By Javad Heirannia

‘Challenge to liberalism comes preeminently from Asia’

April 3, 2018 - 10:11

TEHRAN – Professor Nicholas Onuf, a primary figure among constructivists in international relations, tells the Tehran Times that “Trade wars do not weaken liberal values so much as reveal how much they have already been weakened.”

Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Florida International University says “The challenge to liberalism comes preeminently from Asia.”

Onuf says “It seems likely that elites in the U.S. and the EU are still sufficiently committed to liberal values that they will overcome nationalist sentiments and forge a united stance against China—at least for another few years.”

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: U.S. and European cooperation after world war was based on trade, security and military regimes like NATO. Don’t you think possible trade war between the US and Europe can spill over other security and military fields, too?

A: When scholars first developed the concept of spill-over, they assumed that regimes have metaphorical ‘walls’—legal rules differentiating regimes according to function.  Implicit in this idea is a sense that politically motivated conflict can be separated from activities that demonstrably benefit from expert guidance, good management and a general improvement in welfare.  So the question becomes, is a trade war an assertion of politics within the walls of a regime, where it will eventually subside?  Or is it evidence that those walls can no longer keep worsening world politics out?  That talk about tariffs as in the language of war is a bad sign, all the more because trade war followed by world war prompted the rise of walled international regimes in the first place.  Still, it is premature to judge the outcome of current developments.  Once it become clear how much increased tariffs will hurt business interests in the U.S., we may see a rapid decrease of political combativeness within the trade regime.  

Q: The rise of rightists in Europe is widely seen as a threat to the future of the EU.  Yet the demise of the EU could result in more independent and flexible trade relations.  Considering this fact, how do you see the future of EU?

A: The rise of rightist politics in many parts of the world speaks to an increase in nationalist assertiveness and what I just called a worsening of world politics.  If this development is related to a general decline in global welfare because of an ageing capitalist world economy (as I think it is), then we can expect the EU to suffer many unpleasant consequences.  But, it is entirely possible that privileged cosmopolitan interests in Europe will pull together and strengthen the EU, at least among its core members, in reaction to larger trends.

Q: In his first statements on tariffs, President Trump exempted Canada and Mexico from tariff increases. Is this concession just symbolic in value?

A: Making concessions to Canada and Mexico is good politics (on both symbolic and material grounds)—the U.S. cannot go to ‘war’ with everyone.  There will be more concessions, as we already see with respect to Europe.  The ‘war’ now taking shape is between the U.S. and China.  It will be costly (as wars always are), quite likely unwinnable (as wars tend to be these days), and just possibly inevitable (as the U.S. loses ground against China).  At least it is not an actual fighting war.

Q: Liberals believe that trade increases well-being, and this brings peace. Do you think that trade war between U.S. and EU will weak the liberal values?

A: Trade wars do not weaken liberal values so much as reveal how much they have already been weakened.  The challenge to liberalism comes preeminently from Asia. It seems likely that elites in the U.S. and the EU are still sufficiently committed to liberal values that they will overcome nationalist sentiments and forge a united stance against China—at least for another few years.   

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