Origin of the incumbent world order 08-Aug-16 69
The world has taken a turn for the worse this year. Istanbul, Paris, Brussels and now Nice, the once untouchable icons of European civilisation, isolated from the fires of the Middle East and Africa, are reeling from jihadist attacks. Europeans today are confronted with madmen who do not or will not differentiate between innocent civilians and the status quo they wish to obliterate. A world away, Muslim states from Afghanistan to Libya smoulder and ignite by turn in a vicious, unending cycle of violence. It feels like the world order painstakingly built by the Allies after World War II (WWII) is crumbling before our very eyes.
“The world is at war,” lamented Pope Francis while addressing the World Youth Day festival in Krakow, Poland on July 27. The same day US President Barack Obama, pitching Hillary Clinton as America’s only choice for commander-in-chief at the Democratic National Convention, played on voter fears of runaway Islamist terrorism by warning only she could “keep you and your family safe in a dangerous world.” A world both Clinton and Obama helped nurture incidentally, but I digress.
August is a good month to draw back the curtains of history. For contrary to popular belief, the cornerstone of our present world order is not the UN or NATO. In fact, the idea of a peace built on liberal, democratic and capitalist principles, and steered primarily by America’s moral exceptionalism preceded the UN by four years. This “peace for our time” was quietly drafted in a series of seaborne meetings between August 9 and 12, 1941 off the southern coast of Canada. The participants were the then British prime minister Winston Churchill, and US president Franklin Roosevelt. Onboard naval ships, they hammered out what became known as the “Atlantic Charter.”
Therein, Churchill and Roosevelt enshrined “certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.” There were eight in total. Five months later in Washington D.C, 26 delegates from states spanning the breadth of the globe, from Costa Rica to China, came together to pledge their support for the Atlantic Charter by signing a — surprise, surprise — “Declaration by United Nations.” Its goals were remarkably optimistic for the time, considering Europe was punch-drunk from Hitler’s Wehrmacht steamrolling through the continent, and Roosevelt was forced to stay out of the war by isolationist pressure groups, most notably the America First Committee, and congressional legislation. Before I outline the “principles,” it is worth adding historical context. By mid-1941, WWII was going badly for the Allies, and America would not be incensed into action until December that year when Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbour. Meanwhile, the Nazis had overrun France and London was subject to the weekly Luftwaffe “blitz.” Churchill, hence, was desperate for American troops to join the fight in Europe and in the Pacific against Japan, but Roosevelt’s hands were tied. This had pushed the US president to get creative.
A clutch of agreements intended to deepen US involvement in WWII were already in effect. These included the Bases for Destroyers deal and the Lend-Lease programme that sought to ensure Great Britain could weather the Nazi onslaught until Roosevelt convinced Americans of the righteousness of fighting for Europe. Concurrently, American warships in the Atlantic frequently duelled German U-boats while chaperoning US supply vessels bound for Britain. With a nonchalance that would eventually sink his Reich, Hitler followed up Japan’s Pearl Harbour bombing by unilaterally declaring war on America, thus freeing up Roosevelt to summon the full might of the US military towards dismantling his empire.
Getting back to the eight principles, the majority bordered on wishful thinking, made for a world without “rational” states and their fluid national interests. Or a political system bereft of special interest groups that bankroll politicians to influence public policy. Much like the Wilsonian idealism of two decades earlier. Within the charter, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed: (1) Not to seek territorial gains after WWII (2) Not to redraw borders without local consensus (3) That self-determination was the inalienable right of all people (4) That barriers to trade needed breaking down (5) That global economic cooperation leading to fairer societies was paramount (6) On proactively working towards “freedom from fear and want” (7) On safeguarding freedom of navigation in the high seas, and (8) On postwar disarmament for all, especially would-be hegemons.
Let’s begin evaluating with the clear failures, hence number eight. Obama, despite his famous anti-nukes speech in Prague seven years ago and negotiating a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in 2010, leaves the White House next year having green-lit a 30-year, one trillion dollar programme to “modernise” America’s nuclear arsenal. A new nuclear arms race is hence inevitable. Next, jumping to number three, multilateral institutions, including the UN, that enforce the incumbent world order have failed miserably in honouring their commitments to the people of Palestine and Kashmir even with a surfeit of resolutions.
Meanwhile, the speed of globalisation and interlinking of world economies, goal number five, has proved to be a double-edged sword. It has widened economic inequality exponentially over the last century and, in the US, mainstreamed once fringe ideologues like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Nevertheless, globalisation has also reduced worldwide poverty levels to below 10 percent for the first time in recorded history, according to the World Bank, and helped raise millions in China and India into the middle-income bracket. This was made possible in large part by manufacturing-oriented, export-led growth catalysed by the intergovernmental World Trade Organisation and its forerunner, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Judging numbers six and seven is more complex, however, since they both cross over into America’s automatic, postwar role as the world’s policeman. WWII, it bears remembering, completely exhausted Great Britain in both blood and treasure, thus enabling “Pax Americana” to emerge from the ruins of once-mighty Europe. Washington justifies its military interventions in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to Libya as necessary for maintaining the incumbent world order. Its looming standoff with Beijing in the South China Sea to deny China’s “nine-dash line” sphere of maritime influence perpetuates a self-assigned responsibility to regulate global affairs for the common “good,” a good distilled through the lens of its own culture and history.
However, as underscored by the recent Chilcot Report in the UK, unchecked hubris often invites catastrophe and the undying infernos in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan are testament to this wisdom. And now the fire has spread to Europe. The Atlantic Charter, though a transformative moment in 20th century history, probably needed one last principle to better its legacy. Something best philosophised by Stan Lee in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist