Multilateralism is alive and well in the Indo-Pacific

Introduction

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement, also known as CPTPP 11, consists of 11 member states (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam).

The TPP agreement was a brain child of former US President Barack Obama. The main objective of the agreement was to bolster Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ vision, and it was signed in February 2016.

Significantly, one of the first decisions taken by US President Donald Trump upon his election was to withdraw from the agreement. The main reason cited by Trump for this decision was that the TPP agreement was not favourable towards US workers. During the Presidential campaign of 2016, Trump had repeatedly said that apart from leading to job losses of US workers, the agreement would undermine US independence.

In April 2018, Trump had stated that the US was willing to join the TPP if it was offered a better deal, but by then other countries which were part of the original TPP had moved on, and the CPTPP 11 came into force in the end of 2018 (after a majority of signatories, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore ratified the agreement).

How the agreement has enhanced trade linkages between member states

CPTPP 11 has helped in bolstering economic cooperation between a number of member states such as Japan, Canada, and Vietnam. During Shinzo Abe’s visit to Canada in 2019, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau made a mention of how the deal had enabled Canada to increase its exports threefold to Japan. Trudeau also stated that the deal had been beneficial for strengthening economic ties between Canada and Japan.

According to estimates, the agreement has also helped in bolstering trade not just between Vietnam and Japan, but also between Vietnam and Canada.

Efforts to keep supply chains intact

In the midst of the corona virus pandemic, CPTPP 11 member states like Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand have been working assiduously towards keeping supply chains intact.

Singapore has been exporting meat and medical products from New Zealand and has also been seeking to strengthen its economic ties with Japan in the midst of the pandemic. In April, several CPTPP 11 members — Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Brunei — issued a joint statement along with Myanmar (a non-CPTPP 11 member) on the issue of opening trade lines, including air and sea freight.

Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, along with non-CPTPP 11 member South Korea, have also been exploring the possibility of resuming essential travel.

What is also interesting is the success of some of the CPTPP 11 member states in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, especially Vietnam and New Zealand. As of May 16, 2020, Vietnam recorded 318 coronavirus cases and did not register a single death. The ASEAN nation began to ease the lockdown in the end of April. As of May 16, 2020, the number of coronavirus cases in New Zealand was 1149, and number of deaths was 21 (New Zealand ended a 7 week lockdown on May 14, 2020).

Efforts to rope in new members into the partnership

After the coronavirus pandemic, more countries are likely to get on board with the CPTPP 11, including the United Kingdom. In Asia, Japan is also trying to get Malaysia and Thailand on board with the CPTPP 11. The main aim of Japan, which will chair the CPTPP 11 in 2021, in getting these countries on board is reducing its dependence upon China (Tokyo imports over 20% of its intermediate goods from China). Thailand could be an important addition to the CPTPP 11 because it has been relatively successful in dealing with the pandemic as of now, and apart from its economic relevance, Thailand has been working closely with several CPTPP 11 members in their endeavor to resume essential travel.

Conclusion

The CPTPP is thus important for a number of reasons. First, it is providing an alternative narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative — especially in the context of the Indo-Pacific (Japan’s desire to get new countries on board is a strong reiteration of the same).

Second, the CPTPP is a clear reiteration that globalization in a post-corona world is not likely to be driven by Washington and Beijing (many members of the partnership, such as Japan, New Zealand, and Vietnam, have an important role to play).

Third, it is an interesting instance of an arrangement where not all member states have similar political systems, but are bound by common economic interests.

In the post-corona world, the relevance of the CPTPP is likely to rise, and it remains to be seen how Beijing and Washington react to this.

Pittsburgh, not Paris: What’s a libertarian response?

A lot has been said about Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Accords. Leftists have been apoplectic, foaming at the mouth even. Conservatives are baffled, if they have anything to say at all. What should libertarians think?

Libertarians in the United Kingdom, States, and Provinces are generally unilateralists (not isolationists), whereas libertarians in Europe, South Africa, and Latin America are generally multilateralists. I’m of the opinion that American libertarians are wholly wrong to claim that their foreign policy is libertarian. It’s not libertarian at all. Unilateralism is combative rather than cooperative and relies on nationalism rather than internationalism to make its arguments.

Multilateralism forces factions to come to a consensus, thus slowing down government action at the international level, while also forcing factions to interact with each other in a diplomatic manner at that same international level. Unilateralism allows states to do whatever they want, regardless of what others may think. Now let me remind you of what libertarianism stands for: peace, prosperity, and freedom through mutually beneficial exchange and agreed-upon rules that can be changed provided they go through the proper channels (legislation, judiciary, executive). (Am I wrong here?)

Which sounds more libertarian to you?

Now that we have issues of doctrine out of the way, what’s really interesting to note is the Left’s inability to see what Trump is actually doing: wagging the dog. Trump’s term as executive is not going well (surprise, surprise). And so, he does a mean-spirited thing that he hopes will distract.

Here’s how I see the Paris Accords (chime in if you disagree):

  • They (it?) have not, and will not – ever – accomplish anything in regard to climate change, but
  • because of this it is also an organization that is wholly non-threatening. It’s just a bunch of countries getting together, in good faith, to solve a problem (real or imagined)

Some hardline factions on the conservative wing in the US didn’t like that the Paris Accords are essentially glorified intern conventions, and some Leftist factions on the American Left absolutely revere green initiatives (even if they’re no good at greening anything other than lobbyist’s pocketbooks), so Trump pulled the plug.

#covfefe

Unilateralism is not isolationism

One of the most frequent characterizations of US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries is that it was isolationist. In 1796, when he decided not to run for a third presidential term, George Washington wrote (possibly with the help of Alexander Hamilton) a farewell address to public life. In one of the most quoted parts of this speech, Washington said that “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Quite similarly, in 1821 John Quincy Adams warned that the United States should not “[go] abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” We can also cite Thomas Jefferson, who in 1799 declared that “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.” Finally, in 1823 James Monroe declared (with great help from the aforementioned John Quincy Adams) that “The political system of the allied powers [of Europe] is essentially different (…) from that of America.”

In short, it is by all the above (and other) quotations that historians often classify American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries as isolationist. This trend, it follows, was altered in World War I by Woodrow Wilson, who broke away from traditional isolationism to lead the United States to fight in Europe. More than that: at the end of the war, in his 14 Points, Wilson proposed the creation of the League of Nations, a permanent multilateral international organization, with the objective of promoting the collective security of the member countries. The Wilsonian tendency was reversed by Republicans in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly because they refused to join the League of Nations, opting for isolationism. However, Woodrow Wilson’s proposal was retaken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in World War II. The United States defeated the enemy forces in Europe and the Pacific and in the end war was one of the main founders of the United Nations, an international organization created to replace the League of Nations. Since then the United States has predominantly adopted Woodrow Wilson’s perspective and avoided the isolationism of the Founding Fathers and of the Republican presidents of the interwar period. Only ultra-conservatives believe and advocate that the US should retake the foreign policy of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and James Monroe. However, all this evaluation already starts flawed when it characterizes American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries as an isolationist. To explain why, we can differentiate two terms: isolationism and unilaterialism.

Predominantly, US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries followed George Washington’s advice “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” However, it should be noted at the same time that this foreign policy followed Thomas Jefferson’s advice to establish “commerce with all nations.” In other words, despite the lack of permanent alliances with other countries (particularly European ones), what the United States did not lack in that period was a growing trade with other parts of the world, in addition to regular diplomatic contact (although not characterized by permanent alliances). To call this isolation is to force language too much. There are many historical examples of countries that have actually isolated themselves from the rest of the world: Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries, China between the 15th and 19th centuries, Paraguay from 1811 to 1844, and more recently North Korea are just a few. US foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries would be better characterized as unilateralist or non-interventionist. This means simply that the US didn’t subject its international relations to foreign authority.

There was no US isolation before the 20th century. What happened was a policy of avoiding permanent alliances. Meanwhile, the country had no problem with expanding its diplomatic contacts and its international trade (although some economic protectionism was practiced, but I leave this subject to another time). The same can be said about the attitude taken by the presidents in the interwar period: not participating in the League of Nations did not mean isolation from the rest of the world, quite the opposite: the US actively participated in the economy and international politics at that time. It just did not do this through the international organization proposed by Woodrow Wilson. It is perfectly possible to participate actively in international relations unilaterally, i.e. without the formation of permanent or binding alliances with multilateral international organizations.

Confusing the terms isolation and unilateralism may just be an oversight or an evaluation error. But it can also be a purposeful strategy. Confusing the terms may hide an undeclared requirement (or assumption): the only accepted international participation is that made through multilateral international organizations such as the League of Nations or the United Nations. No other is good enough. In this way, those who characterize US foreign policy before Woodrow Wilson as isolationist are severely limiting the possibilities for US international participation.