The Financial Express

Paris Agreement in historical context

| Updated: October 17, 2017 21:27:49

Paris Agreement in historical context

Donald J. Trump's withdrawal from the COP21 Paris Agreement is not the first time the United States has abandoned the rest of the functional world: it rejected the painstakingly assembled League of Nations by rejecting the Versailles Peace Treaty on November 19, 1919. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, had put his heart, mind, and soul into its construction, much like an overwhelming proportion of the 191 countries (plus the European Union; as of December 2016) did in signing the COP21 Paris Agreement. It is naïve, nonetheless, to jump to the same conclusion as in the 1920s and 1930s that the agreement will crash or culminate in conflict. Historical anecdotes might repeat themselves with varying hues and hopes; but outcomes have a tendency to take their own, independent pathway. At least three arguments support that contention.
First, there are the lessons learned from bitter history. The slope from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to World War II outbreak on September 01, 1939 was slippery. On the one hand were all the peaceful initiatives: the 1922 Rapollo Treaty between Germany and Russia, the 1925 Locarno treaties, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, and the 1938 Munich Agreement between Adolf Hitler and Austen Chamberlain. Yet, on the other were the Weimar 1921-4 hyperinflation, Germany's 1935 Rhineland remilitarisation, the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the emergence of the Axis Powers in 1940. The League of Nations died an automatic death with World War II against these conflicting pressures, but by that time, the emergence of the Soviet Union, an Asian country (Japan) entering the European-anchored great-power rivalry game, and new wrinkles created a completely different playground. No wonder that when the United Nations was installed in 1945, it was fated to survive, no matter how dysfunctional or impotent it became, or at cross-purposes it was with its goals. Though the League of Nations ended up with 63 members, over 70-odd years, the United Nations has tripled that number, even though the conflict compass has broadened beyond Europe-plus-Japan to the entire world. 
In short, the League of Nations scars were not allowed to deepen or widen. Indeed, the one country that might have made the crucial difference for its healthy future, the United States, made amends for its League of Nations dismissal by going out of its way to (a) ensure the United Nations persisted, (b) salvage the displaced and defeated European great powers through the Marshall Plan, (c) establish the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to keep communism at bay, which it did until Soviet communism collapsed by 1989, and (d) disperse Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms across the world, even as late as through George H.W. Bush's 1989 New World Order. By historical standards, that was a quick, clear, and convincing learning from the World War I aftermath. 
A second reason why the U.S. COP21 withdrawal will not have the same consequences as its League of Nations dismissal is the maturity acquired, fortunately, by more countries than not, giving hope a better chance than in the 1920s. Solidly united now like they were not a century ago, France and Germany could constitute a different global 'heartland' than what Sir Halford Mackinder had in mind in 1904. Mackinder's was Eurasian, an area no longer under European control. Though China and Russia collectively exert more influence in that zone now more than ever before, the true fulcrum lies farther east, in China, and not in Russia. The two may not necessarily remain on the same strategic page for the rest of the world to worry about since they do have more fundamental (territorial) differences. With its many more satellites and global linkages, the Franco-German heartland can exert more global clout than the China-Russia dominated Shanghai Cooperation Treaty presently.
Not just that, but substantively, since the Franco-German heartland is not at all militarily constructed, the economic integration, in spite of the Brexit shocker, that binds them have enough steam and purpose to save this planet environmentally. Their leadership on just this one issue contrasts their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Great Britain and the United States, the former a 'wolf in sheep's clothes', the latter, under Trump, the growling wolf itself.
What they have going for them is the third and final reason why the U.S. ditching the 2017 Paris Agreement will not produce the same result as ditching the League of Nations in 1919: there is more democracy-driven pulsation across the world now than there was then; and though prevalent democracy is not at all picture-perfect, in fact, even on the defensive as this is being written, its underpinnings may be far better rooted and far more resilient than any alternative paradigm.
Understanding that takes us to none other than a German. No, he is not Henry Kissinger, who sanctified the 1945-90 global order; nor his idol, Clemens von Metternich, who did the same for the 1815-1939 order. The subject is not military, but democracy, and the person Immanuel Kant. 
Before turning to Kant, how the military and democracy relates to the environment begs attention. A military mindset literally vetoes the environment from any game-plan; and, after the concerns surrounding climate-change environmental hazards, the military must be the most destructive force: not only from wastage during war, but also the money and time spent that could have brought more lasting results spent on the environment. 
On the flip-side, democracy is the greatest friend of environmental causes. It mobilises every group in any country, particularly where environmental sound-bites are the most: at the grassroots. To turn to Kant is like saying in an environmental context means we abandon the 'can't' for the 'can', since democracy is its final safeguard.
In his Perpetual Peace, Kant spoke of what we might call global democracy today. He called it 'cosmopolitan democracy', reflecting the third and final stage when democracy cannot be reversed. It begins with 'constitutional democracy' within each country: without democracy being enshrined here, it is never going to plant roots anywhere, a point one might keep in mind for environmental protection measures too. Institutionalising democracy inside a country sows the seeds of 'international democracy'. This may take a long time, as now, but since democracies feel more comfortable with other hang around democracies, the opportunities should not be neglected. This was not true of the United States during the Cold War or with Trump as president, but COP21 demonstrated how the very democratic bonds among each practising country could cajole and convince others to do likewise, even serve as an example. It will be a long journey before 'cosmopolitan democracy' dawns, but it may still be what Wall Street wonks might call (if not now, then eventually): the best future investment, since it downsizes the military (after all, no parents want to see their children return in a coffin), creates human rights lock-ins, spares more time, money, and urgency for issues like environmental protection, and enhances the global 'lifeboat' concept against climate-change threats as the game-changer rather than the old-model of a security paradigm.
That is the boat missed by greedy U.S. corporations, fundamentalist-minded coal-miners, and the far-right U.S. extremists at the Trump political base. The saddest part is not the U.S. absence in the global fight to protect the planet, but that the Trump-base spoke, out of turn, for a majority of U.S. citizens who believe, like their French and German counterparts, that environmental protection is not a hoax. Remember, a majority of them voted for another candidate in 2016, not Trump!
Their time will inevitably come, as it did in 1945 with the United Nations. But the battle against raging climate fires must go on. In true soldierly spirit, the back-door will always remain open for the vanquished, impaired, and, in this case, obstructionists, laggards, and re-thinkers.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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