Foreign Policy, History and Future of Nationalism, Realist Theory

The Inconvenient Truths of International Relations

Nationalist Foreign Relation – A History, Part 4

Indian schoolchildren in a rural classroom

In 1963, the economist Robert Heilbroner wrote The Great Ascent, a prescient analysis of the challenges facing the former European colonies after achieving independence. He began by saying that, if world history is defined as the common story of the majority of mankind, then world history did not exist before 1948. Since then, it has been the story of the struggle of these new nations to cement their national sovereignty and spur economic development after decades of colonial exploitation. With the end of the Cold War, this struggle became the primary motive force in international relations. The apparent achievement of these goals by China and India has only whetted the appetite of other nations to reach the same level of international respect and burgeoning power.

Meanwhile, post-Cold War American foreign policy was based on the Wilsonian liberal vision of spreading democracy, social responsibility and capitalism throughout the world.  A “new world order” under a watchful American eye would eventually erase the differences between nations and their constituent ethnic and religious groups.   The engine powering this new system would be globalization and the Internet.  It would effectively mean, as Thomas Friedman and historian Francis Fukuyama argued, the end of history.

It meant something very different to the newly developing countries.  To them, it appeared to seek their acquiescence to an unprecedented world hegemony.  Far from rejecting history, China, India and other developing nations have clung to and embraced their respective histories. The climate change debate, the COVID-19 pandemic and other security threats take place in the midst of this new nationalism driving the majority of the world’s domestic and foreign policy.   To effectively address transnational  issues, America must accept an approach that respects these nation’s national rights and aspirations while, at the same time,  vigorously defending its own.  

As I mentioned in a previous post in this series, the realist theory of international relations offers the best model for such a policy by recognizing that states are the most important actors in the international system. Whether democratic or authoritarian, they must always be building their economic and military power since it is the only way to survive in an anarchic world.  While non–governmental organizations like the UN, multinational corporations and social and environmental groups can have an impact, achievement of their goals will always be subject to at least the acquiescence of nation–states.    A sustainable American foreign policy would recognize these realities and focus on goals that could be supported by affected states without compromising our own fundamental goals of national and economic security.  The Trump Administration’s new National Security Strategy is a welcome and important step in this direction (see this post).  

I began this series by noting that how the COVID-19 pandemic has driven nations to restrict exports of medical supplies to protect their own people from the disease.  Like the US and the rest of the world, the developing nations find themselves scrambling for the kind of equipment they formerly manufactured themselves.   They only recently began opening up their economies after fostering local manufacturing of critical products through high tariffs and otherwise protecting infant industries.   This new reminder of their past dependence will not soon be forgotten. 

In the climate change arena, a realist approach would accept that the Asia-Pacific nations can never agree to any reductions in their carbon emissions that will interfere with their economic development.   To developing countries, the demand to reduce the use of coal smacks of a new form of colonialism designed to prevent them from achieving economic independence.  They have been building one new coal plant per month to provide the energy necessary to grow their economies and satisfy their people’s needs. 

The Paris climate agreement essentially recognized this fact by allowing participants to comply by stating their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) of carbon reductions, which are only voluntary in nature.  China’s INDC allows it to avoid seriously limiting its emissions until 2030.  This modest contribution by the world’s largest carbon emitter, coupled with the general lack of transparency of most developing countries’ economies, means even these commitments will be conveniently difficult to verify, much less enforce.   

Since the Asia Pacific region alone now accounts for nearly half of the world’s carbon emissions, this means it will be impossible to avoid the 2-5 degree Celsius increase in world temperature originally targeted in the Kyoto accord without damage to the U.S. and developed countries’ economies that would be domestically unacceptable.   Adaptation, as well as carbon reduction, must become an integral part of our response to climate change.  The only alternative is imposing tariffs and trade sanctions on China, India and other developing countries to immediately force them off the path of ever-increasing carbon emissions.

In the end, the majority of the world’s nations understand that utopian ideals will not save them from a determined foe or domestic threat.  Their history has taught them otherwise and made them the ultimate realists.  The sooner Americans understand this, the sooner we will be able to make sustainable progress on the climate change and other national security goals.  

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