Free Trade War

“What we see today – continual warfare and persistent authoritarianism in the post-colonial world and explosive terrorism spreading its horrors – are dark streaks across the vision of peace seen by the free-trader…
A nation-state system based on furthering material interests is incapable of curbing violence. It is only by relentlessly pursuing the deepening of the democratic revolution – at home and abroad – that we can hope to respond to the multifaceted injustice that defines our age.”

One of the most appealing arguments for an international economic regime of free and frequent trade is that it will – through nations’ own self interest – lead to peaceful international relations. Since the mid 19th century the opponents of economic protectionism have made this case. Today, proponents will point to the EU, whose humble beginnings in the European Coal and Steel Community are at least a part of the explanation for the disappearance of war among this tightly-knit trading bloc.

This argument assumes that nations have the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and have a largely agreed upon definition of self interest. These may be philosophically troubled notions, but more importantly, here in the real world we can begin to perceive why violence shows no signs of abating.

In the post-colonial era national self-determination, tied in with removal of barriers to trade erected by colonial ties, was hailed as the way forward for communities to achieve a better standard of living. But the age of nation-building was all but over by the time President Harry Truman used the US’s economic influence to push European imperialists out of Africa, Asia and South America. Particularly in Africa, the divisions set up in the carving out of territory for British, French, Dutch, German, and Italian invaders was antithetical to the scale and nature of pre-exiting political communities. Nations the world over are, to be sure, imagined communities , but Africa has never had a home-grown Treaty of Westphalia to legitimise their own legal borders.

The difficulty of creating nations in Africa is now compounded by the disintegration of the state. Thanks to the myriad process of ‘globalization’ the state is niether internally uniform in its views and ambitions, nor particularly coordinated in its action. The state has never had a true monopoly on violence, but as its legitimacy ebbs and the flow of weapons becomes more widespread and less discerning it is clear that other forces have sheer might behind them.

So what we see today – continual warfare and persistent authoritarianism in the post-colonial world and explosive terrorism spreading its horrors – are dark streaks across the vision of peace seen by the free-trader. Even with a number of powerful international institutions attempting to force a particular model of development, its influence – its resources and its values – spread unevenly. The wars of Africa continue to take place in the mode appropriate to a world of strong nation states – what the Tofflers would call the ‘second wave’ world. Malformed by the theft of their history and crippled by the theft of their resources, these nation-states do not enjoy the broad consensus and legitimacy that is essential to their capacity to make an agreement for lasting peace either within their borders or beyond.

With the move to the ‘third wave’ world – characterised by increasing complexity, the centrality of information flow, and the operation of power over ever more distant relationships – longer established nation-states have lost any semblance of unity and consensus they once enjoyed. It is to the great credit of the millions who opposed the most recent war on Iraq that they saw beyond the borders of the state, and beyond their ‘leaders’, to feel genuine solidarity with those who were suffering. It hasn’t always been thus, and while the new media have certainly helped to bring stories closer to home, it also indicates a maturation of understanding about international relations among a great mass of people. This trend is the flip-slid of those who oppose states violently, for whom the disintegrating ties of nation state have been replaced by fundamentalist religion or ideology, while genuine grudges may be the remainder of the violence of the first burst of nation building.

The free-trader’s argument for peace by economic means is based on crude understanding of how states and peoples interact which is becoming less and less relevant to our global future. Worse: where the state’s powers continue to be exercised according to the national interest model, it is only capable of measuring national interest in economic terms. It is not at all the case, therefore, that by pursuing its interests it will vouch for peace unless it is in the interests of the economically powerful. Beyond that, “the expanding market system has little interest in tackling authoritarianism in, for example, the tortures of political dissenters, the cultural oppression of women, or the abuse of children … the economic elites might even lend support, quite legitimately on individualist grounds, to those implementing the practices.” ( Tam, 1998) Today’s news that 2004 arms expenditure topped $1 trillion is clearly indicative of that case. [news , stats]

A nation-state system based on an individualist model of furthering material interests is incapable of curbing violence. It is only by relentlessly pursuing the deepening of the democratic revolution – at home and abroad – that we can hope to respond to the multifaceted injustice that defines our age.

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