Beyond Confrontation: towards a true internationalism

Phil Mullan provides a vital critique of the globalism of Western elites, and the insular nationalism of their opponents.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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Topics Books USA World

The impending inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States is being widely celebrated as a victory for enlightened globalism. In this narrative, the triumph of Biden over Donald Trump represents a victory over the dark forces of insular nationalism. Progressive internationalism has won a righteous battle, so the argument goes, as populism has at last lost its most prominent representative.

One of the great merits of Beyond Confrontation is that it refuses to accept this hackneyed version of events. Phil Mullan, a frequent contributor to spiked, rejects both globalism and insular nationalism. Indeed, he shows they have much more in common than is generally realised. Instead, he proposes a model of popular, democratic participation within nation states that, paradoxically, provides the basis for a true internationalism.

Globalism is the dominant worldview among the elites in the Western world and particularly Western Europe. It sees itself as internationalist, liberal and enlightened. Generally it favours supranational organisations, most notably the European Union (EU), while it sneers at what it regards as the inherent vulgarity of nationalism.

The globalist outlook is essentially that of the West’s technocratically inclined rulers. It is hostile to democracy if it means anything more than empty institutions and formal procedures. So, for example, it will tolerate parliaments if they are simply talking shops, but it is avidly against them as an expression of popular sovereignty. The right to national self-determination is viewed as obsolete in the era of globalisation.

Insular nationalists, in contrast, generally take a mercantilist view in opposition to free trade. In other words, they argue that nation states should take a protectionist stance in relation to trade. This was clearly expressed by Trump when he argued that ‘trade wars are good and easy to win’. From this perspective, an active US trade policy was a key part of Making America Great Again.

But despite all the globalist scoffing at protectionism and praise for free trade, the reality, as Mullan shows, is rather different. For example, the EU, that supranational institution most beloved by globalists, is in fact the world’s largest protectionist bloc. Its much vaunted single market in goods, services, capital and labour – launched in 1993 – can be seen as a kind of protectionist alignment. As Mullan argues: ‘paralleling the European Commission’s policing of internal single-market rules on its own members, these same rules present a robust barrier to the rest of the world’s goods, services, people and capital.’

Indeed, the EU is not averse to more traditional forms of protectionism, such as tariffs (taxes on imports) either. The tariffs it enforces on non-EU members are among the highest in the developed world. And Trump had a point when he regularly attacked the EU for its high tariffs on imported American cars.

Free trade has never existed in the literal sense of freedom from state controls, such as tariffs and regulatory constraints. Instead, what globalists are really wedded to is what is sometimes called the ‘rules-based international order’. This is the institutional and legal framework for international cooperation that emerged in the mid-1940s after the bloody conflicts of the First and Second World Wars. It includes organisations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (formerly the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)). Most of the power in these organisations is held by the US first, followed by the old powers of Western Europe.

The problem is, more than 75 years since its formation, the rules-based order remains broadly intact even though the world has outgrown it. In that time, China has grown from being an economic minion to the world’s largest or second largest economy (depending on how it is measured). More broadly, the developing economies account for a much larger share of global output.

At the same time, the US is no longer the undisputed global hegemon. It faces challenges both from Europe and from East Asia in exercising its power. European countries often suffer conflicts among themselves, too, despite the existence of the EU.

Yet the globalists insist on trying to maintain the rules-based order despite it being well past its use-by date. This situation, paradoxically, is the source of great instability in the world. American and Western European globalists want to maintain a world order that is no longer tenable. Instead of being willing to embrace change, they cling on to institutional arrangements which no longer make sense. And to help them to do so, they launch a culture war against China in a desperate attempt to bolster their position against the rising power.

It is against this backdrop that Mullan’s call for a new form of democratic, national sovereignty, in opposition to both globalism and insular nationalism, should be understood. He skilfully weaves together the economic and political sides of the story to show why this is necessary if peace is to be maintained.

First, he shows that the roots of the current predicament can to a great extent be found in the economic atrophy of the Western economies. There is a desperate need to overcome the effect of decades of low investment in technology and automation. The failure of Western states to arrest their long-term decline in productivity growth makes them more prone to international conflict. (This topic is examined in more detail in Mullan’s earlier book, Creative Destruction.)

Yet a precondition for achieving the much-needed economic renaissance is democratic engagement in domestic decision-making. Citizens need to play an active role in what would inevitably be a disruptive and at times painful process.

It is only within the nation state that such democratic participation can take place. Supra-national institutions are, by their nature, arenas from which the public are excluded. The EU is perhaps the clearest example of this unaccountable authority.

From this perspective, it is only the nation state that can provide a solid basis for genuine internationalism. Relations between nations – grounded in the democratic wishes of their citizens – could create the basis for genuine peace. Globalism, in contrast, by desperately clinging on to the old rules-based order, creates the conditions for ever-more heated conflict.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a writer based in London.

Beyond Confrontation: Globalists, Nationalists and their Discontents, by Phil Mullan, is published by Emerald Publishing. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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