Globalisation and International Relations
Robert Skidelsky
Buckingham University | Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Ever since the end of the Cold War, people have been trying to picture what a ‘world after communism’would look like. The first attempts to discern the post-communist future revolved round the ideas of ‘globalisation’ and ‘democracy’. Underlying both was the view that the main barrier to the spread of markets and democracy had fallen away, and that a ‘new world order’ was shaping up, or could be made to shape up, according to these two precepts. A crucial corollary of this was that war and the threat of war would become residual factors in the ordering of international relations because we had found a ‘better way’. Free trade promised gains to all; and ‘democracies do not go to war with each other’. Markets and politics would for the first time in human history work hand in hand to steer humanity to unparalleled prosperity and peace.
It has not worked out like this- at least not yet. The clear outline of a world newly become prosperous and pacific has faded, precisely because many non-Western nations see markets and democracy as expressions of Western, particularly, US power. The ‘peace dividend’ from the collapse of the Soviet Union has mainly gone, with the ‘war on terrorism’ replacing the Cold War as the rationale for increased military expenditures. What kind of world have we entered? What should we be doing about it?
This essay is a modest attempt to suggest some answers. The first part sketches a more realistic ‘political economy’ of globalisation than the one sketched out by its first enthusiasts. The second section fleshes out the ‘political’ part of the skeleton to explain why, after all, the coercive use of force has not disappeared. Finally, I discuss an ambitious attempt by the philosopher Peter Singer to show how the ideal of ‘one world’ can be realized by the application of a single principle –that of utilitarianism.
Is there anything new about globalisation? In one sense, no. Humans have always been traders and warriors. They have constantly been inventing means of transport and communication to carry goods and armies over long distances. If globalisation is thought of simply as the breaking down of geographical and political barriers to the movement of goods, money, and people, it has been going on for a very long time. It has also continually met with strong resistances, and has been interrupted and reversed by natural and political disasters.
However, globalisation is not simply a process of breaking down barriers to interaction. Historically, trade, war, and empire have often gone together, though conceptually trade and war are quite different ways of earning a living. Trade has the potential to create a single world; but war cannot do this, since no single military force is capable of conquering the world. If trade points to unity, war leads to the division of the world into military economic blocs,or to the dissolution of all settled authority.So whether the trading or fighting urge is dominant will largely determine the organisation of the planet.
So why have we coined a new word to describe the most recent twist in an age-old story? New words name new things, but there is no one-to-one equivalence. Meanings also migrate: post-modernism at first referred to playful tendencies in architecture; it is now being applied to certain types of states, as we shall see. .Globalisation seems to have undergone a similar inflation of meaning.
Why is this? Mainly, it seems, because of our strong sense that in the last twenty years or so humanity seems to have crossed some sort of threshold, which transcends the inherent limitations of previous globalising efforts, and from which there is no going back; because of the consciousness that we now all inhabit a single space, that our fates are all linked together in a way they have never been before. A UN Report nicely captures this feeling: ‘In the global village, someone else’s poverty very soon becomes our own problem: of lack of markets for one’s products, illegal immigration, pollution, contagious disease, insecurity, fanaticism, terrorism’. There is, that is, a heightened awarness of the causal interdependence of the universe –that if we clap our hands, the moons of Jupiter will be shifted from their orbits.
There seem to be four main reasons for such a perception. First, for the first time in human history it makes sense to talk about a global economy rather than about a linked collection of national or regional economies. Secondly, our imagination is powerfully excited by the new technology of the Internet, which has so dramatically compressed distance and time. Thirdly, there is the sense that the current phase of economic integration is having much deeper transforming effects on cultures than in previous periods when societies were opened up to external influences. Finally, the absence of any coherent resistance to these processes has made them seem invincible, inevitable. This last point is particularly important. There was no alternative ‘world-view’ to that of globalisation. The debates to which the actual process of globalisation has given rise are largely debates about the rules of a global economy, not about its desirability. This has soured the process without giving rise to an alternative structure. Globalisation has inherited all the problems of capitalism, but is bereft of their traditional solutions. Socialism and protectionism are both dead ducks.
Globalisation refers to the process of integrating national economies into a world-system through trade, investment, and migration.The means of integration are private enterprise and markets: globalisation means ‘marketisation’ or the globalisation of capitalism. However, it takes place in a world of states. For globalisation to continue, therefore, governments and populations must become increasingly indifferent to the origin of the goods and services they consume. The logical end point of globalisation would be a single global economy. Allocation of resources would be frontier and culture blind, leaving only geographical distance as an irreducible ‘natural’ barrier. Measured by this kind of standard, it is evident that globalisation is still in its infancy; nor is it likely that the notional end point will ever be attained as long as human beings remain recognisable as such. In fact, it will almost certainly be halted, and may even be reversed, long before the end point is reached.
The reason is politics. Globalisation, it could be said, stops where politics starts. This is too neat. Politics can help globalisation. Britain’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was a political decision; so were the decisions all over the world to abolish or emasculate capital controls in the 1980s and 1990s. The WTO was set up in 1995 by political agreement. What this means is that important political interests were aligned with globalisation. Political ideas have also helped the process along, notably the rejection of socialism and dirigisme in favour of free markets which swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s.
We can also see emerging from the shadows a political superstructure – call it governance – of a global economy –far short indeed of a world government, but pointing in that direction. In organisations like the IMF,WTO, World Bank we have the start of an ‘economic government of the world’. A global environmental regime was established by the Kyoto Protocol of 1998. Newly proposed reforms of the United Nations Charter are designed to establish a right of intervention in the domestic affairs of rogue and failed states.The language of war is being replaced by that of ‘crime’ and ‘police actions’, analagous to that of a domestic jurisdiction. Some would see the European Union –the most advanced regional organisation in the world today –as a model for a global system of economic and political governance.
Underlying these initiatives is the thought that a global economy requires public goods, including rules of the game just as much as does a domestic economy: that without them the world becomes an anarchy and economic integration goes into reverse.Within states these public goods are provided by governments. In a global economy they must perforce be supplied by government equivalents, which may eventually evolve into a genuine world government.
The developments suggest another truth: that economic interdependence limits politics, and robs it of some of its noxious potential.The greater a state’s dependence on foreign trade or capital for its livelihood, the greater the costs to it of breaking the rules, formal and informal, of interderdependence. This is true even if it regards the rules as unfair. A state which relies on importing capital for its development has to have a budgetary policy which the investors regard as ‘sound’. A state which abuses the ‘human rights’ of its citizens risks a variety of economic, and possibly military, sanctions. None of these penalties limit its sovereignty; but raise the costs to it of exercising its sovereignty.
Yet the idea that globalisation stops where politics begins retains a great deal of bite. The reason is that accountability –the accountability of rulers to their people -stops at national frontiers. Nowhere has there been a decisive leap from national to world politics. No global, or even regional, institution or set of rules commands the legitimacy that comes from popular consent. There is no global government, no global opposition, no global civil society –though some NGOs see themselves as starting to play the role of the last two. In a world of states, the ultimate decisions affecting globalisation –how far it will go, what form it will take, whether it will be reversed, rest with the states and their citizens. There is no guarantee that the perceived interests of states and their peoples will remain on the side of globalisation. In fact, we see plenty of examples of the contrary the whole time.
The world today consists of 190 separate sovereign units. In most cases, their sovereignty is nominal. The political organisation of the world is extremely hierarchical. No more than half a dozen states decide practically everything of importance which happens, of which the United States is by far the most important. One can see in this concentration of power the potential for what the Marxist Karl Kautsky, at the start of the last century, called a ‘super-empire’. The establishment of such an empire would certainly short-circuit the much more difficult and uncertain process of building a global democracy to govern a global economy. Perhaps this is what the American neo-conservatives have in mind. However, there are two major obstacles.
First, empire and democracy stand in opposition, and there is no political idea capable of reconciling them. In fact, tendencies to empire and tendencies to democracy are both increasing simultaneously, giving a new twist to the Hegelian dialectic.
The second obstacle to world empire is the ‘balance of power’, or the non-acquiescence of other great powers to a world vision articulated by the United States through the prism of American interests. The balance of power may not operate with the precision of physics envisaged by its 18th century theorists; but it is a pretty secure premise for international relations. It simply reflects the fact that there is no ‘view from nowhere’ –no single world interest. A Palestinian leader puts this rather well: ‘Moral arguments for the justification of the use of collective violence are [often] cosmetic constructs used either to drum up support for, or silence… opposition to, an action whose real motivation is the fulfillment of a perceived interest’. (David Decosse ed. But was it just? Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War, Doubleday,1992,69)
Thus the international politics may support globalisation, or they may not. And usually, perhaps, they do not. For not only does globalisation challenge the sovereignty of states, but there also exist powerful political passions which are not importantly connected to economics at all and which, throughout history, have shown a disturbing ability to overpower economic self-interest. The first world war which brought the first era of globalisation to an end is the best instance of this. `
This, then, is the skeleton of a ‘political economy of globalisation’. What do post-Cold War theories of international relations –products of a completely different literature - tell us about the political context of globalisation?
Theories of international relations try to describe (but also to prescribe) the principles underyling the behaviour of states to each other. Since the fall of communism they have had to take into account the end of the era of great power rivalry, coexistence and war which dominated international relations from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and whose final simplifcation was the bipolar balance between the USA and the USSR after 1945. In the theories which conceptualised this kind of world, the context of interstate relations was the ‘international anarchy’, in which order was precariously maintained by a combination of empire (or hegemony) and the balance of power. The newer, post-Cold War theories have tried to portray the politics of a world in which it was no longer obvious that states were the dominant actors, or that they operated in an ‘international anarchy’.
From the start two opposite interpretations of the post-communist world struggled for mastery. The first was western triumphalism. The collapse of communism, wrote US State Department official Francis Fukuyama in 1989 in his seminal article ‘The End of History?’, marked the ‘triumph of the West, of the Western idea’ in its form of markets and democracy. The West’s victory would remove the main barriers to the ‘Common Marketisation’ of the world, since the ideological ‘contradictions’ which had led to the division of the world into two armed camps, had disappeared. The economic aspect of this vision, drawing on simplified free trade theory and the transforming effects of sience and technology, looked more plausible than the political. But it was true that democracy and market economy rose together from the Soviet rubble; while the establishment of new bodies like the World Trade Organisation, as well as further moves towards political union in Europe, seemed to confirm the rise of institutional and political counterparts to market-led integration. The attraction of Fukuyama’s thesis was that it promised peace and prosperity without coercive power –an endpoint of history.
President Bush’s ‘new world order’ proclaimed in 1991 was influenced by Fukuyama.The collapse of communism was interpreted as a triumph of American values, not American power. If this was imperialism it was informal imperialism, which operated through ‘soft power’ institutions like the WTO and IMF, not through territorial conquests. At worst, there would be ‘police operations’ against a few rogue states.
But Fukuyama’s was not the only conceptual map on offer. The opposite interpretation was that the US victory in the cold war masked the defeat of the West. In Samuel Huntington’s account, the ideological rivalry and joint hegemony of the United States and the Soviet Union had suppressed a more fundamental clash of cultures or civilizations. With the collapse of biploarity, these fundamental forces would reassert themselves. On this view, the Cold War had imposed a temporary freeze on history, which was now free to resume. ‘Buried alive, as it were, during the years of the Cold War, these civilizations…rose as soon as the stone was rolled off, dusted themselves off, and proceeded to claim the loyalty of their adherents’.
The political philosopher John Gray predicted that the collapse of Soviet Communism would soon be followed by the ‘meltdown’ of the American attempt to create a ‘global free market’.Writing in The Times on 28 December 1989 Gray argued that ‘the aftermath of totalitarianism will not be a global tranquillisation of the sort imagined by American triumphalist theories of liberal democracy. Instead, the end of totalitarianism in most of the world is likely to see the resumption of history on decidedly traditional lines: not the history invented in the hallucinatory perspectives of Marxism and American liberalism, but the history of authoritarian regimes, great-power rivalries, secret diplomacy, irredentist claims and ethnic and religious conflicts’. Whereas Huntington highlighted the collapse of western power, Gray focussed on the illusory nature of the western ‘project’, whether in its marxist or liberal form. Their common point was that the demise of communism signalled not the birth of post-history but the death of a particular kind of western history.
Events have been unkind to Fukuyama, but he was from being the Pangloss he is sometimes depicted as. He conceived of a post-communist world divided between ‘a part that was historical and a part that was post-historical’, with the ‘vast bulk’ of the Third World remaining ‘very much mired in history’. Conflict between states ‘still in history, and between those states and those at the end of history’ would still be possible.But Fukuyama thought that ‘ethnic and religious violence’ would be confined to the frontiers of the ‘post-historical’ world, would not much affect the way it conducted its business, and would gradually die down, since it offered no alternative ideological goal to markets and democracy.
11 September 2001 showed that the ‘historical’ world could strike at the heart of the ‘post-historical’ one with deadly effect. History, it seemed, would not be confined to the peripheries of the ‘common marketized’ world, but was capable of invading and disrupting its command centres. Indeed the very forces of technology which were globalising the post-historical world were globalising the ‘historical’ resistances to it. No one can now be as confident as Fukuyama was in 1989 that history was a residual, that Islamic fundamentalism lacked ‘universal significance’.
The challenge today is to develop a conceptual map of a Janus-faced world –one that aspires to globalised, post-historical bliss, but still seems to be rooted in the conflict of states. In his intelligent and stylish book The Breaking of Nations, the diplomat Robert Cooper divides post-communist the world into three parts: the postmodern, the modern, and the pre-modern.
The postmodern part consists of states that have decided never to fight each other again and which value the rights of peoples (individuals) above the rights of nations. This enables their peaceful interdependence to be carried much further than in the past. The chief example of postmodernity is the European Union, ‘a highly developed system for mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs, right down to beer and sausages’. But postmodernity stretches beyond the European Union into all those multilateral organisations which constrain the sovereignty of states. Postmodernity does not say that the competiton of states has stopped; but that in parts of the world, and for some parts of their business with each other, states have abjured the use of force to settle their disputes: postmodern international politics has moved closer to the norms of domestic politics. Another sign of postmodernism is the revival of the ‘just war’ doctrine, one of whose criteria is that war should be used only as a ‘last resort’.
The ‘modern’ world is the traditional world of the classical state system, whose members have not renounced the use, or threat, of force to achieve their goals. The ordering principles of this world remain that of empire and balance of power. The US, China, Russia, and India are the big beasts in this jungle. The pre-modern world is the chaotic world of ‘failed’ states –states which have regressed from the ‘artificial’ nationhood bequeathed by their colonial masters to tribalism and criminality. Many of them are in Sub-Saharan Africa: Yugoslavia is a rare European example.
The language of postmodernism, modernism, and pre-modernism is helpful in making sense of the post-communist world.. It more accurately reflects its configuration, and the mingled possibilities it holds of progress and regresss, than do the one-dimensional constructions of Fukuyama, Huntington, and Gray. The ‘breaking of nations’ is occurring through the formation of multiple identites at the top and the retreat to tribalism at the bottom. This suggests a new pattern of both ‘order and chaos’. In the top tier, the threat of war recedes; at the bottom violence is endemic; in the middle, classical schemes of order and disorder still reign.
Nevertheless, there are serious problems with the new map. Like all previous IR theories it is of Western provenance. It postulates the whole of humanity on a single ladder leading to an interdependent postmodernist utopia based on Western values. Some states are higher up on this ladder than others; there are also regrettable backslidings.I don’t know what an Islamic or Chinese theory of international relations would look like. It may very well embody an idea of progress. But it would surely be much more synthetic end state being aimed at, and consequently give a much higher role to conflict in bringing it about. . The three-fold classification allows for too few identities.
Secondly, the new approach draw too simple a parallel between economic and politics. The ascent from pre-modern to modern to postmodern in politics goes together with the progress of economies from agricultural to industrial to service sectors. In that sense, it fits in with the long-run perspective of globalisation: particularly the view that technology is bringing about a post -historical world. But this is nonsense. It is best to think of technology as neutral between different aims. We know it can be used just as easily for destructive as for constructive purposes. One of the implications of the shrinking of time and space is that the same technology can be more rapidly diffused round the world than ever before.This does not make the world think the same; it just makes its technology the same. is to signify that the nation state is ceasing to be the main source of people’s identity.
The postmodern achievement remains highly precarious. It is all very well to talk about multiple identities and imagined communities: the interesting question is which identity trumps the others when it comes to the crunch. There is no sufficient reason to doubt that national identity comes first. The EU, which is the most advanced postmodern constuction, has not been able to transcend national limits to democracy. Unless this happens, war between the European states cannt be said to have been finally ‘disinvented’.