Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:46 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:46 | SYDNEY

Internationalism is not always idealistic


Michael Wesley


This post is part of the A new bipolarity debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

7 June 2012 09:21

This post is part of the A new bipolarity debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

It's taken me too long to respond to Sam's thoughtful piece on the new bipolarity. His idea of 'conservative internationalism' really got me thinking and in the end has made me revise a major premise of my original idea.

In first observing the qualitative differences between how seriously Atlantic and Asian states take their commitments to domestic and international institutions, I'd simply accepted the argument of people such as Robert Cooper and Robert Kagan, that regions which take institutions seriously are all idealists. That is, they believe that in building these institutions, they are building a 'postmodern' world that will eradicate war and build a perpetual peace.

Now I'm not so sure. Harry Gelber's fascinating contribution to the debate, pointing out the common defensive intent of associations, from empires to regional blocs, in the face of rising powers suggests a deep pragmatism behind what Kagan and Cooper take to be wildly idealistic enterprises. As Europe contemplates its steady relative decline and Africa and Latin America their persistent under-performance, solidarity and rules that promote stability have become the order of the day.

Thus we can see a major motivation for Mercosur is the need for solidarity among South America's states in dealing with the US, initially but not only in negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas. And take the Sirte Declaration, which paved the way for the establishment of the African Union, which proclaims a 'vision for a strong and united Africa, capable of meeting global challenges and shouldering its responsibility to harness the human and natural resources of the continent in order to improve the living conditions of its peoples.'

This is not idealism; it's conservative internationalism.

Asia, on the other hand, is a region of bursting optimism and self-belief (to use Dominique Moisi's fascinating framework, the 'geopolitics of emotion'). Its states, at least the big agenda-setting ones, have no need for solidarity and rules that promote stability. They want to be left alone to make their own luck.

But there's a downside to conservative internationalism, as we observe Europe's travails over Greece. In this case, the commitment to institutions — repeated elections that solve nothing; the desperation to save the eurozone — has led to mounting crisis. Perhaps what Europe needs right now is a dash of Asia's cavalier attitude towards institutions and a heap of Asia's determination to make things work, whatever institutional commitments might say.

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