Is True Co-operation In International Politics Possible?


It is a commonly held belief that nations are incapable of truly cooperating with one another and are only inherently driven by individualistic self-interest. This conceptualization of the world seems to posit that any cooperation that does occur between states is a by-product of selfish drive, and definitionally temporary at best. States never agree to do anything which will not, in one way or another, benefit themselves. It is easy to fall into this pattern of thinking in light of recent events. The past fifteen years or so have seemed, to many, to be a downward spiral into intense, frightened separatism and heightened international tensions. 9/11 springs to everybody’s mind as a landmark event of the early 2000s. Its image is perhaps the most recognizable symbol of a divide in existence. It seems that many of the explicitly and self-consciously self-interested policies being adopted by states in the present find their source at this initial wellspring of panic. People have not stopped being frightened; in fact, the fear seems only to have intensified. The product of this fear is an increasingly powerful psychological division between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ stemming from a primal instinct whose response to insecurity is to look for safety in the familiar, in a tightening of ranks. But it is increasingly clear that this response, so ostensibly logical as to be obviously appropriate, is not going to heal the world’s current crisis of security.

Those who believe that true international cooperation is not possible can find plenty of evidence for their beliefs in the events of recent weeks and months. Just this week, Donald Trump fulfilled one of his key campaign promises by withdrawing the U.S.A. from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, setting it apart from almost every other nation in the world. It joins the ranks of only two other nations which have not ratified the agreement; Nicaragua (who did not think that it was strict enough on economically prosperous countries) and Syria. President Trump has been quoted claiming that climate change itself is a ‘hoax’ manufactured by the Chinese to undermine American economic prosperity, stating in a Tweet that ‘the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.’ Concerningly, after pulling out of the agreement Trump justified his decision,  stating in a speech that ‘the rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement — they went wild; they were so happy — for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.’ This view, from possibly the most powerful leader in the world, speaks volumes about current attitudes to international cooperation. Others would assume that the applause, while America signed the Paris Accord, was a celebration of the international attempt to solve the defining problem of our generation. It was an acknowledgement that true cooperation, unclouded by more powerful national agendas, is absolutely necessary if this problem is not to define the coming century. Trump clearly read the room differently.

The past five years have also featured the rising popularity of right-wing political agendas in many regions globally. Britain’s exit from the European Union, for example, has in many ways shaken the principles of cooperation which underlay their federation. Brexit has cast doubts on the validity of this kind of deal, and the campaign advocating for it played primarily on fears about immigration, unbalanced monetary flows and national identity. It seems increasingly possible that this kind of rhetoric could affect the stability of the EU as it remains in ways far more damaging than the loss of capital from Britain’s departure. In light of these developments, then, it seems reasonable to conclude that international cooperation is an untenable prospect in the modern age. However, this does not have to be true and, indeed, the success of constructive campaigns integral to global stability (such as the Paris Accord, but also including the global rush to handle an outpouring of refugees, among other things) probably depends on the possibility of meaningful cooperation.

There is evidence to suggest that ‘true’ cooperation is entirely possible when the necessary circumstances arise to trigger it. Of course, this true cooperation depends first on the existence of nations or other globally significant actors who are willing to take on moral action which is potentially extremely costly in terms of international reputation, money, national security or military efforts. This is undeniably what the world is in need of now and it has existed before. For instance, an investigation into this issue of ‘costly moral action’ by academics Pope and Kauffman (1999) argues that the British attempt to instigate the end of the Atlantic slave trade was one of the most historically significant examples of this kind of state behaviour. They argue that no material incentives existed to compel the British to end the slave trade; at the time, they held the biggest economic stakes in the sugar market (which relied heavily upon it) as well as in the slave trade itself. Their effort to put an end to this inhumane market cost the British 50,000 lives and huge swathes of capital income. In addition to this, it was extremely detrimental to British national security, damaging many of Britain’s international relationships and even causing a short war with Brazil.

What does this tell us about our current global situation? Pope and Kauffman argue that the reason this kind of ‘costly’ action is so uncommon is that it has to be justified by a  broader universalist ethic among the populace, which itself supports the validity of costly action for the sake of the ‘other’ even when it doesn’t serve the national interest. It is this universalist ethic, which views all lives as equal and which fundamentally views in terms of a global whole rather than disparate nationalities, that is so desperately in need now. As long as it is absent, the downwards spiral in which hate and fear fuel more of the same will continue. Any solutions – to global insecurity, to conflict, or to the questions surrounding the challenges of climate change – designed to serve the needs of the few will inevitably address symptoms rather than causes.

Samantha van Staden
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