The world is falling apart. Sort of.
The world as we know it is one that consists of vast systems of interrelationships between nations, corporations, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), supra-governmental structures (e.g., the UN, ICC, EU, NATO, IMF, WTO, trade agreements like NAFTA and TPP, and other acronyms of note), and individuals connected through identity (race, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality), ideas and norms (ideologies, religions, cultures), trade, travel, the internet (increasingly, social media), and more. The process of all of these things mixing together across traditional national boundaries is called “globalization,” and while it has been accelerating over the past few centuries, it currently appears to be stalling.
The World Wars brought many nations together to fight as allies, and in the aftermath of World War II those nations developed plans to make their alliances permanent in some form. The benefits of being allies continued through such institutions as NATO (military), the United Nations (diplomacy), the International Monetary Fund (economic development), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which later became the World Trade Organization (WTO). Over time more supra-governmental structures developed, including the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Membership in any of these organizations is voluntary, and has a list of requirements that nations must meet in order to be members. Such organizations are funded by the member nations.
None of these organizations are perfect, and many of them were designed in a different era; they regularly face the criticism that they are outdated and ineffective, and must be updated to meet the needs of today. The difficulty of doing that is that it will take more funding from member states to do so, and pouring money into an ineffective, international, bureaucratic organization is rarely a popular political move. Nonetheless, these organizations are the venues and structures within which the nations of the world form community, engage in dialogue, and promote global stability and trade.
The other aspect of these organizations and agreements is that they have profound effects on what we do at home in our own nations. They affect our foreign policy, including who we trade with and how much; where we accept visitors and immigrants from, and what requirements we place on them; how we deal with conflict in the world and promote peace; and even how accountable we are for our actions. These agreements not only help us to play nicely with other countries, but they give us the opportunity and incentive to be our best selves on the global stage.
If only we all saw it that way. The election of Donald Trump to the American presidency is just one of a series of recent moves by democratic populations to empower anti-immigrant, anti-trade factions and candidates. There are always many reasons that people will support a demagogue, but among them is a sense that people from outside of their own nation are controlling them or stealing their jobs. Advocates of globalization argue that it provides a net benefit to everyone, but that’s understandably hard to understand when your job has been outsourced to Mexico or India and your taxes support new immigrants and refugees as much as anyone else. Globalization creates plenty of opportunity for what is often called “creative destruction,” which involves tearing down what is here (say, a widget factory in Ontario) and replacing it with something new or more efficient elsewhere (say, a widget 2.0 factory in Bangladesh). While the overall, aggregate effect is that prices go down and profits go up, individual people are affected by the process, often quite negatively.
People who feel threatened by that kind of creative destruction, but who do not have the training to accurately identify and describe it, can still point to its symptoms and actors: the presence of “outsiders” in their midst; the erosion of their way of life, including jobs, privilege, and cultural dominance; and governments who (at least seemingly) condescendingly tell them that they’re still better off than the immigrants those politicians seem to pander to. It gives people the impression that their governments are too weak to say what seems obvious (that globalization isn’t working for them), and selling them out to outsiders. Anyone who is willing to “call a spade a spade”, so to speak, to disavow globalization and talk about withdrawing from trade agreements and limit immigration, is viewed as being someone who is strong, someone who listens to the people. The US has Donald Trump, France has Marine Le Pen, the UK has elected a Conservative majority and voted to leave the European Union (Brexit), and Canadian would-be demagogues are lining up to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Trump is promising to pull the US out of NAFTA, the TPP, and the Paris climate agreement; demand money from their NATO allies for protection (which sounds like a racket if ever there was one); and impose protective tariffs on businesses that would take jobs out of the US. Le Pen would have France leave NATO altogether, proposes trade protectionism, and would crack down on immigration. All of these things sound good to individuals who see no value in these global ties, but that’s the nature of global ties: their value proves itself in times of global upheaval, and their everyday benefits have long been taken for granted.
I can’t say that I completely disagree with such sentiments about NATO, for example. I don’t believe that true peace can be achieved through war. NATO was a very important deterrent against Russian aggression during the cold war, and five years ago I would have been more keen to say that it no longer serves a purpose, but Russia’s aggressive attitude toward the rest of the world these days is deeply troubling and made worse by the admiration shown for Vladimir Putin by other would-be strong-men like Trump and Le Pen. While I’m not a fan of the fact that eastern European nations are hosting NATO troops (including Canadian troops), those nations are glad to have some deterrence to keep Russia from annexing them as it recently did to part of Ukraine. It may be that we only believed that the world was kept at relative peace by common interests and mutual respect for human flourishing, and that in reality it was the constant threat of American war that allowed the world to globalize. I hope that’s not the case.
Similarly, NAFTA has never been without its critics, and the TPP has very problematic investor-state dispute settlement provisions – so while international trade agreements can be wonderful things, perhaps these things are worth renegotiating. The UN needs reforms, the IMF and WTO have serious issues, and we’d all be better off if these institutions were drastically improved.
But even if every one of these institutions was utterly useless, the trend of pulling away from them right now is too much, too fast. Russia is pulling out of the International Criminal Court, one of several nations to do so recently, in the wake of the ICC criticizing their actions in their neighbouring nation of Georgia. This signals a refusal to be held to account to the international community. If Trump extorts money from NATO allies, Le Pen just might get her wish that France would pull out. There are concerns that Brexit will lead to other nations pulling out of the EU, even as figures like Le Pen argue against including other nations (such as Turkey) from joining. This is no longer a question of whether or not individual international organizations need updating or replacing, but rather “how much can internationalism take before it falls apart entirely?”
We face global threats that can only be overcome through cooperation, and right now the alternative to our ailing international institutions is a world in which leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin receive social license and support from their base for the degree to which they don’t give a damn about the rest of the world.
Canada’s role in this is clear: we must continue to endorse international cooperation wherever possible, and lead by example. That means that when others threaten to pull out, we honour our commitments; when others pull out (e.g., reducing the number of refugees and immigrants they allow in, or deporting illegal immigrants), we double down; and when agreements or organizations begin to unravel, we renegotiate and replace them with new ones. A commitment to internationalism is not a commitment to any particular form of it, but rather to holding the world together in spite of forces that would tear us apart.
Some, like Trump and Le Pen and their Canadian followers, claim that internationalism is a commitment to putting others ahead of our own people and values. I say that welcoming outsiders and helping other nations is a Canadian value. What do you think?