What should we make of a world that chooses to cohere under a massive trade deal while it fractures along geopolitical lines?
Large chunks of the world clearly aren’t happy with the status quo, and anyone with an internet connection knows this is hurting plenty of real people in real places. A group of 12 Pacific countries aren’t happy with the status quo either, but this region spilled ink not blood in its quest for change.
The signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) earlier this morning will be the glue sticking the Pacific Rim together for hopefully much of the 21st century. Although the final text is still forthcoming – and its details will be important to grasp – the constituent parts of the TPP are less important than what it means for the international community.
As I’ve argued in the past, the world system is built on the central question every countries must answer: does it want to be included or excluded?
Singapore’s foreign minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam, whose country is part of the TPP agreement, asked this exact question only a few months ago. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, but it’s not something many officials talk about in public. Not because they are secretive, but because they simply can’t articulate the reality underpinning the question.
“If you don’t do [the TPP], what are your levers of power?” Mr Shanmugam asked. “The choice is a very stark one: Do you want to be part of the region, or do you want to be out of the region?”
The answer depends on how much power a country thinks it has. That’s not an easy calculation to make, because a state’s assumptions about its power are often a mix of disinformation, misinformation and self-deception. Some nation leaders confuse themselves with this mix. Bad things happen when a state incorrectly thinks it is powerful enough to change the world system.
If a nation state’s choice is in favour of exclusion, then the country had better possess the correct amounts of hard and soft power to perform the break. Otherwise, the velocity required to escape the world system’s gravity simply won’t be enough, and it will embarrassingly fall back into the default international community.
What if a country decides to be included? Well, this would mean using at minimum a fiat monetary system, a parliamentary government and an egalitarian jurisprudence. But above all, it requires a country to be part of the international community. In other words, it requires a country to be a country.
This might sound obvious, but it goes to the heart of why 12 countries chose to enact a trade pact this week and it’s important to outline, especially today. Buckle up, because understanding why the TPP was signed requires reviewing a bit of history, but don’t worry, it won’t take too long.
Inclusion in the international community requires a country to be legally independent, as opposed to illegally independent.
To be legally independent requires a country to make a series of choices in a particular direction. The result, of course, is only the appearance of independence, but the branding serves to save the country from the nasty realities of being truly (illegally) independent and essentially excluded.
A group of people living in a contiguous landmass can choose to be independent in one of these two directions; there is no third choice. To be illegally independent means losing access to institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, the UN, WHO and other acronym-adorned organisations. That’s because choosing to create a parallel system outside of the international community is a big no-no.
Back in 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia became the final step in the creation of the concept of a nation state. This concept was not natural and needed a sprinkling of human invention, yet it has formed the backbone of the world system ever since and it feels natural. Although this idea won’t be with us forever, in 2015 the world is divided into hundreds of these nation states.
Some places, such as Antarctica or Somaliland, aren’t part of this system for different reasons. Antarctica’s exclusion was a conscious decision by the international community not to extend the concept onto the ice shelves. This might change in the future, but for the time being Antarctica today is “everybody’s” continent, which means in a very real way it is still part of the international community.
Somaliland is different again. You won’t find it on any official map because it isn’t officially recognised. It is an illegally independent state occupying a contiguous landmass inside the legally independent state of Somalia in East Africa. It has its own president, currency and justice system. It even has its own flag. But the international community does not recognise it, let it access the IMF or World Bank or give it a seat on the United Nations
If this is starting to make you question just how truly independent your country actually is, well, you’re paying attention.
The international community exists and operates like an anthill. It is the sum of individual vectors pointing in different directions. A few powerful nation states, such as the British and French empires, have managed various parts of it. I emphasise the word “manage” here because they were only the custodians of the international community. These nation states were called colonial powers for a reason.
Notice how those two empires chose only to control countries, not create a wholly new world system. They chose inclusion even back then. In fact, wherever they went the first things they did was create new nation states. They dragged the European system of the international community around until the known world was riven along fresh border lines.
This process continues today, except the British and French empires are of course historical dust. In their place is a new custodian of the international community: the United States. And it’s no surprise that the US is happy to continue defending the concept of the nation state by organising rules (such as liberal democracy and free trade) to incentivise the world’s countries to choose inclusion over exclusion.
This is the context of the TPP. In 2015, the international community is the most current iteration of what began in 1648. It is the dominant concept forcing every country to answer whether it wants to be included or excluded.
The TPP is a story of 12 Pacific countries choosing to be included in the international community. It is the next inevitable step in a tale stretching back to the very beginnings of the nation state concept. The US is driving this deal, it is an US story. After all, as custodian of the international community, it the US’ job to reinforce this idea in people’s minds.
Countries wishing to rip apart this concept are considered malevolent by the international community. Russia – and China in many ways – choose exclusion, rather than inclusion. The Islamic State is another example altogether, but the reason it is considered an enemy is because of its choice of exclusion.
So this is the lesson of the TPP: the choice to be like Somaliland isn’t exactly, shall we say, incentivised. The TPP is 12 members of the international community choosing to strengthen a system that has been in place for 367 years. Given the way the world works, this shouldn’t really surprise anyone.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether being part of the international community is preferable to being outside it. And we all must decide what the TPP means for the future of this world system. But one thing is clear, the choice of inclusion and exclusion remains the only question remaining worth answering.