The importance of internationalism


Our world is becoming increasingly interconnected and therefore interdependent because of globalisation. Not only that, but there are a number of systemic issues that cannot be resolved solely through independent nation states. This combination of interdependence on other parties and systemic issues makes the presence of robust internationalism of paramount importance. 

Internationalism calls for greater cooperation among people irrespective of nationality, culture, politics, or other identities. Without internationalism, coordination problems emerge that make resolving globally systemic issues incredibly difficult.

The most prominent examples of internationalism today include Intergovernmental Organisations (IGO’s) such as the EU, African Union, World Bank, UN, NATO, ASEAN, IPCC, WTO, Mercosur, OECD, and the League of Arab States.

As a result of increasing globalisation, changing events or decisions within particular nations can have a ripple effect that goes far beyond the bounds of a nation’s borders. Prominent examples include the Arab Spring, the Global Financial Crisis, the internet, and Brexit. This can be problematic when the world feels the pain resulting from a decision made by an individual nation which they have no control over. Having international mechanisms with some form of accountability attached to such forces would work to counteract, dampen the negative effects of, or enhance the positive effects of any decisions or events with wider consequences. 

For example, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) sets agreed upon terms for international trade that aim to ensure that all trade is reasonably fair and minimises any manipulation between trade partners with any power inequities. It has also been successful in playing a significant role in the widespread reduction of trade protectionism - a concern that has existed since at least the time of mercantilism. While there are legitimate concerns about the WTO and other intergovernmental organisations, it serves as an illustrative example of an international mechanism.

Moreover, we also have a number of globally systemic issues that currently exist and will potentially exist that cannot be resolved through the decisions of a single-state actor. Some of these include and may include: climate change, artificial general intelligence, nuclear disarmament, modifying the human genome, automation, cyberterrorism, global tax avoidance, and catastrophe risk.

Many of these problems arise as a result of coordination problems that do not have a powerful arbiter or mechanism that is capable of encouraging cooperation or resolving disputes meaningfully. 

This can occur with common goods and public goods, because there is no substantial international mechanism for supplying public goods and preserving common goods. Potentially the most disastrous example of the tragedy of the commons involves climate stability efforts, where certain resources are consumed in excess to the detriment of long-term ecological stability. This is particularly problematic when the costs of resolving this problem are externalities and the benefits are accrued regardless of whether or not you internalise the costs of your behaviour, thus encouraging a free-rider problem. Treaties such as the Paris Accords of 2016 and the Kyoto Protocol of 2005 are considerable achievements that resemble one form of internationalism. However, there are no enforceable accountability mechanisms attached to these agreed upon goals and their stability can be subject to the whims or political shakeups of large signatories. This leaves the tension fundamentally unresolved in terms of the incentives causing the issue.

These coordination problems can also arise when strategic decisions between states resemble a prisoner’s dilemma. A historical example of this would be the arms race and the “cult of the offensive” doctrine in the build-up to World War 1, whereby it is believed that the combination of weapon proliferation and the perception that there was a first-mover advantage in offensive war were significant underlying causes of World War 1. Failing to resolve these coordination problems had disastrous consequences that reverberated far beyond WW1. Examples that are currently relevant include nuclear proliferation and an artificial intelligence arms race. Having a form of internationalism or a mechanism that establishes trust between competing nations would significantly increase the likelihood of treaties being formed that minimise this concern. This can be seen partially in the case of nuclear disarmament, whereby IGO’s such as the UN have mediated talks, as well as civilian organisations and a widespread disarmament movement agitating for change on the issue. This has resulted in a number of significant disarmament treaties.

As alluded to in the previous examples, “internationalism” doesn’t necessarily mean “intergovernmental organisation”. There is a subtle distinction between internationalism and IGO’s in this piece. This being that IGO’s are centralised entities, whereas internationalism merely encourages some form of mobilisation, institutional or otherwise. It can also take multiple forms that are compatible with a number of political and sociological sensibilities.

These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Consumer boycotts and activism

  • Private sector firms coming together to establish best practice

  • Cultural institutions

  • Non-profit sector 

  • Think tanks

  • Philanthropy

  • International labour movements

  • Intergovernmental organisations

  • International protests

  • International sporting events

  • Intergovernmental treaties

  • Professional practitioners establishing best practice and advocating for change

The particular form that internationalism takes is worth disputing, the need for internationalism is not.

Many of these systemic issues are either unlikely or impossible to resolve by single nation states, thereby requiring international cooperation. International cooperation is either unlikely or impossible to occur without robust internationalism and/or IGO’s to resolve coordination problems. This necessitates the creation, strengthening, expansion, and maintenance of internationalism to increase our chances of resolving globally systemic issues.

Author: Ben Griffiths | National Affairs Director