Boris Johnson is puffing himself up as a world statesman for the Cop26 conference. But the ridiculous squabble with France over fishing rights off British coasts shows the lies behind his posturing. The absurdity of the conflict is on both sides and the economic stakes are trivial.
Yet Britain and France are making noises as if they want to restage the Battle of Sluys, which the English and French fleets fought in 1340.
The two governments are driven largely by electoral politics. But the French prime minister has written to the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen demanding the whole European Union (EU) mobilise to punish Britain for Brexit.
When you think about it, this is ridiculous. From the point of view of the interests of European imperialism it makes sense to heal the rifts created by Britain’s break with the EU.
Instead, the trend is going in the opposite direction. And you can’t put this down to the personal idiosyncrasies of Johnson or French president Emmanuel Macron. The breakdown in cooperation between leading capitalist states is happening worldwide.
Recently two studies of the pandemic were published by liberal scholars—Aftershocks by Colin Kahl and Thomas Wright, and Shutdown by Adam Tooze. Both books stress the failure of international cooperation.
It explores how states shut down chaotically and promoted the development and distribution of vaccines in competition with one another. And both give the same explanation—the growing geopolitical rivalry between the two biggest economies, the United States and China.
This is visible right across the board. Participants in the G20 summit of leading economies in Rome, Italy last weekend were treated to a homily from their host, Italian prime minister Mario Draghi.
“Multilateralism is the best answer to the problems we face today … From the pandemic, to climate change, to fair and equitable taxation, going it all alone is simply not an option,” Draghi stated.
But the leaders of the two main rivals to the US—Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia—voted against multilateralism. Neither went to Rome for the G20 and neither are going to Cop26 in Glasgow. They don’t want Western‑orchestrated summits to succeed.
Since it’s true that the main global problems have to be dealt with collectively, this is bad news. But the Anglo-French spat shows that the Western camp itself is divided.
The EU is split over how to deal with the increasing authoritarianism of the Hungarian and Polish regimes. North European states, where economic and political liberalism is still strong, want to take a hard line. But Germany’s Angela Merkel, in her swan song before she steps down as chancellor, wants a face-saving compromise. Her protege von der Leyen is too weak to resolve these divisions.
The most bizarre division is over US nuclear strategy. President Joe Biden is considering publicly renouncing the first use of nuclear weapons and announcing the US will resort to them only in very narrow circumstances. These include when it is directly attacked or immediately threatened.
Leading allies—Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Australia—are using the summits to lobby him not to make this change.
These states want the world to continue to live under the shadow of nuclear war because they feel safer that way.
The Financial Times explains, “American policy towards the use of nuclear weapons has, since the cold war, remained intentionally vague, suggesting the US could use them preemptively and allowing allies in both Europe and Asia a clear sense of protection under the American ‘nuclear umbrella’.”
And this comes at a time when the strategic arms race between the US, China, and Russia is speeding up. Russia is modernising its nuclear weapons systems and China has tested a hypersonic missile that could bypass US anti ballistic missile defences.
Under the impact of a triple crisis—economic stagnation, growing chaos caused by capitalism’s destruction of nature, and intense Great Power competition—the international state system is fragmenting. And with potentially dangerous consequences.