Matt Kilcoyne is Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute
When I was growing up, I believed that the West had won. Not just won militarily, economically, or even culturally. But philosophically.
The enlightenment values of the United Kingdom, the free market popularised by thinkers in the United States, and the pragmatism of European countries converging after decades spent tearing each other asunder. No more a half-century long battle between communism and capitalism, no more chance of fascism or socialism holding down the liberties of the world’s peoples.
Slowly, but surely, the world had changed. Gradual liberalisation was inevitable. I thought, foolishly, that the empirics of a world made richer, with more choice, happier, freer, more tolerant people, engaged in commerce with others right across the world would be obvious to all.
I had not yet got that old enmities die hard and traditions die harder, or even that institutions really matter. I had misunderstood that, to a great degree, the victory of the liberal world order was one built on universal claims of the rights of men, but predicated on an uneasy realist peace between American, CANZUK (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK), and European ideals.
I had mistaken the peace and prosperity that coincided with the end of the Cold War as a victory of our civilisations – when really other rulers, some far colder and more cruel, were always waiting to stake their claim.
To do so was wrong. Russian expansionism has re-emerged in Ukraine and Georgia and Putin has spent the past decade sabre rattling at Middle Eastern and Baltic states. Erdogan’s Ottomanite expressions in Turkey and his dalliances in Syria and Libya stand out too. And, of course, China – in its outwardly hostile relations to Taiwan, military skirmishes over the border with India, and treaty-defying legislation over Hong Kong.
Each of these states are nations, but I suspect that the leaders of them think of the international order they find themselves in as too limiting of their ambitions. They mean to mould the world around their vision for their own seemingly exceptional civilisations.
I suspect you know this in your heart of hearts. Russia’s consecration of the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was egregious in its scale and its pomp. Christ has been co-opted to glorify the victories of the Red Army. Erdogan’s reconversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque marks the effective end of the secular republic of Ataturk. China’s placement of party power in Hong Kong, in silencing critics and arresting students for holding flags, shows a commitment to its communist ideology above that of international treaty obligations.
Foreign policy is not something the Adam Smith Institute focuses on too heavily. We prefer the domestic, and learning from the best of the rest around the world. The relations between foreign governments and our own is a fascination of some policy wonks, but we’d far rather ambassadors were left handing out Ferrero Rocher than having any real bearing on the everyday dealings between companies, scholars, friends, and family.
To that end our policies are focused on trying to make life as free as possible for people here, while proposing policy that would open up new opportunities overseas for trade and exchange. Sometimes though, the rest of the world comes knocking and you should not ignore when wolves are at the door.
Adam Smith said in his Lectures on Jurisprudence that “Opulence and Freedom, [are] the two greatest blessings men can possess.” I do not for a second suppose that he mistook the order of his words. People can tolerate lower levels of freedom if they’re rich enough to have choices left. However, there comes a point where a lack of freedom threatens the peace of a place.
In his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith makes the correct observation that “little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”
I’m afraid to say that Hong Kong’s opulence looks set to diminish. Yesterday the tolerable administration of justice was tested right to breaking point.
The arrest of the founder of Apple Daily, journalist Jimmy Lai, the arrest of ITV News freelancer and British National Wilson Li, young pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow and the likes of Reuters, AP and AFP from a news conference show that individuals are now targets of the state. It shows too that the commitment under Article 4 of the new National Security Law supposedly upholding freedom of the press is not worth the paper it is printed upon.
This is a test of the West’s resolve and our ability to act. But the West is splintered. Macron’s acquiescence to Xi Jingping showed up a coward’s response. The French president is a man of action as his stint in Lebanon shows but no action is forthcoming on China. Merkel decided her little chats with Beijing were worth more than the rights of Chinese people. The EU Commission called the National Security Law deplorable but again did nothing beyond pushing the press release to save face at home.
The CANZUK states though, and the US, have risen to the occasion. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom joined the USA in condemning moves to shut down free and fair elections in Hong Kong this autumn. Australia and the UK joined Taiwan in offering refuge from those looking to escape communist control of the city.
The universal values that we preached, that we set in the basic law of Hong Kong, have been an inspiration to Hong Kongers that took to the streets. It was the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes that flew in protestors hands.
Yes the fact of easy geography plays to regional blocs strengths. But our common cause in recent months with CANZUK states on Russia and Chinese aggression has shown the ease with which we, with common language, common political systems, common history, common sense of purpose, translate into a sheer force of fact re-emergence of a global role that has eluded the mandarins in the foreign office for far too long.
Our civilisation needs champions to save it from opponents and challengers abroad, but also nationalists at home. Greater freedoms for us all, and expanded out to include those in our sister countries overseas allow us all to be the champions of it through our deeds. We must defend the gains of globalisation for the whole of the world, while challenging those that seek to usurp the norms that made those gains possible.
Adam Smith was right when he argued that there was a great deal of ruin in a nation. But there might yet be a great deal of good in our civilisation.
At 6-7pm tonight, the Adam Smith Institute is hosting an event titled: In Defence of Globalisation. Click this link to register your place.
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Author: Matt Kilcoyne
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