Global Partners: An Astounding Evolution

Last week, the most astounding military integration pact in the history of Western civilization became a reality.

Hyperbole? Perhaps … and yet it’s difficult to name a treaty that has united the military defense systems of a more historic pair of rivals than France and Great Britain. For almost a millennium, these nations have waged some of humanity’s most memorable battles.

Beginning with William the Conqueror’s successful conquest of the British Isles in 1066, each nation has earned its fair share of stirring battlefield victories. In the 1400s, for instance, Joan of Arc’s spirited defense of the French homeland was matched against Henry V’s stirring victory at Agincourt; Joan was later canonized by a grateful Catholic Church, and Henry V was later immortalized by an admiring William Shakespeare. More recently, during the 1800s, the French emperor Napoleon conquered much of Europe, only to be defeated by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.

Although Britain and France later became allies during the 20th century, and eventually agreed to a defense cooperation pact with the establishment of the North American Treat Organization (NATO) in 1949, this week’s agreement marks a watershed moment involving the outright integration of sovereign military forces. But why did it occur now? As is often the case with such geopolitical strategies, the timing can be explained with an analysis of global economics.

The Demise of the Safety Net

Although renowned economists like Paul Krugman have won Nobel Prizes and other plaudits by focusing on the immediate effects of the global economic crash of 2008, the long term ramifications of that fiscal catastrophe will continue to emerge for years. Many mature Western democracies, for instance, will need to roll back generous social safety net programs that were developed during the last century.

France, for instance, is still reeling from a series of devastating labor strikes over the roll back of its national retirement age from 60 to 62. Britain is bracing for the most draconian reductions in government benefits since Word War II. And in the United States, citizens have just elected an overwhelming number of conservative Republicans who oppose the institution of a costly national health care plan.

In a sense, the integration of military forces represents a similar cost reduction measure that is designed to address soaring government deficits in mature Western nations. But why are newly emerging economies in regions like southeastern Asia embracing new global partnerships as well?

Good Morning, Vietnam!

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, has visited Vietnam twice within the past three months to extend an ongoing political, security, and defense dialogue between the two nations. A cooperative military dialogue between Vietnam and America? That represents one of the most unusual partnerships imaginable, considering the brutal war that scarred both nations in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Both Vietnam and the United States, though, now consider each other far less of a strategic threat than the rise of the muscular and confident Chinese economic colossus. The nations have thus approached each other to begin a process of reconciliation; for similar reasons, America has also reached out to India (which hosted a visit by President Obama last week) and Russia (which quite literally received a red reset button from Secretary Clinton to symbolize their new relationship).

The Franco-British pact can thus be seen as one of a series of events — albeit an unusually historic one — that have brought former rivals or enemies together to pursue new strategic partnerships. Whether for budgetary cost or trading power considerations, the motivating factors for these activities have been primarily fiscal and economic in nature.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Although prognostication is a discipline that is fraught with failure, one can easily predict the expansion of such efforts to develop new friendships on the foundations of old rivalries. In particular, such initiatives will likely continue to be nurtured in situations where the economic interests of former rivals clearly converge.

Russia, for instance, is seeking to diversify its customer base for its energy resources by building new pipelines away from Europe and into Asian nations that were once wary of the Soviet threat. And Turkey is increasingly reaching out to the Arab nations of the Middle East to develop new trading relationships.

When the Soviet Union fell in the late twentieth history, Johns Hopkins University professor Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the end of history and the permanent establishment of a relatively cohesive group of liberal democracies in all major nations across the globe. What appears to be emerging in the early twenty first century, though, is a complex web of global alliances that are based on economic interests and that evolve with changing circumstances.

Hmm. That’s the very same type of web, incidentally, as the web of alliances that is widely blamed for dragging most of our nations into the first great world war of the twentieth century.