Western societies are becoming.

Leaving those two important points aside, Pompeo’s approach raises the geopolitical stakes by metamorphosing what should be a political matter of how to establish a modern, viable international settlement into a fundamental contest of ideas and beliefs. This conversion narrows the scope for diplomatic negotiations over how to establish good working relations between countries. Unlike with trade wars or even technology conflicts, wars over values and cultures are not amenable to compromise solutions.

Now that the dreadful Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government is branded as not just authoritarian and illiberal, which of course it is, but also as uniquely evil, as intent on world domination, and as impossible to be trusted, then the only obvious solution acceptable to the Western powers becomes enforced regime change. Yet this approach is something which history repeatedly tells us never ends well. Representing an international power mismatch as a war of cultural or moral values, of good against evil, brings worryingly to mind US vice president Dick Cheney’s famous remark a year before the invasion of Iraq in 2003: ‘We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it.’

The third proposition in the book is to insist that there is a political alternative to this perilous inflammation of international relations coming from both globalists and unilateralists. The replacement perspective is national democratic internationalism. This standpoint is necessary both to oppose the current warmongering, and also to help develop the required global settlement that corresponds to today’s configuration and composition of countries – not last century’s.

There is no blueprint for these new arrangements in the book because the crucial point is that they need to come out of a deliberative process between countries. But this will only be possible with fundamental changes in how the West pursues its foreign affairs. This alternate approach has to rest upon three foundational principles: national sovereignty, democratic decision-making, and the recognition that genuine internationalism starts at home.

First, against the globalist promoters of a borderless world, we need to establish that nation states continue to exist, and that effective national sovereignty is the best thing possible for global order. The predominantly national form of Covid-19 control measures, despite their many problems, at least provides fertile ground for pursuing this argument.

The primacy of national sovereignty is a precondition for the second fundamental principle: that of popular democratic engagement. It is only as citizens of particular national territories, sharing a common public space, with specific duties and responsibilities to one other, that we are able to interact in a democratic fashion as political equals.

Such strong, effective working democracies are vital to help block the drift to confrontation. For a start, with opinion polls in advanced countries generally showing a majority of people thinking that their governments should stay out of the internal affairs of other countries, effective accountability to the public can constrain the foreign adventures of our political classes. These leaders are more prone to cause havoc abroad when they shield themselves from their electorates.

However, given the heat of today’s China-bashing campaign, that majority public opposition to overseas intervention could fade. Therefore, it is important to build the case against all outside intervention, political as well as military, in the domestic affairs of other countries, including in those of China, however much we despise the repressive actions of the CCP.

Beyond this immediate goal to reduce international tensions, energising a positive, outward-looking national spirit can incorporate the wisdom of people in better managing our unstable international environment. This includes assisting our elected representatives to come up with sensible suggestions for how to work alongside other countries, whether those other territories today have democratic systems or not.

This leads to the third principle: that meaningful internationalism starts at home. Our focus needs to be on dealing with our many domestic problems – economic, political and cultural – instead of the present orientation towards the scapegoating of external monsters that has been stirring up international enmities.

The best positive way for promoting international cooperation, and also for encouraging the struggle for freedoms elsewhere, is to protect and enhance freedom and democracy at home. This is already a huge and essential fight, given the extending culture of intolerance all around the Western world, but it has international benefits, too.

Free and confident nations can be more effective partners with other countries and will be better cross-border negotiators for preserving international stability. In addition, and this is one of the most immediately relevant messages in the book given the protests going on in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, as well in other undemocratic countries: stronger, freer democracies in the West can better provide solidarity and offer a beacon of inspiration for people in other parts of the world who are fighting their own freedom struggles.

Phil Mullan’s Beyond Confrontation: Globalists, Nationalists and Their Discontents is published by Emerald Publishing. This is an edited version of the introduction given on 10 September at the virtual book launch. Order it from Emerald or Amazon (UK).

Picture by: Getty.

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