The retreat from internationalism

by Adam B Lerner and Maha Rafi Atal

Beyond brexit- a global britain (30548660074)
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'Beyond Brexit: a global Britain'. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson speaking at Chatham House, London, December 2016. Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Wikimedia Commons

Though the global economy has grown steadily in the years since the 2008 financial crisis, recent political events increasingly point to traditional powers’ retreat from internationalism and global governance. For this reason, the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, began 2018 by predicting a possible ‘geopolitical depression’ and ‘descent into a Hobbesian state of international politics’, continuing the trend of the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s election as US President, the increasing illiberal nationalism of countries like Turkey and Hungary and the surprisingly strong showing of far-right parties in elections across Europe.

The context of this sudden retreat from internationalism provides an important backdrop for the articles of Issue 4 of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs Volume 30, published online in March 2018. Simona Guerra and Evangelos Fanoulis open the issue with an article analysing nationalist discourses on Greek and British referenda to unveil the emotions involved in the two countries’ Eurosceptic movements. ‘In both Greece and the UK’, the authors write, ‘the heartland … [is] romantically constructed, with an emotional bond that brings together “the people” of the heartland in an inclusive – but exclusive towards the others – comfortable place.’ Equally romantic, suggest Eva Polónska-Kimunguyi and Patrick Kimunguyi, are some Eurosceptics’ proposals for the future. In their critique of UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s vision of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’, Polónska-Kimunguyi and Kimunguyi argue that while Johnson wishes the UK to continue as a values-based global soft-power heavyweight, his treatment of Africa depends on imperial and post-colonial discourses that deny African peoples’ agency.

This issue further places these contemporary political shifts within a long historical context. In his contribution to his volume, William Clapton challenges Bull and Watson’s famous vision of pluralism spreading from Europe outward following the 17th century Peace of Westphalia. Instead, Clapton demonstrates that subordination and hierarchy between actors have always defined the international arena and continue to do so despite the ostensible spread of the sovereign nation-state model across the globe. Clapton rejects an idealised view of contemporary ‘international society as comprised exclusively of sovereign states sharing a set of common values and enjoying rights that apply equally to all members’, and instead argues for a ‘relational’ understanding, which emphasises breaches of pluralist norms even after decolonisation. Burak Kadercan likewise offers a historical perspective on the role of nationalism in interstate conflict. In addition to economic and technological factors that have made interstate wars both deadlier and less frequent over time, Kadercan argues that the rise of nationalism led states to see their territories, for the first time, as ‘inviolable homelands’, increasing the lengths to which they will go to protect their territorial integrity. This insight has clear relevance in the context of a new wave of growing nationalist and xenophobic movements across the globe.

If states are retreating from the international arena, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have become increasingly important players in the vacuum left behind. Drawing on two detailed case studies, Clara Egger’s closing article offers a typology of inter-INGO relations that demonstrates the structural factors which lead these organisations to compete with one another to survive. Yet even as Egger’s subjects view coordinating with other INGOs as a burden for their organisations, Egger argues that cooperation is in fact vital both for the survival and operational success of these INGOs.    

The Cambridge Review of International Affairs (CRIA), the University of Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies’ flagship journal is published online and in print six times a year by Taylor and Francis. Now in its thirtieth year, CRIA publishes original scholarship on international affairs. It is committed to publishing diverse approaches, methods and areas of analysis, and encourages the submission of interdisciplinary work from academics and policymakers.

About the author

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Adam B Lerner and Maha Rafi Atal are both Editors-in-Chief of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (CRIA) and PhD candidates at the University of Cambridge.

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