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Home Opinion Global security and global social democracy

Global security and global social democracy

Martin Shaw - 20 October 2010

Internationalism once lay at the heart of the progressive movement, yet in recent years the idea appears to have lost its appeal for many social democrats. Responding to this trend Pascal Lamy argued to Policy Network that the globalisation of capitalism requires a response of equivalent ambition and boldness from social democrats. In this essay series key thinkers debate the challenge laid down by Lamy.

Pascal Lamy is largely right. Social democracy has lost its way in considerable part because it lost its early internationalism, and sticks to national, or at least regional, perspectives in a world which is globalising. He is also right to say that the challenge is huge, fundamental, and requires intellectual reorientation before practical politics can really adapt.

Even so, it seems to me that he understates the depth of the problem, which is rooted in the early as well as the recent history of the labour movement, and is linked to the radical geopolitical as well as economic upheavals which have made the late capitalist world.

Pascal is right to locate much of the problem in social democracy’s traditional economism: but solutions will require us to confront the military and security arenas, which are missing from his argument, but which have contributed enormously to shaping both social democracy’s past successes and its present weakness.

Social democracy was born in the nineteenth century with an internationalist outlook, deriving from a wide range of intellectual and social roots. The belief that workers’ movements must combine to challenge capital - which even in those days was breaking through national boundaries - was widely embraced. And yet social democracy, like capitalism, was developing within European nation-states which were also becoming world empires.

From the start, this context posed two huge challenges to social democracy: the ‘colonial question’ (in today’s terms, the problem of relations between ‘advanced’ and ‘developing’ countries) and the question of war and peace resulting from inter-imperial rivalries. Social democracy’s internationalism was compromised - even a century ago - by its inabilities to confront either the huge inequalities and oppression resulting from colonial power or the violent national polarisations resulting from imperial conflict.

Instead, European social democracy rode the tigers of empire and war, gaining office in many countries and extracting full parliamentary democracy and social welfare in return. Yet the outcome was that social-democratic parties were tied before the Second World War to their respective nation-states and after it - as Western European empires dissolved and nation-states lost their traditional military-political autonomy - to US hegemony.

During the Cold War, the majorities in almost all social-democratic parties were Atlanticist, while communist parties were pro-Soviet. Neutralists who stood for a genuine internationalism beyond the bloc system (the original ‘third way’) were marginalised. Today, nearly all the states in which social-democratic parties are strong are members of NATO, contribute to NATO missions (for example in Afghanistan), and are allied to the USA.

Why does this matter? In one sense, we should be hugely grateful for the pan-Western integration which developed during the Cold War. At least it prevented further intra-European wars of the kind that bedevilled the world in the first half of the twentieth century. And it led to the European Union, without which a financial crisis and recession of the kind that began in 2008 might have led to depression, protectionism and currency crises far, far worse than those we have actually experienced.

And yet, in relation to Lamy’s global challenges, this integration tied Europe and social democracy so closely to the USA that they find it difficult, today, to resist even the most disastrous proposals that come out of Washington. Gerhard Schroeder (and Jacques Chirac) may have dissented, but Tony Blair was a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq. Over Afghanistan, moreover, social democrats were universally supportive of the USA. Even today British Labour’s new leader, Ed Miliband, couples his statement that ‘we were wrong’ over Iraq with renewed backing for Obama’s Afghan war.

So the problem for the global social democracy that Pascal wants us to forge is not that we are old-style nationalists. I have just returned from a seminar on the Spanish Security Strategy, run by a working group established by Spain’s Socialist government and chaired by the doyen of European social democracy, Javier Solana. I can report that in Spain at least, we are all internationalists, at least in a EU and NATO sense. I don’t think this is atypical of European social democrats today, although in refusing even to call their policy a ‘national’ strategy the Spanish socialists probably went an extra mile.

No, the problem is that social democratic internationalism doesn’t go very far, or at least not very deeply, beyond the EU and NATO context. True, as Pascal suggests, social democratic governments have generally got nearer to internationally agreed aid targets than have conservative Western governments. True, social democrats are normally sympathetic to the demands for international solidarity posed by war, genocide and the consequences of climate change, and are often more consistent supporters of human rights than their right-wing counterparts.

But if, as he says, ‘the “social question” is as burning an issue at the beginning of the 21st century as it was in the ... 19th century’, it is hard to see European social democracy showing the same fire in its belly over world poverty and rights violations today as it did in addressing these issues in its own countries a hundred or more years ago. In the end, to imagine a real global social democracy is to imagine changes in the world distribution of wealth, opportunity and power which make 0.7 per cent aid targets seem like small change.

Just as even conservative governments (like the new coalition in the UK) are having to grapple with issues of economic and social justice within nation-states in a new way, so as social democrats we have to radically rethink global equality - we need ideas, strategies and institutions for a sustainable, much, much more equal world, in which Western citizens are going to have to change their way of life far more radically than anything even the most progressive social democratic party currently imagines.

Pascal is absolutely correct that social democracy, overwhelmingly ensconced in Europe, needs to reach out to non-Western political parties and movements. We need, however, to think of this outreach in a more discriminating and less governmentalised way. We need to link with and encourage those movements (for example, trade union, environmental and human rights movements) as well as parties, whether formally social-democratic or not, whether governmental or not, who share the core values of equality, social justice and democracy.

Thus of the three potential protagonists that Pascal mentions, a dialogue with the Brazilian Workers’ Party fits this bill, one with the Chinese Communist Party does not, and I am not sure about the Indian Congress Party either. While we need to be sensitive, as he says, to differences in politics in other world regions, we should not compromise on the ‘democratic’ side of social democracy any more than on the ‘social’ side.

Ultimately, a global social democracy will not grow from the declining world region which Europe has now become. Only if movements of tens and hundreds of millions in the world’s majority regions develop ideas and parties of a broadly social democratic kind could global social democracy become a reality.

And along the way we have to address the huge geopolitical tensions which still threaten war. From east Asia, where relations between China, Japan, the Koreas and Vietnam are far from based in secure understandings, to south Asia where nuclear-armed India and Pakistan still lack a full modus vivendi, to central Asia where tensions between the ex-Soviet republics remain acute, and the Middle East where an Israeli attack on Iran could unleash extensive violence, nationalism blocks the development of anything resembling social democracy. This is without mentioning Africa, where complex, interconnected conflicts constantly threaten civilian life.

Only if social democrats can find ways of bridging these conflicts, of proposing and developing structures of global governance which inhibit these diverse tendencies towards violence, can the politics of social justice and democracy develop on a world scale. We need to globalise security, providing security from violence for billions of people, before we can fully resolve the huge questions of global poverty and inequality.

In the twentieth century, it took world wars and gigantic upheavals to propel social democracy forward, and stimulate the rethinking that was necessary. Will it require similar shocks to produce change today? Or, learning from the past, can we begin to develop a peaceful, just global order without going through such terrors? These are questions with as much import for the relatively prosperous North, home to social democracy, as for the South where neither the ‘national question’ nor the ‘social question’ is anywhere near to being resolved.

Martin Shaw is professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at Roehampton University, London, and honorary research professor of International Relations at Sussex University. His website is www.martinshaw.org

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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