The two architects of the post-World War 2 order were British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and America President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They met (for the first time) aboard the heavy cruiser USS Augusta in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland (Canada) and from there on 14 August 1941, two years after the outbreak of war, issued what came to be known as The Atlantic Charter.
The Atlantic Charter is undoubtedly one of history’s most outstanding documents. It is for one thing (at one-page) extremely succinct. Compare with the interminable and indigestible verbosity of the (never ratified) 2005 EU Constitution or the 2015 ASEAN Charter! It consists of eight short bullet points that together encapsulate the visionary goals and concrete framework of what the global order should be after the war. The Atlantic Charter is the corner stone of the peace and prosperity that reigned initially in the Atlantic and eventually extended to much of the world, encompassing the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The Anglo-American order came to its official end on 28 May 2017 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a speech in which she said the EU could no longer rely on its longstanding British and US allies. To get a vivid idea of how profound the collapse has been one can compare Churchill and Roosevelt with their current successors: British Prime Minister Theresa May is leading her flock of headless chickens down the labyrinthine hole of Brexit; while words fail to describe the bombastic buffoonery of President Donald Trump except perhaps to quote from Martin Wolf who wrote in the FT, “Mr Trump’s appeal to irrationality, xenophobia and resentment is frightening”.
In reality, there was a preface to this dramatic saga fourteen years ago (2003) when another irresponsible duo, American President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, contrary to the position of the UN and to the protestations of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac, invaded Iraq. Indeed, Lawrence Summers argues that “abandoning participation in the Paris global climate agreement is probably our most consequential error since the Iraq War and may well be felt over an even longer term”.
So the world is in a different paradigm. There is the view, expressed by some optimists – currently a rather rare species – that this is an aberration in US history and that the country will come back to its senses again soon. It would be hazardous to bank on it.
This was the backcloth of an EU-ASEAN summit convened by Friends of Europe end of last month in Brussels. 2017 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of ASEAN and the sixtieth anniversary of the EU Treaty of Rome – and, coincidentally, the seventieth anniversary of the launch of the Marshall Plan, another great American contribution to peace and prosperity. In the opening remarks by one of the speakers, he stated that while the meeting was ostensibly about the EU-ASEAN dialogue, there was in fact a prominently imposing mammoth gorilla in the room, Donald Trump.
Where do we go from here?
In terms of mindsets or paradigms, it is important to be guided by that prophetic 2016 report by Nik Gowing, Thinking the Unthinkable. It is repeatedly being confirmed; most recently in the stark contrast between the arrogant assurance with which Prime Minister May launched her “snap election” and the humiliating rout of the result. We are in paradigmatic unknown and uncharted territory.
To get some sense of direction, a highly recommended provocative book (2004) by Deepak Lal, In Praise of Empires: Globalisation and Order. It is deliciously provocative and politically incorrect; only an Indian could dare write such a book. In essence, Lal argues that for peace to be maintained there is the imperative need of a hegemon. Following the turbulence of the Napoleonic wars, the emergence of the British hegemon, known as pax Britannica, ensured peace from 1815 to 1914. While the US entered World War 1 (in 1917), it exited the peace in that it refused to join the League of Nations that ipso facto became rapidly irrelevant and impotent. There was no pax Americana then, indeed there was no America in the global arena as it withdrew into isolationism. Three decades of turmoil ensued. Pax Americana finally came following the US’ overwhelming victories in both Europe and the Asia Pacific and the installation of a global order in the spirit, as noted, of The Atlantic Charter.
This is not to say that during these periods of hegemonism, there were no wars: during pax Britannica, there was, among others, the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), along with numerous colonial wars; during pax Americana there were also wars, notably the Vietnam War and of course the Cold War. There were wars, but there was no “GREAT WAR” – à la 1914-1918 or 1939-1945.
The fear is that based on several thousand years of historical precedent, it seems to be in humanity’s DNA to fight wars; thus without a prevailing hegemon, the emerging multi-polar world will degenerate into an anarchic chaos of disparate but simultaneous conflicts corresponding to the 1984 vision of George Orwell of the conflicts within and between Eurasia and Eastasia.
In light of the end of pax Americana, a question raised at multiple forums is: “who is the next hegemon”. Alternatively, as in the case of the EU-ASEAN Friends of Europe dialogue: can ASEAN and the EU somehow join forces to fill, or, at least, help fill, the gap? Another frequent variation on the hegemonic theme is that it should be China’s turn: pax Sinica here we come! A more muted variation is whether Russia, having lost the Cold War, will win the Peace?
None of these options is realistic. Indeed reality is that for a whole myriad of obvious reasons there is no successor on the horizon to American hegemonism. No single power can be expected to maintain the Peace. That paradigm is, at least temporarily, obsolete.
So what can be done? Is the world doomed to multi-polar anarchy?
The great achievement of the Anglo-American order was to have established after World War 2, in stark contrast to the aborted peace after World War 1, a solid institutional multilateral framework. It is the US’ attack on multilateralism that has been precipitating the end of the Anglo-American order. In 2003, the US forced the collapse of the WTO ministerial conference in Cancún (Mexico), thus bringing about the death of the Doha Round, thereby transforming the WTO into an empty shell. Even pretence has now been abandoned with the Trump White House failing to appoint an ambassador in Geneva to the WTO.
As the world’s two most viable and potentially effective regional blocs – notably having succeeded in promoting peace and prosperity in their respective territories – the best contribution an ASEAN-EU coalition could make is to work arduously at strengthening multilateralism, multilateral institutions and, above all, the rules based multilateral trade regime. Doha is dead and cannot be resurrected. The ASEAN-EU coalition can learn from the mistakes of Doha and together take a new WTO initiative by also of course including the other major trading powers. Recent initiatives such as TPP and TTIP have been exclusive. For peace and prosperity to reign, the global trading order must be inclusive, equitable and sustainable.
With the demise of hegemonism, the ASEAN-EU coalition must aim to restore multilateralism.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.
This article first appeared in the Straits Times on 13 June 2017