Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

Globalisation and insecurity

Recent events have highlighted what a connected world we live in. Current orthodoxy seems to be to accept free trade and globalisation either as a force that cannot be resisted or as a “good thing”. Dissident views seem to be isolationist.

Whilst I see some interconnection as a good and useful thing, too much connectedness can hamper us – as we see in European nations’ reluctance to take action against Russia in protest against the situation in Ukraine. Most European nations seem to be convinced that Russia’s soviet ambitions are behind the Ukrainian unrest (and the “apparent” shooting down of the Malaysian Airliner). However they also know where their energy supplies come from. So they are rendered supine – huffing and puffing but not doing a lot.

We need to be more discerning about our alliances and who we associate with and who we do business with. Globalisation can lead to insecurity at the national level as well as at the individual level.

Some associations are “almost” non-negotiable. For instance, the circumstances under which we might leave the United Nations are “almost” inconceivable. The downside of being outside an association of almost all the world’s nations would be huge, but the fact that almost all the world’s nations belong makes it possible to be a member whilst holding one’s nose and being associated with some very (to us) disreputable regimes.

I suppose it is possible that we might leave, either

  • en-bloc with other “western democracies” should we lose the near majority that we have (despite the “western democracies” actually being in a minority)
  • on a point of blustered principle (such as a General Assembly vote calling for our suspension should we refuse to “return” “Les Malvinas” to Argentina).

Either scenario above would be extremely serious either for the world as a whole (first case) or for the UK (second case). Would you trust our PM’s judgement not to storm out of an association in a huff because people don’t agree with him?

Membership of the European Union is of course contentious to some. However, most member countries are independent democracies sharing a common economic and political outlook. This unity of view somehow makes minor disagreements more likely to lead to rupture. Unlike the UN where we tolerate association with people with whom we disagree on points of value, points of principle and points of policy, membership of the EU does not carry either that tolerance or a similar “unthinkability of exit”.

But it is with trade and defence alliances that we seem to almost unconsciously shackle ourselves. European nations are shackled to Russia and its supplies of gas and money. Theo Leggett, BBC business reporter, writes:

The EU is Russia’s biggest trading partner, so if it had the will, Brussels could inflict considerable economic damage on Moscow. But Europe would also feel the pain.

That’s why European sanctions so far have been measured, largely targeting individuals with asset freezes and visa bans.

The energy market is crucial. Europe gets about a third of its gas from Russia. If the EU bought less Russian gas, it would certainly harm the country’s economy, which is very reliant on sales of natural resources.

But replacing those supplies would be very difficult in the short term, and expensive. Likewise, there is a risk that Russia could retaliate against sanctions in other areas by restricting gas exports.

Britain also has a great deal to lose if sanctions are tightened. Russia is a significant buyer of UK exports. Oil giant BP owns 20% of Russian energy firm Rosneft, which also benefits pension funds which have invested in BP.

London is a prime destination for Russian businesses seeking investors and capital, providing lucrative fees for banks, consultants and lawyers, and Russian oligarchs own large chunks of prime London real estate.
BBC News Website 20 July 2014 : MH17 crash: UK warns Russia of tougher sanctions

Whilst with the EU we have selected partners who by and large share our general outlook, with our globalised trading alliance we have not been fussy. Now when we find that one of our “partners” is choosing to behave in a manner which we believe to be “out-of-order” we also find that we are too tied to them to do anything about it. If we did we would suffer pain – and as a democracy that would have a quicker impact than it would have in a totalitarian regime with a command economy, control of the media, and a vice-like grip on dissent.

The regrettable conclusion is that whilst we are beholden to the nascent New Soviet Union for gas and financial stability we can do nothing about or for Ukraine. The Ukrainians (and Moldavians and Belarusians) had better learn quickly that the Soviets have more influence than the Europeans.

The Baltic States might also be worried as to whether NATO will stand by them when push comes to shove. They are now members of an association whose Article 5 states:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. …
Article 5 of the Washington Treaty

Article 5 has been invoked once (after 9/11) and could be said to have led to our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq – which have led to a great public and political reluctance to get militarily involved in other conflicts. We did not invoke it when armed Israelis boarded a Turkish flagged ship in the Mediterranean. (It was suggested that Article 5 did not apply because the ship was in “International Waters” and consequently outside NATO’s sphere of influence; Article 6 and the Reykjavik communiqué would seem to say that ships of member countries and out of area operations are also included within the scope of Article 5. ibid). If I was one of the Baltic States – which still have large ethnic Russian minorities – I would be worried about re-absorption into a resurgent Soviet Union.

Globalisation and Free Trade should not be an ideal to be uncritically followed. We should be prepared to “take a hit” (in terms of standard of living and economic well-being) to achieve greater security. that greater security would come from not being dependent on “partners” who have radically different values and views to us.

We need to be much more independent of Russian and China as a minimum. Security is not just about having aircraft carriers (with or without aircraft); it is also about being immune to pressure.

As a second order objective we might also want to consider how much of a hold the USA has over us. At the time of Suez, the United States showed that it had us by “the economic goolies” and by threatening to cause a currency crisis got both the UK and France to withdraw. So much for Sovereignty.

At the moment the balance of opinion is probably that the USA is either benign or sufficiently far away that we need not worry about certain aspects of US society and culture (for instance its attitude to gun control, the death sentence, poverty, and global snooping). However, if the Tea-party was to grow in strength (or we wanted to push for a Middle East settlement that did not suit the US Israeli lobby) a time may come when close alliances and dependence on the US might be undesirable.

So for instance, whilst switching from Russian gas to American shale gas (once they have sorted out the terminals) is a medium-term fix and a probable improvement in fuel security, it is not a long-term solution. Long-term we would be vulnerable to US political pressure (and Soviet submarine attack in a hot conflict); we need to balance our own demands with our own supplies. The implications of both cutting our demand for energy and creating new sources of energy is uncomfortable – but is it any more uncomfortable than being dependent on a Soviet President?

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