Observations of an ex pat: Shifting goalposts

If evidence was required of shifting global goalposts then diplomatic observers didn’t need to look any further than the start of this year’s UN General Assembly.

For a start, the General Assembly Hall was sparsely populated with socially distanced diplomats. Coronavirus has kept away the heads of state, government and foreign ministers who normally gather in the UN building on the west bank of New York’s East River. Instead, the speeches have been pre-recorded and displayed on the giant screen.

No politicos means no chance for the usual annual flurry of bilaterals where the real diplomatic business is done. It also means fewer opportunities for world leaders to make the 214-mile plane journey to Washington for a photo-op and short chat with the US President.

But all of the above are relatively speaking cosmetic changes compared to the rapidly moving substantive global shifts pushing the world down uncertain paths.

This is a big anniversary for the United Nations. It is 75 years since the organisation’s founding in October 1945. Europe had been devastated by World War Two. Politically the world was still Euro-centric with the end of the colonial era yet to be confirmed. Asia was a backwater. China was riven by civil war. The Soviet Union was threatening and the United States had emerged as the number one military, political and economic power.

The formation of the UN formally ended the roughly 150 years of American isolationism and catapulted Washington into the position of world policeman and bastion of democracy, capitalism and free trade.

In the ensuing three-quarters of a century the Soviet Union has collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions. Empires have disappeared.  A Chinese-dominated Asia has emerged to challenge Western hegemony. And Europe has recovered from the disaster of two world wars to move towards unification aimed at ending centuries of wasteful feuding.

In 1945, multilateralism through bodies such as the UN was a key element of American foreign policy. It was the diplomatic tool which Washington used to challenge the European empires. As the imperial system collapsed the focus shifted to the Cold War and then, more recently, the War on Terror.

With multilateralism came its economic handmaidens of free trade and globalism, both spurred on by the IT revolution of the late 20th and early 21st century. The US prospered.  But the pre-war isolationism continued as a political undercurrent and mingled with a feeling that America’s open-handed good nature was being exploited.

The result was Donald Trump’s jettisoning of multilateralism for the unilateralism of “Make American Great Again.”  Tariffs were imposed. Trade agreements were renegotiated or scrapped. Established military alliances have been threatened with the withdrawal of American support and conspiracy theories and political scapegoating have replaced international cooperation.

But Trump’s unilateralism has not negated the need for the United Nations and multilateralism. It has only created a vacuum which America’s number one scapegoat/rival—China– is rushing to fill. In his recorded address to the General Assembly, Donald Trump repeated previous assertions that countries should follow his unilateralist example and accused of China of unleashing the “plague” of coronavirus on the world. President Xi Jinping countered with a dismissal of Trump’s plague claims and the declaration that “anti-globalisation was going against the trend of history.”

In his address, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned: “We are moving in a very dangerous direction. Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a great fracture. A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geo-strategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”

Guterres added that coronavirus was only a “dress rehearsal for the challenges ahead.”

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Innocent Bystander 27th Sep '20 - 11:28am

    One can only wonder how President Biden will cope with the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, the intimidation of Taiwan and anyone who supports it, the destruction of the Uighers, the incorporation of vast tracts of ocean into their empire, the mishandling of a virus resulting in so severe consequences.
    Oh, did I mention Tibet and continual provocation of India?

  • John Marriott 27th Sep '20 - 12:00pm

    Let’s be honest, democracy, as we thought we understood it, is in a mess all around the world. We used to think that the Soviet Union had its people under control and we were wrong. However, as Kaiser Bill famously predicted over a century ago, it was the ‘yellow peril’ we really needed to worry about. I think he was referring mainly to Japan; but clearly, it’s China that has adapted capitalism to achieve its ends.

    I’m afraid that the United Nations, after an impressive start, appears to be going the same way as its predecessor, the League of Nations. Interestingly, it was the US refusal to join the former and its reluctance now to back the latter that is stymying the latter’s ability to do its job. The beneficiaries in both cases appear to be those regimes for whom democracy is very much an alien concept. Who said that the meek “shall inherit the earth”?

  • Graham Smith 27th Sep '20 - 12:23pm

    The trouble is, that if we all become more unified as this article suggests. Who will rise to the top? America. And that will not be good for any of us. That said, China is becoming very powerful and is now in open competition with with the US and that doesn’t go down well for the rest of us either.
    The European Union is a predominantly capitalist organisation, but it is more of a humanity based organisation as well. Big enough to set its own rules and big enough to say no, to the US. There has never been a time when we have needed a strong Europe more. Yet we have chosen to distance ourselves from it.
    We all know the main prime movers behind BREXIT and people now must be able to see the post BREXIT moving of goalposts that is going on now and guess what? They are not seeing sunny uplands anytime soon.
    The PM said Brussels will carve up the united Kingdom. And yet the PM is doing a good job of that all by himself – Tearing up the British countryside.
    The GFA depends on there being no hard border between Northern Ireland and Eire. Furthermore The GFA depends more than ever on the consent of the Irish people. They are not interested in legal texts. They are only interested in whether they feel disrespected or otherwise. A bit like the Scots, you could say.
    So what do I think should happen now? At home in the UK? I think we should stop handing this government a blank cheque. I think the opposition needs to come down off the fence and start opposing. As the Government has a large majority in the House of Commons, we need to target the Tories who are uneasy about what this government is doing and nudge them to follow their conscience and do the right thing. We need to get rid of the toxic Internal Markets Bill and the Agriculture Bill and implement the Withdrawal Agreement as originally negotiated. We need to work towards an ever closer relationship with the EU. At some time we need to work towards Re-joining (but now is not the time, I understand that. As much as I’d like to do it tomorrow), we need to take the people of this country with us, and work at winning over the confidence of the EU, that we really are truly committed.

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