Shock proposal: “Mid-sized powers must unite”

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The coming into force, on 1 June 2018, of the Trump administration’s decision to slap tariffs on imports of European aluminium and steel did not go unnoticed by international relations experts. Obviously, they assessed to what extent Trump’s decision – unexpected and ignoring the alliance ties between the EU and U.S., which date back seven decades – is set to influence the global system, having direct and indirect consequences on international stability and on the power relations within the system.

As natural in such cases, in the logic of the Westphalian system, when the hegemon displays behaviour that threatens stability, an anti-hegemonic coalition appears. According to this logic, it is historically proven that the newly-formed coalition will try to “domesticate” the hegemon or, as an alternative, by selecting its peer competitor, will engage in confrontation, most of the times violent (hegemonic wars), a peaceful hegemonic transition occurring more rarely.

In this recent case, which pits the policies of the Trump administration against the neo-liberal orientations of EU states, but also of other U.S. allies, the systemic response is already in gestation stage, relevant proposals already appearing. ‘Financial Times’ published on 28 May 2018, under the prestigious signature of Gideon Rachman (photo), its foreign affairs commentator, an article in which he proposes a democratic coalition – deemed an appropriate reaction to the White House’s current policies, against the backdrop in which other major systemic actors, not just the U.S., are showing anti-system behaviour. Rachman’s premise is the following: “The US — the anchor of the world order — is assaulting the global trading system, and has withdrawn from international agreements on climate change and Iran. China, the rising power, is building military bases across the South China Sea — in defiance of rulings by an international tribunal, and the wishes of its neighbours. Russia has annexed Crimea, part of a neighbouring country.” Here is the solution he sees for ensuring the stability of the international order and the avoidance of hegemonic confrontation: “It is time for an informal alliance of middle-sized powers that are interested in supporting a global rules-based order. Individually, these nations cannot ensure the survival of the World Trade Organization, or sustain international human-rights law or global environmental standards. But, collectively, they have a chance of working together to preserve a world based around rules and rights, rather than power and force.” This behaviour finds its reason and legitimacy, according to the author, in the fact that the other major actors – such as France, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Australia – can no longer exercise their systemic role (one may say: in line with their status as ‘middle-sized great powers’), with own interests and, alike, with common democratic interests and values. Their common interest is the conservation of an international order based on generally accepted and observed rules.

Hence, it would be time to set up an informal alliance, of a group of six such actors – in the order of their demographic potential: Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Australia – with military potential, great trading nations with capacity and will to project force globally (except Japan), also interested in the protection of human rights at international level. Undoubtedly, Rachman’s proposal is only a potential reaction formula – corresponding to systemic logic –, with the imagined group of states being possibly joined by other such powers in the future, powers such as South Korean, South Africa, Italy, and Brazil. Such a global grouping of states would be capable not only to successfully resist policies that are detrimental to an international order based on common rules – which would prompt a growing state of systemic uncertainty –, but also to decisively contribute to configuring appropriate ways to consolidate it. In the author’s view, implementing such a solution would counter the instability of the system as long as the behaviour of the Trump administration or of the U.S. remains erratic (hence leaning toward a sort of hegemonic recovery via protectionism, but also isolationism combined with force-based unilateralism). According to Rachman’s proposal, “the middle powers should do more to co-ordinate their positions and lobby on the big global issues: trade, climate change, arms control and peace efforts in the Middle East and Asia. Depending on what happens in America, this co-ordination could either be seen as preserving the current international order until the US reverts to normal, or, more gloomily, the start of a process of building alternative structures to defend liberal values.” The role as organiser of such a group of powers of systemic balance should fall on the EU, where France, but also Germany, as part of an ever more poignantly visible duo, want to prompt the transformation of the continental integration organisation into a global actor. What the EU momentarily lacks, from a political standpoint, according to Rachman, to position itself in such a prominent posture, would be the non-existence of internal cohesion, due to the inconstant and ambiguous behaviour of members such as Poland or Hungary or possibly Italy, where the reins of the state are in the hands of populist political forces. But in the field of international trade, the European Union acts with coherence in the international arena, and thus can undertake the role of leader of the proposed group of states. It is also mentioned that, according to some voices, Russia and/or China might join the forecast group, but it is convincingly explained that this cannot be a path to follow.

The comments on this proposal were not few at all. The readers of the influential British daily assessed Rachman’s solution from various angles, the opinion that it disregards the complexity of today’s world being prevalent. The comment most recommended by readers was the following: “This article felt like it was written by an intern, who looked at the World map and came up with some cool ideas. Not much substance or recognition of obvious complexities and contradictions though.” Another highly recommended comment considers that “This piece is not a ‘timely analysis’ by any standards,” while other comments reject the proposal: “To think that Japan, Canada and Australia are interested in what is essentially a pact against the US suggests the author needs to find an alternative means of earning a livelihood” or “What the author has in mind is really the expected collapse of the Atlantic alliance!” Another comment foresees the difficulty of implementing the proposal: “An alternative power block is desperately needed, however the short sighted (or evil minded) destructive activities of some present political leaders, is destroying its capability for coordinated action.” However, there are also comments that consider this proposal timely to identify fertile directions of action to follow in order to ensure systemic stability: “Timely analysis. Almost regardless of who follows Trump, the US will be in more pronounced relative decline which will generate more political angst. /…/. At some point it must disengagement from its expensive militarily supported empire in the Greater Middle East and Africa. /…/ Mr Rachman is wise and shrewd to look forward towards possible positive future alternatives.”

It is undeniable that the proposal is a result of considering the logic of the Westphalian system, hence, whether we like it or not, it reflects the current state of international relations, which is at a turning point. Due to its ample implications, Rachman’s proposal must remain in the attention of experts.