By Javad Heirannia

Liberal order is not based “basically” on multilateralism: Bruce Hall

November 12, 2017

TEHRAN - Rodney Bruce Hall, a professor of international relations at the University of Macau, says, “I don’t agree that the liberal order is based “basically” on multilateralism.”

In an interview with the Tehran Times, Hall says, “We had a much more liberal global trading order in the West in the late 19th century and early 20th century up to the First World War.”

Following is the full text of the interview:

Q: According to Liberalism, international treaties and agreements are necessary for world security and stability. Some believe President Trump’s exit from international treaties is a threat to liberalism. What do you think of this?

A: I think it depends upon the treaty.  Trump hasn’t exited any security agreements that the U.S. has with existing allies.  He has moved to strengthen the alliances with South Korea and Japan in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat.  In consequence, he has won deployment of THAAD intermediate range ballistic missile defenses in South Korea (and more batteries have now been ordered by the South Korean government) and Japan has ordered major augmentation to its ballistic missile defenses with extensive shore based AEGIS systems.  The South Korean opposition is now prodding the U.S. to redeploy battlefield tactical nuclear weapons that it removed in 1991 consistent with the U.S. goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula.  Meanwhile a recent poll indicates over 60% of the South Korean people want their country to develop its own nuclear weapons to counter North Korean nukes.  All three governments continue to repeat their unwillingness to live with North Korean nuclear weapons and call for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.  This is not the stuff of weakened alliances.

These measures since Trump took office have strengthened alliances between liberal, democratic states who have acted unilaterally and in concert to improve their security postures.  Meanwhile, the Chinese security posture in the region has been substantially weakened.  China appears to no longer have control over its North Korean neighbor, or to be able to moderate Kim’s behavior in any way.  With the deployment of antiballistic missile defenses, South Korea and Japan have blunted much of the threat latent within Chinese nuclear weapons.  Extensive Chinese economic and diplomatic pressure on South Korea to eschew deployment of THAAD has yielded no results.  The US alliance with the Philippines is less coherent, but that’s Mr. Duterte’s doing, and would unlikely follow his departure from office someday.  Meanwhile Trump’s criticism of inadequate burden sharing among NATO allies has resulted in higher defense spending by Germany and other European states.  Germany is working with the Czech Republic and Romania quietly to integrate Czech and Romania troop units into the Bundeswehr. The Trump administration recently revealed plans to resurrect the old NATO Atlantic Command and augment it with an Arctic Command to deal with Russia’s submarine threat.  He has stepped up forward deployment of US soldiers in countries bordering Russia in the Baltics, and also Poland and Romania.  Here again, to mistake Trump’s populist rhetoric generated for domestic U.S. consumption with abandonment of alliances is simply wishful thinking on the part of U.S. detractors.

Q: The liberal order is basically based on multilateralism. Trump’s exit from Paris Climate Accord, TPP, NAFTA and possibly from the JCPOA is in contradiction with multilateralism. Can such an approach guarantee the US power?

A: I don’t agree that the liberal order is based “basically” on multilateralism.  We had a much more liberal global trading order in the West in the late 19th century and early 20th century up to the First World War.  That order was based upon broad commitment to laissez faire trade, albeit led by Great Britain, and the Gold Standard, which rendered a stable, fixed exchange rate regime. The commitment came largely from liberal states, and was less adhered to by then Russian, Germany, and Austro-Hungarian autocracies, some of whom nonetheless constructed their own customs unions.  The United States and Great Britain constructed multilateral institutions after the Second World War because they understood them to be in their own state interests, and because they hoped to rehabilitate Europe and Japan and draw them into a liberal international order.  

While I and most Western academics still adhere to a liberal multilateral order as in the best interests of states that adhere to it, it does not follow that states who begin to question whether their adherence to a particular multilateral forum remains in their interests are “abandoning” multilateralism by withdrawing in a particular instance.  Mr. Trump is a populist.  His constituency are largely the U.S. losers of globalization.  Let us consider your examples on a case by case basis.  U.S. coal miners and oil drillers and fracking and shale oil workers are net losers from the Paris Climate Accord.  No more math is required to explain Mr. Trump’s position.  They are among Mr. Trump’s constituents.  China, not the U.S. has become the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases.  Heads of state have a strong interest in shifting burdens from their own state to other states.  No more math required here either.  Many others of Mr. Trump’s constituents watched their jobs go overseas to lower wage producers, or live in fear of it.  The TPP seemed to threaten more of the same.  Those who bemoaned the abandonment of an agreement that put U.S. standards as a requirement to join have a strong point, but China was never going to be a strong competitor to the U.S. to lead the TPP.  As they exist today, no one wants a regime exchanging goods at tariff free rates with Chinese standard applied to their production.  Trade is not simply another arena of U.S. strategic competition with China, or any other state.  The U.S. under Trump has not exited N.A.F.T.A. but insisted on renegotiating aspects of it that he regards to be detrimental to the interests and livelihoods of U.S. workers.

I have no particular expertise on the JCPOA.  However, Trump’s decertification of the agreement has unclear ramifications for its future, as the Europeans wish to keep it alive.  The international relations theory to which you refer, here specifically neoliberal institutionalism, as developed by Axelrod and Keohane, argues that international institutions help increase the costs of defection (from agreement) by providing transparency of the behavior of others.  Those leading the push for the U.S. government to decertify the agreement and renegotiate it under a new sanctions regime charge that Iran has attempted to acquire nuclear relevant technology banned by the agreement and blocked access to inspections of key nuclear sites essential to verification of the agreement.  

If true, then the wanted transparency and compliance the agreement is structured to ensure is not producing what is stipulated that the agreement must produce.  If false, and the U.S. Congress imposes waived sanctions in response to Trump’s decertification, others will make the case that Iran is complying with its commitments and the U.S. government is not meeting its commitments under the agreement.  To answer this question definitively you need to talk to someone with some expertise in this area. According to Christopher Bidwell from the Federation of American Scientists who monitors reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) the reports speak to specific issues of Iranian compliance and then “skip over rough areas” where compliance with inspections is less prevalent. The I.A.E.A. monitors. “Monitoring is a physical act, but verification is a political act,” Bidwell says. “How sure are you that what you’ve monitored has told you what you want to know?”

While multilateral agreements are highly desirable when the meet the needs and expectations of their signatory states, no one should expect these judgments not to change in specific instances, with new incoming governments, over time.  Similar claims of the “death of multilateralism” were heard when the administration of George W. Bush invaded Iraq.  Multilateralism has continued to be a feature of the international order.  As it will when Mr. Trump one day leaves office.  John Ruggie has argued that this is indeed the most salient feature of the post-war order.  It will remain an international norm that ideally we form multilateral institutions and agreements to resolve problems and disputes.  Importantly norms are counterfactually valid.  The fact that someone my commit a murder on a given evening does not invalidate a societal injunction against killing people.  Neither does the fact that a particular nation might withdraw from a particular multilateral arrangement spell the demise of such arrangements.  To reply to your last question above, the fact that the U.S. can withdraw from specific arrangements without losing the ability to formulate different ones might illustrate and exemplify U.S. power, not its impending demise.

Q: Some say the regimes  created after Second World War helped a lot to the US hegemonic power and the creation of the US favored orders, but now these regimes doesn’t serve the US interest anymore, so Trump’s measures to walk away from these regimes are very wise to weaken the regimes and exit. What do you think of this?

A: According to Axlerod and Keohane, international regimes don’t hierarchically enforce rules but change patterns of transaction costs, they provide information to participants to reduce uncertainty, they reinforce and institutionalize reciprocity between states, they de-legitimate and increase costs of defection (cheating), they create incentives for establishing a “good reputation” (as non-defector), and they help to develop new norms to coordinate behavior.  I don’t think the Trump administration, more than any previous U.S. administration, is interested in “walking away” from international regimes that generate such sanguine effects. In some instances Trump clearly doubts these benefits accrue to the U.S.

But you refer to realist hegemonic stability theory.  This was hashed out by U.S. realists from some arguments that fell out of a book by an economic historian, the late Charles Kindleberger, called The World in Depression.  Before the end of his life Kindleberger himself disavowed realist hegemonic stability theory, as not what he meant as a general proposition.  He merely pointed out that in the economic realm a hegemonic power can maintain the availability of international public goods (like free trade) and in doing so support stability of the liberal order.  The biggest problem with HST, as with all realist theories of international relations, is that it contains no theory of the state.  For them the state is a black box, a rational utility maximizer, nothing to choose between states but the distribution of capabilities among them.  They don’t admit any difference in behavior between, for example, autocratic and democratic states.  

However, as a democratic liberal state, the United States government is occasionally captured, for a time, by populist movements, who elect populist governments.  Theodore Roosevelt was a populist President.  William Jennings Bryant ran an unsuccessful populist presidential campaign against the gold standard.  People forget that Alabama Governor George Wallace ran for President in 1968 on a third party, segregationist ticket and carried 5 southern states.  Populist movements bring to power, for a time, people who have listened to those who feel no one has listened to them for a very long time.  I did not vote for Mr. Trump (nor Mrs. Clinton).  But those who did voted for him because they feel their government was ignoring their interests and concerns – particularly working people.  The Democratic Party offered them cash benefits in compensation for lost jobs.  But they don’t want a handout.  They want dignity, particularly the dignity of being able to make a living to support themselves and their loved ones.  Right or wrong, they believe that is what Mr. Trump will offer them.  This is a powerful want, and certainly a perfectly respectable one, and I suspect that as long as the Democrats bear left and offer the social democratic welfare state, they will continue their slide into political oblivion.  

While I would prefer to see the U.S. pursue multilateral solutions and stronger and more globally encompassing multilateral alliances, a pause might be required to bring the rest of the country along.  I don’t view a pause as a reversal, and I have come to view occasional populist movements as a flexible strength of democratic societies rather than a weakness.  You have a lot of people frustrated that they had not been heard, and they got heard.  They can then be accommodated, to the extent possible.  Meanwhile the U.S. has not suffered a political revolution, the U.S. Constitution as drafted and amended remains the law of the land, the U.S. government remains structured by tripartite power sharing between executive, legislative and judicial branches with independent powers, as designed by the founding fathers.  The U.S. remains domestically what it has always been, and under a new government is articulating variations in its international priorities that are required to ensure domestic societal cohesion and the U.S. speaks with an international voice backed by no less “capabilities’ than it possessed two years ago.  In fact Trump has called for the construction of two new aircraft carriers, and the fleets required to turn them into task forces as part of a hefty increase in defense spending.  A dozen aircraft carrier task forces, to project power into the world, tend to mitigate against any precipitous global power shift.  So does the often short lived nature of populist movements.

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