March 25, 2024The Intersectionforeign policygeopolitics

The West’s disregard for global norms is endangering the world

Why should the rest of the world trust the West on climate and other global issues?

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

In the summer of the year 416 BCE an Athenian fleet turned up on the island of Melos and demanded that its population submit to slavery. The Melians argued that since they had refused to side with Sparta — Athens’ main adversary in the ongoing conflict — and instead wished to remain neutral, it would only be right for the big powers to leave them alone. The Athenian response, one of the famous lines in world history, was (in Jeremy Mynott’s translation) You understand as well as we do that in the human sphere judgements about justice are relevant only between those with an equal power to enforce it, and that the possibilities are defined by what the strong do and the weak accept.”

In Richard Crawley’s classic 1874 translation of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, the words are punchier. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

We are seeing this in world affairs today as a rules-based international order crumbles under the blows inflicted by the United States, China and Russia. But I was reminded of the pithy Athenian statement reading Angus Deaton’s reflective essay for the IMF. The 2015 Nobel laureate repudiates the economic benefits of globalisation and immigration over the past thirty years. More worrying that this conclusion is his claim that he had seriously underthought (his) ethical judgments about trade-offs between domestic and foreign workers. We certainly have a duty to aid those in distress, but we have additional obligations to our fellow citizens that we do not have to others.”

In other words, the eminent economist is telling us that it is ethical for rich countries to prefer their own citizens’ interests over that of the world’s poor. If you didn’t know Deaton was a leftist, you would believe this argument came from a populist rightwinger.

The West’s retreat from free trade and a rules-based international order has ominous prospects for the world. Simply put, it is no longer tenable to take any deal or norm at face value. Now realists will note that this has always been the case, and the West’s preference for multilateralism and international law since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been on account of its interests. Even so, there was — until perhaps a decade ago — an increasing belief that thorny issues of international politics and economics could be sorted out through international laws and institutions. This is not the case anymore. The WTO is dead because the United States asphyxiated it. The UN has become a bit player because the West too has stopped caring for its niceties. Russia and China cannot escape their share of the blame, but neither country claimed to be promoting a rules-based international system.

I do not think the trend in Western behaviour will change in the near future. The retreat from globalism seems to be bipartisan. Right-wing arguments are weak, poorly constructed and wrapped in angry populism. The Left wraps its case in sanctimony and righteousness. The outcome is similar: restrictions on trade and immigration and disregard for international law. The rest of the world is noticing this and is bound to act accordingly.

The biggest question is the one concerning climate change. A lot of developing countries around the world are already making painful compromises and expensive investments in the hope that the West will keep its end of the bargain. What if the West reneges on climate commitments? This is not far-fetched. It already happened before. The Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017.

The European Union is more committed to achieving climate goals, but its approach is to pass on the burdens to other countries without caring for the consequences. Worse, the world’s governments and industries might have to simultaneously deal with an America that flouts international climate norms and a Europe that doubles down on them.

Indeed, if we were all to apply Deaton’s ethical judgement, then every country would be justified in privileging the immediate interests of its own citizens over the rest of the world. They would be even more justified in doing so because it was the West that is largely responsible for dumping carbon into the atmosphere over two centuries.

Global economic policies cannot be disconnected from global environmental policies. It is absurd to argue that it is ethical to be selfish in international trade while demanding others be selfless in environmental protection. Unfortunately, I do not see politics in Western countries throwing up leaders who can rejuvenate internationalism.

Tailpiece: After the negotiations, the Athenians laid seige to Melos, walling the population in and cutting off food supplies. The Melians resisted for a while. But the following year the Athenians broke through, killed all men and enslaved the women and children, before sending 500 of their own settlers to colonise the island.

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