The collapse of the Anglo-American order creates opportunities for regional groupings like Asean and EU to work together to strengthen multilateral institutions.
The two architects of the post-World War II order were British prime minister Winston Churchill and American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
They met (for the first time) aboard the heavy cruiser USS Augusta in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland (Canada), and from there on Aug 14, 1941, two years after the outbreak of war, issued what came to be known as The Atlantic Charter.
The Atlantic Charter is undoubtedly one of history's most outstanding documents. It is for one thing - at one page - extremely succinct. Compare it with the interminable and indigestible verbosity of the (never ratified) 2005 European Union Constitution or the 2015 Asean Charter!
The Atlantic Charter consists of eight short bullet points that together encapsulate the visionary goals and concrete framework of what the global order should be after the war.
It is the cornerstone of the peace and prosperity that reigned initially in the Atlantic and eventually extended to much of the world, encompassing the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The Anglo-American order came to its official end on May 28 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a speech in which she said the EU could no longer rely on others and that Europe "really must take our fate into our own hands". She is reported to have said at a beer hall rally in Munich: "The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over."
To get a vivid idea of how profound the collapse has been, one can compare Churchill and Roosevelt with their current successors: British Prime Minister Theresa May is leading her scattered flock down the labyrinthine hole of Brexit, while words fail to describe the bombastic buffoonery of President Donald Trump except perhaps, to quote Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf: "Mr Trump's appeal to irrationality, xenophobia and resentment is frightening."
In reality, there was a preface to this dramatic saga 14 years ago when another duo, American president George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair, who, contrary to the position of the United Nations and to the protestations of German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French president Jacques Chirac, invaded Iraq. Indeed, Harvard University professor Lawrence Summers argues that "abandoning participation in the Paris global climate agreement is probably our most consequential error since the Iraq War and may well be felt over an even longer term".
So the world is in a different paradigm. There is the view, expressed by some optimists - currently a rather rare species - that this is an aberration in US history and that the country will come back to its senses again soon. It would be hazardous to bank on it.
TOWARDS THE NEXT HEGEMON?
This was the backdrop of an EU-Asean summit convened by think-tank Friends of Europe last month in Brussels. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Asean, the 60th anniversary of the EU Treaty of Rome and, coincidentally, the 70th anniversary of the launch of the Marshall Plan - another great American contribution to peace and prosperity.
In the opening remarks, one of the speakers stated that while the meeting was ostensibly about the EU-Asean dialogue, there was in fact a prominently imposing mammoth gorilla in the room, Mr Trump.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
In terms of mindsets or paradigms, it is important to be guided by that prophetic report last year by Nik Gowing, Thinking The Unthinkable.
It is repeatedly being confirmed; most recently in the stark contrast between the arrogant assurance with which Prime Minister May launched her "snap election" and the humiliating rout of the result. We are in paradigmatic unknown and uncharted territory.
To get some sense of direction, turn to a highly recommended provocative book by Deepak Lal, In Praise Of Empires: Globalisation And Order (2004). It is deliciously provocative and politically incorrect. In essence, Lal argues that for peace to be maintained there is an imperative need for a hegemon. Following the turbulence of the Napoleonic wars, the emergence of the British hegemon, known as pax Britannica, ensured peace from 1815 to 1914.
While the United States entered World War I (in 1917), it exited the peace in that it refused to join the League of Nations that became rapidly irrelevant and impotent. There was no pax Americana then; indeed there was no America in the global arena as it withdrew into isolationism. Three decades of turmoil ensued.
Pax Americana finally came following the US' overwhelming victories in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific and the installation of a global order in the spirit of The Atlantic Charter, as noted.
This is not to say that during these periods of hegemonism, there were no wars: During pax Britannica, there was, among others, the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), with numerous colonial wars; during pax Americana there were also wars, notably the Vietnam War and, of course, the Cold War. There were wars, but there was no "Great War" - a la 1914-1918 or 1939-1945.
The fear is that based on several thousand years of historical precedent, it seems to be in humanity's DNA to fight wars; thus without a prevailing hegemon, the emerging multipolar world will degenerate into an anarchic chaos of disparate but simultaneous conflicts corresponding to the 1984 vision of George Orwell of the conflicts within and between Eurasia and Eastasia.
In the light of the end of pax Americana, a question raised at multiple forums is: "Who is the next hegemon?"
Alternatively, as in the case of the EU-Asean Friends of Europe dialogue: Can Asean and the EU somehow join forces to fill, or, at least, help fill, the gap? Another frequent variation on the hegemonic theme is that it should be China's turn: Pax Sinica, here we come! A more muted variation is whether Russia, having lost the Cold War, will win the Peace?
COLLAPSE OF MULTILATERALISM
None of these options is realistic. Indeed, the reality is that for a whole myriad of obvious reasons there is no successor on the horizon to American hegemonism. No single power can be expected to maintain the peace. That paradigm is, at least temporarily, obsolete.
So what can be done? Is the world doomed to multipolar anarchy?
The great achievement of the Anglo-American order was to have established after World War II, in stark contrast to the aborted peace after World War I, a solid institutional multilateral framework.
It is the US' attack on multilateralism that has been precipitating the end of the Anglo-American order.
In 2003, the US forced the collapse of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference in Cancun, Mexico, thus bringing about the death of the Doha Round, thereby transforming the WTO into an empty shell. Even pretence has now been abandoned, with the Trump White House failing to appoint an ambassador in Geneva to the WTO.
As the world's two most viable and potentially effective regional blocs - notably having succeeded in promoting peace and prosperity in their respective territories - the best contribution an Asean-EU coalition could make is to work arduously at strengthening multilateralism, multilateral institutions and, above all, the rules-based multilateral trade regime.
Doha is dead and cannot be resurrected. The Asean-EU coalition can learn from the mistakes of Doha and together take a new WTO initiative by also, of course, including the other major trading powers.
Recent initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have been exclusive. For peace and prosperity to reign, the global trading order must be inclusive, equitable and sustainable.
With the demise of hegemonism, the Asean-EU coalition must aim to restore multilateralism.
• Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline 'Multipolar anarchy to fill gap between hegemons?'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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