A brittle world, not too unlike 1918

Colin James on the international scene at armistice day 1918 Otago Daily Times, 6 November 2018

Sunday is the centenary of Armistice Day — the end of fighting in the “war to end all wars”, which turned out to be only an instalment.

By the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 16 million had died in the war and 20 million were physically and mentally maimed, many seriously.

Three empires, the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian, had also died and the Ottoman empire went in 1920. A fifth, the British, never recovered from its wounds. Neither side “won”.

Crippling reparations against Germany and global economic depression after a cocksure United States crashed its hyperinflated sharemarket tipped Germany fascist and warlike. The next war instalment from 1939 was far more devastating.

After that came the cold war between United States-led liberal democracies and totalitarian Russia. Russia lost.

A post-1945 international order of growing economic interdependence among liberal democracies included Germany. Technology and trade lifted billions out of poverty, most spectacularly in China which chose economic development over ideology. Democracy gained ground globally.

That has reversed. Freedom House reported 2017 was the twelfth consecutive year of “decline in global freedom” and democracy.

Populism, “illiberalism” and autocracy have spread as hyperglobalisation has enriched the already rich in democracies and as multitudes fear for their personal status and national identity.

Germany’s Europe-stabilising politics are fragmenting, dramatically so in two recent state elections. Brazil elected a president who extols violence.

The (Dis-)United Kingdom voted to leave Europe. Tomorrow’s election in the (Dis-)United States won’t return it to political health. Its presidential advisers tote their trade war with China as a new “cold war”.

A once-again ideological, autocratic China aggressively stakes territorial claims, entraps poor nations in “loans” for infrastructure and recruits overseas Chinese to influence politics, universities and other institutions in countries like ours.

The Middle East is deeply riven. Outside powers meddle there.

The global order is as brittle as in 1914 — and 1918.

And the global economy is seriously unbalanced, not least by a 75% rise in debt since 2007. Growing numbers of sober commentators fear — some forecast — a shock far worse than in 2007-08.

How does New Zealand navigate this? Can we avoid a “Thucydides trap” between two superpowers, the conundrum for small states when Athens and Sparta fought in the fifth century BC.

New Zealand, Australia and Japan fret over China’s push into the South Pacific. Some expect China to announce a free trade agreement with Papua New Guinea at the APEC summit next week, with Fiji also in its sights. It is seeking military bases in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

Jacinda Ardern came to the job of responding to this “chaotic” world, as she terms it, citing Russia in particular, with experience in Helen Clark’s office and as International Union of Socialist Youth president, which bequeathed her a wide range of foreign contacts she now draws on, many at high level.

Her approach: be strategic, based on values, for example, human rights, a rules-based order, free trade (she very early took a firm pro-TPP stance in cabinet) but also be nimble, applying “craftsmanship” to diplomacy.

Brook Barrington, who heads her Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from February, initiated a (limited, some say) strategic rethink as Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

Ardern draws also on the incisive intellect of chief trade negotiator Vangelis Vitalis who talked of the “Thucydides trap” long before eminent thinkers elsewhere.

Her strategic guide is to reassert foreign policy independence from all powers and not back off criticising China on the South China Sea (as the defence strategy did in July) and its oppression of the Uighurs and Donald Trump’s trade “nonsense” and human rights breaches — but equally to look for ways to work together, as with the United States in Antarctica and in monitoring North Korea sanctions and with China in the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The Pacific reset in May was a first strategic step, talking up real engagement and cooperation with island states and working with the likes of Japan to build resilience so those states need China less for help (and debt).

Ardern and Winston Peters have had differences, notably on Russia, but broadly agree.

But is this the transformation she has promised for policy generally?

Some say the Pacific reset could have gone further, for example, setting up a development bank, as Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten has flagged.

In her party conference speech on Sunday foreign affairs came up just once: calling Grant Robertson’s fiscal caution “insurance” in a “volatile international situation”.

Down the track she might have cause to reflect on the transformative 1914-18 war and transform foreign policy nimbly into a front-of-mind matter.