Coping with the challenges of modern existence: Terence O'Brien comments on international relations in the age of Trump.

Author:O'Brien, Terence
 
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Today modern technologies of instant communication connect our world in real time in ways that would be inconceivable to our forebears. National borders and extensive coastlines no longer insulate countries, nor provide the protections that they once did. Modern inter-dependence collapses time and geography. It reduces opportunities for reflection and considered response at moments of crisis. Deepening inter-dependence between countries and between the problems they confront is a fact then of modern existence. No single country or group of countries, no matter how powerful, can alone cope with the big challenges of modern existence --climate change, pollution, resource depletion and copious migration involving multitude displacement.

Yet one such product, the globalisation of the world's economy, offers great opportunity to those countries that equip themselves to seize it. The countries of East Asia, led first by Japan and then by China, demonstrate this through successful economic and social progress that is shifting the centre of gravity in the world economy, and changing the international pecking order. The focus for New Zealand international relations--its political, trade and economic interests--is being reshaped by this process and by the advantages of its (relative) proximity to this new centre of gravity.

Yet accelerating globalisation creates genuine anxieties amongst people in many places, New Zealand included. The ease around the world with which borders can be penetrated by those with malicious intent, as well as by health pandemics, threats to biodiversity and other afflictions, stimulate popular anxiety that governments cannot ignore. Moreover, persistent economic and social inequality seemingly compounded through deregulated trade and free-wheeling investment add to levels of popular misgiving. The original Trans-Pacific Partnership debates here inside New Zealand were a symptom of broader concern elsewhere.

From all of this there emerges a vital need for codes of predictable behaviour between governments--that is for international rules--which sustain trust alongside respected institutions that are mandated to devise international rules and monitor compliance. And yet at this precise moment in time, events in the United States and in Europe are moving in ways where predictability, reliability and trust are under a real spotlight. New Zealand's comfort zone in international relations is being spooked.

In 2016 the process of democratic choice in both the United States and Europe produced Donald Trump and Brexit. Gallons of ink have been spilt in many places trying to explain the reasons, and to forecast the consequences, of both events. It is clear in both cases that simmering popular discontent was orchestrated and then exploited by political leaders and opportunists who place self-interest way ahead of willing-hearted global or regional collaboration.

The Brexiteers, for one, convinced themselves that Britain's EU membership infringed sovereignty and thwarted national potential as well as interests. President Trump is convinced other countries have taken unrequited advantage of American prosperity. It is imperative to restore what he conceives as fairness through unilateral US retaliation to correct unfavourable trade balances with individual economies. Such action is actually illegitimate in terms of international rules that the United States itself originally helped negotiate.

America's legacy

The world indeed owes the United States a real debt for its energy and resourcefulness that in the 20th century laid the foundations for a rules-based liberal international order from which others, like New Zealand, derive substantial benefit. American policymakers believed then that US global leadership was best mediated through institutions committed to universal peace and prosperity, rather than by stand-alone assertion of supremacy and the right to do as it pleased. Under successive presidents that idealism began to fade and the idea of America as an exceptional nation' with the right to do what it alone judges appropriate in the world steadily gained influence.

The list of American self-exemptions from international rules that are the product of principled negotiation is long. Successive administrations over the years withheld US support for a whole raft of agreements like the Law of the Sea, the International Criminal Court, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as well as several arms control agreements, including that banning land mines. In other cases, the United States entered reservations on treaties that it did sign--like the Convention against Torture--in order to preserve loopholes for potential circumvention. The United States has just recently withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council. Indeed, it has declined endorsement over many years of several of the...

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