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What Brexit and Trump mean for Global Justice and International Development

Updated Thursday, 23rd February 2017
Brexit and Donald Trump appear to drive global justice and international development efforts into unchartered waters says Professor Theo Papaioannou. 

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Donald Trump clapping in front of the American flag The UK’s vote for Brexit in the recent referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election are interrelated political phenomena. This is not only because, as has been repeatedly pointed out, they voiced the concerns of those people ‘left behind’ by globalisation. It also seems to mark the end of a liberal-cosmopolitan approach to global justice and international development that has provided moral justification to Western politics over the last 25 years, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In terms of international development, this liberal cosmopolitanism has been based on the view that there exist moral, legal and institutional obligations binding on all, independently of country and government. These universal obligations include the worth of individual freedom (protected through the universal application of human rights) and the worth of equality (protected through institutions of global justice).

The ideal character of this liberal cosmopolitanism offered a rather abstract, and in some respects naïve, understanding of the global structure of society. It lost track of concrete and localised problems of social relations, including oppression and exploitation in the era of high technological innovation. At the same time, it underplayed the ability of sovereign nation states to address these problems through social redistributive policies. Instead, liberal cosmopolitanism uncritically justified economic liberalism that led to dogmatic policies of free trade and privatisation around the world. Arguably, this dogmatism prevented formal democracies from addressing systemic crises of capitalism, such as environmental degradation and the alarming growth in poverty and inequality within nation-states. As a result of this failure, powerful economic elites came to completely control politics through lobbying and corruption. In the US the so called political establishment, expressed in the shape of Democrat candidate Hilary Clinton, failed to convince the voting public for her credibility in key battleground states such as Florida and Pennsylvania. However, she easily convinced the finance and banking elites of Wall Street who generously provided most of campaigning donations. In the UK, the so-called ‘Remain’ campaign failed to convince 51.9% of the voting public to support European ideas such as economic and political co-operation and cosmopolitan rights. The ‘Leave’ campaign, through a rhetoric of anti-migration and misleading economic arguments, succeeded in hijacking the debate about Europe and convincing the majority that falling living standards in the UK are due to the EU economic and political establishment, rather than the domestic austerity policies of recent Conservative governments.

In the aftermath of Brexit and Trump victories, the UK and the US find themselves governed by nationalist and inward looking leaders who are against the ideals of liberal cosmopolitanism. Although they have debatable democratic legitimacy - Trump won the American elections but not the popular vote and May did not win any elections and has no mandate from the electorate - this poses a huge challenge to global justice and international development for the following reasons. First of all, whatever the problems of liberal cosmopolitanism, one cannot deny that it has been providing justification for both British and American engagement with some global justice and development initiatives. These include powerful advocacy for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and commitment to international aid programmes. Secondly, the Brexit and Trump victories might mean a retreat to nationalism as a justification for policies based on economic and military power and not on co-operation for justice and development. It cannot be denied that liberal cosmopolitanism supported economic conditions whereby the richest 8 billionaires own the same wealth as almost half the rest of the world’s population (as much as the poorest 3.6 billion, according to Oxfam's report). However, new nationalistic trade policies might lead to fierce support for exploitative global corporations, the abandonment of poverty reduction policies and environmental measures, and even stronger military interventions for securing ownership of global energy resources. Thirdly, this is in essence a shift towards an unprecedented economic and cultural competition that might intensify conflict between declining powers (i.e. US and the UK) and emerging powers (i.e. China and India) for global domination. We can see this shift in both Trump’s claims that he will act more aggressively in international relations with Asia, and in high-profile attempts by the UK government to seek investment. Fourth, global civil society movements might resist such shifts but it is doubtful whether they will achieve significant change from outside formal politics. Having said that, global civil society resistance might succeed to put pressure on political institutions and thereby mitigate the impact of Brexit and Trump victories on peoples’ lives.    

In conclusion, the Brexit and Trump victories appear to drive global justice and international development efforts into unchartered waters. As political scientists and development experts we should perhaps learn the lesson of our era and stop making predictions, however, one thing seems to be pretty clear: human rights, the Sustainable Development Goals and cosmopolitan principles of justice and development will enter a long period of relativism and doubt that could eventually negate them as justifications for policy and practice.


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