Sunday, April 28, 2019

International Institutions Under Strain (Part 2 - WTO)

FDR and Churchill on Augusta
(This is part two of a three part learning blogs to honor those who gave their lives to defend things worth defending.)
I thought you would like me to tell you something of the voyage I made across the ocean to meet our great friend, the President of the United States. Exactly where we met is secret, but I don’t think I shall be indiscrete if I go as far as to say that it was ‘somewhere in the Atlantic’. 
- Winston Churchill, by Public Radio Broadcast, 24 August 1941 

In August 1941, aboard the U.S.S. Augusta in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, a plan for international system was chartered between the United States and Great Britain—the Atlantic Charter.

The significance of this charter is its timing; it is agreed upon just before United States entered the Second World War. President Roosevelt had hoped that the Atlantic Charter would help him garner political and popular support for United States’ intervention in WWII. History would favor the story that it was the attack on Pearl Harbor in December that had pushed the United States into the world conflict against the Axis of aggression.

The Atlantic Charter outlined eight “common principles” regarding territorial stabilization, trade liberalization, freedom of the seas, freedom of governing, as well as international labor, economic, and welfare standards—as the end-goal of yet another world conflict. It is not a binding agreement. It is an aspiration (arguably following a Wilsonian-vision for the postwar world)—one that would be characterized by freer exchanges of trade, self-determination, disarmament, and collective security.

Following WWII, the United States, United Kingdom, and allied nations pursued the Atlantic Charter’s ambitions and agreed to establish rules for the postwar international economy; the result of which created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) at an international conference in Geneva in October 1947. The GATT agreement eventually led to the inception of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its rule-based adjudicative process to allow State actors enforce the agreed upon terms of those great Atlantic aspirations.

What is important about the Atlantic Charter—and its eventual outgrowth in the WTO—is that it is by necessity a lesson from history: about tariffs, trade wars, and economic isolation. After the first world war, the Allies had pursued trade barriers that had led to the ruins of German economy. Churchill had adamantly argued that it is not “in interests of the world [that any] nation should be unprosperous or shut out from the means of making a decent living for itself and its people by industry and enterprise.” The then U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull held similar views that economic collaborations are critical to avoiding new world wars.

However, the institutions of world economic collaboration is now under strain as the current political will of the United States takes a domestic-first tariff approach confronting autocracies like North Korea, China and Iran. The Brexit debacle also marks a deterioration of the once courage aspirations of Great Britain. Furthermore, United States’ withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has opened ways for China to build its own multi-lateral agreements and push forward its Belt-and-Road initiatives; albeit it is unclear if these Chinese-led efforts aspire to the ideological perspectives of self-determination and democracy, or are these propaganda efforts to spread China’s “soft power”—whatever that may be.

It should be noted that the Atlantic Charter was never signed. But its substantial influence and its non-binding (voluntary/aspirational) nature perhaps allowed “courageous leadership that looked beyond short-term self-interest” and sought hope in places where economic growth would be of interest for all.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

International Institutions Under Strain (Part 1 - United Nations)

Circa 1945, post-WWII. World in ruins (photo from UN website).
(This is part one of a three part learning blogs with some help from my old military buddies. Here's to those who gave their lives to defend things worth defending.)

“Membership” to the United Nations (UN)
 “is open to all peace-loving States which accept the obligations contained in the [UN] Charter and, in the judgment of the [UN] Organization, are able to carry out these obligations.” 
Charter of the United Nations, Chapter II, Article 4(1). 

The UN Charter is a fascinating piece of writing. Information about its significance are readily available on the worldwide web: regarding its historical perspectives of multilateralism embodied in the great wars, its governing structures built around UN body politics, as well as the obligations of its member States to work as one towards humanity’s common aspirations. For the most part, our global consciousness has accepted the UN’s role charting a course addressing climate changes, human rights and humanitarian crises, peace keeping through its often-paralyzed Security Council, as well as addressing a salute of global problems working closely with organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

Among rational minds, it is common sense to peacefully coexist in ending the scourge of wars, restoring faith in fundamental human rights, and transitioning to renewable energies and better consumption practices. Yet our path presents a challenge to established economic structures and corruptible enticements cemented in our society, both of which are bedrocks of a fast-flowing stream carrying powerful corporate and private business interests. While the UN has symbolically endorsed the unity of “people, plant, and profit” in its sustainability rhetoric, it has not put much effort into incorporating economic considerations in its body politics. In fact, there is an implicit understanding that such considerations are outside of the UN Membership consciousness and left to the likes of World Trade Organization and the World Bank. That is a problem isn’t it? The UN body politics have embraced a cognitive dissonance on sustainability (people, planet, profit), and it is no wonder:
“In different areas and for different reasons, the trust of people in their political establishments, the trust of states among each other, the trust of many people in international organizations has been eroded and ... multilateralism has been in the fire.” 
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, 73rd session of the UN General Assembly.

The UN today seems to aspire to large bureaucracies in countries with very low literacy rates. It has welcomed Iran’s Minister of Justice, Seyyed Alireza Avaei, to address the UN Human Rights Council and appointed Iran to the UN’s Global Women’s Rights Commission. Its Security Council often complacent and the UN representative body often made incompetent from member State’s unwillingness to participate.

If one of the UN’s main obligations is to secure and promote humanity’s common aspirations, then we should ask ourselves why multilateralism is under threat from rising income inequalities, geopolitical tensions, voluntary and forced population migrations, as well as technological evolutions. While the institutional entities (World Bank, WTO and G20, etc.) are slowly pacing to charter a new course in sustainability, the populous has taken matters into their own hands. Today, we see collaborative production models rampant. Network governance with peer-sourced computing (e.g., blockchain) is gaining a foothold to unsettle the financial services sector. Crowdsourcing is primed for the big time with the likes of Wiki, Kickstarter, and now Bell¿ngcats. 

A key stakeholder of, or even a defender of the UN would argue against any alternatives to the UN, as no other entity like it has yet to emerge which grants buy-in from sovereign states. But the implicit assumption is that a sovereignty is vested with power from the center and within its government. As the American experiment with democracy which is based on the premise that power is vested in its people, perhaps a new global identity is emerging: from the ashes of the old, a new way of thinking—about network versus hierarchy, about collaboration versus conformation, and about membership privilege for profiteering versus participation for value gained—a new alternative in “We the peoples of the United Nations.”