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  • Gautam Sen

Beyond Westphalian competition to global cooperation

The mid-seventeenth century European Westphalian state system came out of the prodigious bloodletting of the Thirty Years war and antecedent conflicts between religious protagonists in the twilight of the Holy Roman Empire. But its achievement in mitigating conflict is somewhat exaggerated. In its aftermath, European states continued to fight locally as well as engage in genocidal wars against non-European people, even while their own hinterland enjoyed relative quiescence. It had not stopped them warring with each other over empire and Europe’s relative calm was also shattered by the French revolution and subsequent Napoleonic imperial surge. The relative peace of the nineteenth century ended with the onset of the greatest conflicts of history during the twentieth, the Westphalian peace repudiated by rising German power. The subsequent period of armed peace between the principal international protagonists, after WWII, was due to the accidental constraint imposed by nuclear weapons rather than the balance of power structure, per se, that traces its modern origin to the Westphalian system.


The world is now observing a new kind of threat to human welfare everywhere, in the incarnation of COVID-19, that the historic organisation of society within sovereign states cannot apparently address. It constitutes a threat to human welfare virtually unprecedented in several centuries though climatic disaster did haunt the world in the seventeenth. And the severe consequences of the flu epidemic of 1918 were also memorable though apparently less economically disruptive than the current catastrophe. In relation to Westphalian political reality, deepening Sino-America rivalry is a more familiar source of tension though nuclear constraints on total warfare do still exist. The question that may be posed forcefully now, though it is not entirely new, is the continuing ability of the state system to deliver human welfare, security and peace. A corollary, query is the suitability of inter-state institutions to play the kind of necessary significant role in protecting human welfare their current unreformed structures clearly militate against.

The dismaying Coronavirus calamity has reminded the world of the kinds of challenges humanity faces. These are the non-traditional security issues that affect the individual, identified by scholars and wider society for some time that affect the individual. These are outside the narrower historical compass of the state’s concern with national defence, security and the issue of military action. The ongoing Coronavirus crisis highlights the inadequacy of the dominant existing political structures to cope routinely and decisively with such specific threats, either in preventing its spread or resolutely coordinating the effort to reverse their impact. The unique contemporary feature of the world today is globalisation and the colossal scale of integration of world society, economy and polity. For example, the world of business alone needs seamless travel to allow individuals of many nations to engage with each other in impromptu conferences, in varied locations, in order to coordinate finance and ensure supply chains that are now truly borderless. The extant structures of the inherited world order of parochial nation states cannot really be deemed fit for purpose any longer. It is increasingly apparent that the political reality that ultimately underlies the reality of the armed nation state and the processes intrinsic to that existential reality is at odds with the demands of the human experience of a globalised world. This reality also includes the transmission of infectious diseases that a global response alone can address, as the current situation has emphatically underlined.


The real immediate perils faced by the overwhelming majority today, with the possibility of insuperable difficulties within our lifetime, have been recognised for decades. The dire menace of climate change, the erosion of natural habitats and the extinction of most species was graphically highlighted by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Many other warnings of danger have followed in its wake, beginning with the forewarning by the Club of Rome. The international response to climate change and Co2 emissions was to reach an understanding at Rio in 1992 and implementation was agreed in 1998 in the Kyoto Protocol, but only coming into force in 2005. It culminated with the firmer, legally-binding commitments of the Paris Agreements in 2015 to operationalise after 2020. International trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, another area of serious concern, led to the CITES in 1975.

CITES is an international agreement, offering protection to 37,000 species, to which States and regional economic integration organizations adhere voluntarily. The agreement does not have the binding status of international law but requires signatories to adapt national legislation in conformity with it. However, an illegal trade in endangered species has continued to flourish, with demand for pangolins, elephant tusks and tiger body parts in high demand, in China most of all.


An experience described as the Sixth Mass Extinction, owing to an Anthropocene impact, is also occurring at an alarming pace, with populations of wildlife halving since 1970. The unprecedented Anthropocene impact on habitats remains unstoppable as the race to industrialise continues unabated, with a vast swathe of humanity struggling to achieve economic development. The progress of industry, agriculture and associated fossil fuel use, with carbon dioxide emissions at its highest level for millions of years, presage a dire outcome. At the same time, disruption of other chemical cycles is turning seas and rivers into dead zones. The shortage of water globally is foretelling conflict within and between nations, with rivers flowing between them being dammed to generate power. Their courses are also being diverted for national use and water tables are also disappearing in many parts of the world.


In addition, melting glaciers are causing sea levels to rise, which will make many coastal zones uninhabitable and trigger mass population movements, which are likely to abolish many nation states in their current form. It will especially impact India and the mass movement of population has been already been experienced by its eastern regions for some decades. These phenomena together also virtually guarantee that the world as a whole cannot achieve the levels of economic development and consumer profligacy that are the norm in the West, parts of Asia and among the privileged in the developing world. Already, many cities in developing countries are unliveable owing to a combination of high levels of pollution and population density that have made for unsustainably congested road spaces, with vehicular deadlock, and overcrowded living spaces.


The extant competitive interstate system has attempted to address many of the problems highlighted, in some fashion, through international organisations, mostly under the auspices of a creaking and bureaucratic UN system. Unhappily, the difficulties this organisational nexus encounters reflect the vagaries of international political life. The reform of the UN system has been constrained by a failure of consensus on the precise contours of its future role and the source of appropriate funding essential for it and affiliated agencies to address shared concerns effectively. For example, the, now much-maligned, WHO is poorly resourced, with mandated contributions only covering establishment costs and bilateral funding paying for vital project work. National munificence, by providing funding for WHO project work, as China recently did, inevitably compromises its ability to take impartial and robust action, which it recently faltered doing. The wider issue that many have recognised internationally is, in fact, the need for enhanced international cooperation, not less, to respond to urgent issues that are threatening to become insoluble, endangering human welfare. Of course, human well-being, clearly entails protecting the welfare of other species and the natural habitat as well. The stress placed on the planet by population growth that is more than seven times larger than it was two hundred years ago. It is poised to exceed it by a factor of eleven in around two generations and constitutes writing on the wall. It is a certainty even the illiterate will be able read, as the stark reality of the crisis reaches their doorstep and enters their living rooms, as COVID-19 is doing.


The response of governments and their citizens to the multiple threats encountered is unpromising. The heightened urgency of the non-traditional hazards posed to humanity and the planet is occurring at a time when economic crisis has also overtaken global society. Such economic crisis are a historic norm and a conjuncture has evidently been reached. It appears to promise a major socio-economic upheaval in the immediate future, a ruinous taste of which is being felt right now, across the world, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. All bets are increasingly off because of the severe impact of economic crisis. The average citizen and the governments representing them are demonstrating, once again, that their attention and demands pertain to the short-term, impaled on the dynamics of passing electoral cycles. And there is an unfortunate psychological need to impute blame too. It prompts actions inimical to unavoidable shared solutions to the unfolding predicament, even if blame can justly be apportioned, in part, to some protagonists. And this is exactly what appears to be happening, with the US triumphantly destroying international organisations like the WTO and withdrawing from vital common endeavours to address ills the world faces. The US has rescinded the Paris Agreement on climate change, to the accompaniment of patently unscientific claims, and ended funding of the WHO, which despite its failings, will remain the fulcrum of international cooperation on issues of health.


Is there an alternative global civil order that can counter the nationalist backlash that is spreading across the world, conspiring against international cooperation and the science that enjoins it? There are solitary voices, like that of the remarkable schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, who seems like a kind of angry voice of divinity. But she remains largely solitary and is suffering mockery and the average citizen everywhere can feel but no really act decisively. In the meantime, there are alarming statements from Chinese officials, the country where COVID-19 originated, that the spread of disarray around the world, as a result of it, has created an opportunity for China to advance its goal of global dominion. The US will surely respond militantly once the pandemic retreats and no good will come of the emerging contest between the two superpowers. Indians will also have to think long and hard of the response they need to make to cope with the tragic combination of major economic setback and ecological disaster. India has been advancing along the path trod earlier by the developed West, its own holistic traditions and world-view, deeply mindful of the natural world and the claims of other species, condemned by many, including its very own, as somehow irrelevant and harmful. Yet, a major residue of it remains, of how to live in the material world by making modest demands from it. The ancient traditions of Indian civilisation counsel sharing the ample wealth of the world that only private greed turns into insurmountable scarcity.



(The author has taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for more than two decades)

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