Defining global space

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By Prof. John Harbeson

I have steadfastly declined to write about my own country’s foreign policy in the media of another country, because I think it inappropriate to do so. But in a recent op-ed article for the Wall Street Journal, two of the US President’s top advisors have struck a theme that is of profound global significance, and not just for one country’s foreign policy.

The President’s National Security Advisor, and chair of the administration’s National Economic Council have opined, “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

This is a truly extraordinary proposition of great significance for people in every country on the planet, not least the governments and peoples of Kenya and all developing countries. And it is a half-truth that is very, very wrong.

The only good thing I can say about what I will call the global arena notion is that it brings into sharp relief just how far the world has advanced in adherence to widely subscribed rules of the game to promote peace, prosperity and, more recently, environmental sustainability in the last almost seventy-five years. Indeed, it even highlights spottier but still significant steps in the direction of global order, at least, stretching back well into the 19th Century.

The alarming untruth of the global arena proposition is that it dismisses the very important extent to which the competition in global space has been governed by rules of the game voluntarily established, and subscribed to, by most of the world’s nations. Not completely, of course, as long as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Shabaab and their offshoots continue in existence, but nonetheless by most the world for three-quarters of a century, bringing unprecedented peace and prosperity to most nations. The global arena proposition implicitly dismisses all these achievements in the utterly false belief that the legitimate interests of one of the world’s heretofore leading nations have been ill served.

The idea is so reactionary that it takes us back almost to the era before 1648 when the Treaty of Westphalia established that nations with rival official religious beliefs could coexist together. The Nineteenth Century in Europe sustained a degree of peace on the basis of what in the mid-Twentieth Century would be as the theory of hegemonic stability: the idea that one dominant power, acting in its own best interests, simultaneously acts in the best interests of the others.  Britain, with its unparalleled naval power, played that role in the Nineteenth Century, the United States after World War II until the 1970s, and G-7 powers since.

But the key has been best interest, defined by the family of nations through the United Nations charter, the GATT principles, the Bretton Woods agreements that established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and numerous other conventions. In the post-colonial world, the strongest economies have negotiated with developing nations to increase the extent to which trade rules serve the interests of all nations. The principles of responsibility-to-protect and responsible sovereignty in the 21st Century have established that absolute national sovereignty, envisaged at Westphalia, is now more conditional, dependent upon at least minimal observance of basic human rights within all nations.
The idea that global space is solely an arena of competition casts aside all this progress, creating a world of zero sum rivalries, where, implicitly, the strong can trample the weak with abandon, restraints on competition between nations are forgotten, opening the way to destructive, even violent conflict.

So far, no one has considered how the-globe-as-arena for national competition versus the globe as a community of rule abiding peaceful competition affects the interests of developing nations like Kenya. Kenya and other developing nations potentially have more at stake in this newly joined debate than richer and more powerful nations. The global arena notion implies abandonment of all the efforts, however flawed, of richer, more powerful nations to find common ground with, and ways to assist developing nations.

To the extent the global arena proposition acquires adherents among developed and emerging economies, the world’s weaker, poorer nations can expect nations adopting this notion to run roughshod over their interests.  The more other nations adopt this zero-sum idea, the weaker and less effective will be the range of international institutions in which developing nations to date have gained significant participation and influence. Consider the implications for basic human rights in nations where some elected leaders already limit them, to the extent they feel less accountability to international institutions for their full observance.

Action is required to block the spread of this ill informed, injurious, and fundamentally irresponsible global arena idea beyond its regrettable source nation, and within that one as well. Action is required to uphold and strengthen a rule abiding, peaceful, constructive global community.

Writer is professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies

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