BERLIN — I strongly support President Obama’s efforts to conclude big, new trade-opening agreements with our Pacific allies, including Japan and Singapore, and with the whole European Union. But I don’t support them just for economic reasons.
While I’m certain they would benefit America as a whole economically, I’ll leave it to the president to explain why (and how any workers who are harmed can be cushioned). I want to focus on what is not being discussed enough: how these trade agreements with two of the biggest centers of democratic capitalism in the world can enhance our national security as much as our economic security.
Because these deals are not just about who sets the rules. They’re about whether we’ll have a rule-based world at all. We’re at a very plastic moment in global affairs — much like after World War II. China is trying to unilaterally rewrite the rules. Russia is trying to unilaterally break the rules and parts of both the Arab world and Africa have lost all their rules and are disintegrating into states of nature. The globe is increasingly dividing between the World of Order and the World of Disorder.
When you look at it from Europe — I’ve been in Germany and Britain the past week — you see a situation developing to the south of here that is terrifying. It is not only a refugee crisis. It’s a civilizational meltdown: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — the core of the Arab world — have all collapsed into tribal and sectarian civil wars, amplified by water crises and other environmental stresses.
But — and this is the crucial point — all this is happening in a post-imperial, post-colonial and increasingly post-authoritarian world. That is, in this pluralistic region that lacks pluralism — the Middle East — we have implicitly relied for centuries on the Ottoman Empire, British and French colonialism and then kings and dictators to impose order from the top-down on all the tribes, sects and religions trapped together there. But the first two (imperialism and colonialism) are gone forever, and the last one (monarchy and autocracy) are barely holding on or have also disappeared.
Therefore, sustainable order — the order that will truly serve the people there — can only emerge from the bottom-up by the communities themselves forging social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens. And since that is not happening — except in Tunisia — the result is increasing disorder and tidal waves of refugees desperately trying to escape to the islands of order: Europe, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
At the same time, the destruction of the Libyan government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, without putting boots on the ground to create a new order in the vacuum — surely one of the dumbest things NATO ever did — has removed a barrier to illegal immigration to Europe from Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Eritrea, Syria and Sudan. As one senior German official speaking on background said to me: “Libya had been a bar to crossing the Mediterranean. But that bar has been removed now, and we can’t reinvent it.” A Libyan smuggler told The Times’s David D. Kirkpatrick, reporting from Libya, now “everything is open — the deserts and the seas.”
What does all this have to do with trade deals? With rising disorder in the Middle East and Africa — and with China and Russia trying to tug the world their way — there has never been a more important time for the coalition of free-market democracies and democratizing states that are the core of the World of Order to come together and establish the best rules for global integration for the 21st century, including appropriate trade, labor and environmental standards. These agreements would both strengthen and more closely integrate the market-based, rule-of-law-based democratic and democratizing nations that form the backbone of the World of Order.
America’s economic future “depends on being integrated with the world,” said Ian Goldin, the director of the Oxford Martin School, specializing in globalization. “But the future also depends on being able to cooperate with friends to solve all kinds of other problems, from climate to fundamentalism.” These trade agreements can help build trust, coordination and growth that tilt the balance in all these countries more toward global cooperation than “hunkering down in protectionism or nationalism and letting others, or nobody, write the rules.”
As Obama told his liberal critics Friday: If we abandon this effort to expand trade on our terms, “China, the 800-pound gorilla in Asia will create its own set of rules,” signing bilateral trade agreements one by one across Asia “that advantage Chinese companies and Chinese workers and … reduce our access … in the fastest-growing, most dynamic economic part of the world.” But if we get the Pacific trade deal done, “China is going to have to adapt to this set of trade rules that we’ve established.” If we fail to do that, he added, 20 years from now we’ll “look back and regret it.”
That’s the only thing he got wrong. We will regret it much sooner.