‘A fish rots from its head’ is an old Chinese proverb that I like. When any system begins to fail, look to the top to figure out why. The international system is not headed by Boris Johnson, he is merely an opportunist looking to take advantage of new trends to protect his interests. No, if you want to understand why the post-Cold War system of international laws and norms is breaking down, look first and foremost to the United States, the world’s most powerful country. The US’ turn to unilateralism has fundamentally changed the landscape of geo-politics, so that the old rules laid down by the US and its various international institutions (the IMF, the World Bank, Nato), what was once called ‘the Washington Consensus’, have been binned by the self-same United States.
Now, let’s be clear – throughout the era of US-led globalisation these rules were always the preserve of the strong; it was a western consensus, which the global south had to play along with. But that is exactly what is breaking down now: the big change in geo-politics is that some of the tactics, like targeted sanctions, that the US have always used to get its way – in the Middle East for example – are now being applied to its supposed western allies.
A good example of this which has largely been ignored is the US Congress’ threat of targeted sanctions on those involved in the construction of the almost-complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
“The idea of US senators threatening a German state-owned port with ‘devastating legal and economic sanctions’ was something that seemed unthinkable – until now,” Jonathan Hackenbroich, policy fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, writes.
The sanctions have “broken yet another taboo in transatlantic relations”, Hackenbroich adds. Perhaps most worrying for Germany and the EU, is that the threat worked – the construction of Nord Stream 2 stopped in December last year and is yet to re-start.
The US is using the fact it has control of the world’s reserve currency, which the majority of global trade is conducted in, as a tool for “geo-economic blackmail”. A more high-profile case is the US’ unilateral breach of international law over the Iran Nuclear Agreement, signed by all the UN Security Council countries and the EU. The US broke the Agreement, and then imposed targeted sanctions on any company that sought to defend the spirit of it by continuing to trade with Iran. Again, the threat worked – European trade with Iran collapsed. And of course secondary sanctions have been imposed on firms that trade with Chinese companies deemed unpalatable to Washington, again to good effect. Oh, and don’t forget the US’ ventilator and face mask piracy at the peak of the pandemic crisis.
So breaking international law starts at the very top, and is proven to be an effective means of getting what you want. Boris Johnson is simply following in Donald Trump’s footsteps, albeit with less authority to wield in doing so. And it’s not just about Trump. Remember, the Nord Stream 2 sanctions were from Congress, not the President. It would be naive to think that a Joe Biden presidency will fundamentally shift the US away from its new unilateralism. The US is using what weapons it still has available to it – its overwhelming military power and control of the Dollar – to seek to contain the rise of China and stay at the top of the global system, and if that means brazen imperialism then so be it. Ultimately, geopolitical interest is the only golden rule of international politics.
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.