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We are all internationalists now

Planet Earth

Kevin Gill under a Creative Commons Licence

The New Internationalist was founded in 1973 – a propitious year.

The Bretton Woods system had recently collapsed, opening the door to floating currencies and global financial speculation.

In July of that year, the Trilateral Commission met for the first time in the US to promote a more conservative internationalism than that offered by the Non-Aligned Movement of the so-called ‘third world’ nations.

In October, Egypt’s attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur war set the pretext for a sharp price hike agreed by the oil-producing countries of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Forty years on, 2013 is an equally propitious time to be reflecting on current challenges in each of these three areas – global economics, democratic values and geopolitics.

Global capitalism is in a state of organized disarray. Democratic values are questioned everywhere, from the US Congress to the Security Council Chamber. And wars are fought by powerful nations on the territories of weaker ones both by hook and by crook.

But partly as a result of these crises, there is now a greater recognition that our lives are shaped not just by our local geography but by forces that bind us all together.

In this weaker sense, we are all internationalists today – as Blair would have put it.

Yet there is a stronger and more compelling case for internationalism than the idea that our security is threatened by the insecurity of others.

It stems from the recognition that while we may not have personal responsibility for the lives of distant strangers, we do have political responsibilities towards them – at least to the extent that the choices we make in our lives have consequences for the choices they can make in theirs. To be an internationalist does not require one to be a card-carrying cosmopolitan in outlook, but it does mean recognizing that we share at least that much in common.

This raises moral, political and practical questions – none of which have easy answers. But then being an internationalist is about embracing complexity, not simplifications.

Above all it means a constant state of open-mindedness. Internationalism is a relational disposition: like democracy, it is poorly served by efforts to cast it in the stone of one group’s needs alone.

These are not just questions for the Left but they are of most immediate relevance to it. As Donald Sassoon wrote in his 1998 tome One Hundred Years of Socialism: ‘For the Left to remain national, while capitalism is international, would be like becoming a shadow that has lost its body.’

How right he was. And with its failure to articulate a response to rising inequality in the rich world and its lack of original thinking about a post-Millennium Development Goals agenda for the poor world the organized Left displays well the poverty of thinking at just the national level today.

Rather than shrink from both challenges, the ‘internationalist’ would see that growing inequality in rich countries and the failure of our efforts to address global poverty are connected to one another.

It is clear, for example, that the ideal of equality now hangs in the balance, even in the social democratic heartlands of Europe There are those who take this as proof that universal social protection was always too expensive, too inefficient – even for the wealthiest of countries. But that is far from obvious looking from Norway, where Oslo is Europe’s fastest-growing city because others are voting with their feet and moving there to find work.

But the crisis of social democracy in Europe and the US is not just about economics and responding to it also requires social democrats to think beyond the borders of the nation state.

Which brings us to the issue of global poverty, which is still too often framed, even by those wishing to help, as a problem of others: the poverty of elsewhere.

It is very much a problem of ‘here’ too, however, not least in that European citizens, for one, benefit from the resource transfers that gave their countries greater wealth to redistribute in the first place. Those whose solution to rich world inequality is to turn inwards, the better to save the sinking ship of social democracy at home, commit both a moral and a tactical error in doing so.

Not least, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showed in their 2009 book The Spirit Level, more equal rich societies tend not just to be more redistributive within themselves, they also tend to give more to others. But more so, as the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) has shown, social policy and more open internationalism (which is not the same thing as open markets and free trade) can contribute to greater wellbeing and economic productivity for all. That, after all, was the lesson the Scandinavian countries followed.

Until we recognize that the problems confronting us today are not problems of global disorder, as nationalists and other self-styled realists like to claim, but problems of an historically particular way of ordering the world; until we see how our complicity in some of those policies both maintains the status quo ‘here’ and undermines others ‘elsewhere’, we will, in the words of TH Marshal, simply keep ‘abat[ing] the nuisance of poverty without disturbing the pattern of inequality of which poverty [is] the most obvious unpleasant consequence’.

It behoves us all to understand this since we will, in the end, either rise or fall together.

The Internationalists blogging series has been timed to mark NI's 40th anniversary. Read the other blogs exploring perspectives on development and global solidarity.

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