Dec 24, 1814 – Signing of the Treaty of Ghent between USA and UK
Dec 24, 2014 – Arms Trade Treaty
While we have been commemorating the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, it is now exactly 200 years since the UK and USA signed the Treaty of Ghent signaling the end to the War of 1812 and the establishment in British eyes of American equality, firm agreement on borders and freedom to sail the seas and an agreement to seek the end of slave trafficking. The Treaty was deemed to be “an honourable peace” for the United States that many believe was a rallying call to its citizens – honourably exiting the War with firm borders and a fundamental view of nationhood. The UK and USA have been at peace (outside the odd skirmish) for 200 years and “The Star Spangled Banner” (written in 1814 to commemorate the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay by the Royal Navy) remains the anthem of the USA to this day – while its lyrics remain constant:
“And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”
During those 200 years, however, the world has been stricken with world wars and regional conflicts that rewrote borders almost everywhere. We live now with the consequences of borders drawn up by Empires that bore very little resemblance to the needs of the people within them. In many countries in Africa and Asia, nations were brought into being that collected many different peoples. In Africa, these people were then subjected to rulers that grouped them into so-called tribes (that Fukuyama describes as newly created) and have been the cause of much bloodshed since then. Nigeria, for example, was never a nation until it was created by the British and the Muslim north and Christian south are uneasy bedfellows.
21st Century Nationhood
The 21st Century offers both great opportunities and great risks. The nations that have been established during those last 200 years may, in many cases, bear little resemblance even after all those years to the people that live there.
- We see this in nations like Ukraine where Russia is attempting destabilization through the indigenous Russian populations in the East.
- We see this in a country like Nigeria – split between a Muslim north and a mainly Christian south.
- We see this throughout the Middle East where the so-called Islamic State (IS) calls for a caliphate and an end to the “arbitrary” borders brought in by the British and others after the First World War, where Sunni and Shia are pitted against each other.
- We see it in many African states, where colonial rulers attempted to develop states which had not existed before and where definition by nation is still hugely misunderstood.
- We see it in China where Tibet has long wanted its independence and where the Uighurs still rally against Han domination.
- We see it even in western Europe where, for example, the Scots only narrowly decided to remain in the UK after a referendum, where the Catalans are keen to split from Spain and where many northern Italians yearn to split from the under-developed and relatively ungovernable south.
- We saw it in the Soviet Union which broke up into states that were better aligned;
- We saw it as Yugoslavia split.
- We saw it as Czechoslovakia split.
The 21st Century has, however, witnessed a rapid drive to globalism so that the inter-relationships of countries with others are more complicated than ever. Whether it is China in Africa or the USA in Central America, leading economies are progressively more dependent on others.
This is now a world where multi-national companies are in competitive positions with nations. Maybe not in the same way that the British East India Company – which still had its monopoly intact at the time of the Treaty of Ghent in 1812 – but where agreements under way such as TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) between the EU and USA, companies are expanding their rights to take Governments to court under the ISDS – investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. Several countries (such as South Africa and Indonesia) are now opting out of such arrangements which provide an equality between corporations and governments that could well be said to be anti-democratic.
Beyond companies, nations are increasingly engaged in arenas such as the UN, EU, NAFTA, African Union, ASEAN and multitudes of other multi-national engagement devices.
With the rise of the internet and social media, it is also far easier for individuals from opposite sides of the world to group together and do so within seconds.
Orwell posited three regional groupings with continuous warfare in his “1984”. 66 years on from when that book was written, the bipolar world of the US and Soviet Union became the unipolar world of the USA and now sees the rise of China fighting for prime position economically and others fighting for the next division placings within a world of fast communication and many forms of potential divisiveness and opportunities for engagement.
Big Brother may well be in place but it is more two-way as Snowden recently showed. As long as there remains a free press and the use of the internet is available, this will continue in ways that Orwell did not foresee (outside of states like North Korea and, at a lower level, China).
It is not just in the Middle East that the sands shift as IS is fought by the Kurds and local national forces.
Sands continuously shift throughout the world as people group around a variety of causes, ideas and faiths and behind a variety of organisations and individuals. In a complex world, change is constant as our experiences evolve. However, it is clear that nations can no longer hide within themselves – each nation is exposed externally and internally as communication systems expand.
It took several weeks for the fact that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed to be relayed to those in the USA still fighting and dying.
Now, drones don’t just provide the means to inflict missiles on enemies but also provide data and information within milliseconds. Mobile phones provide instant photos and videos worldwide. The so-called Arab Spring was clearly accelerated by such media and took Middle Eastern governments by surprise as a result of that speed. In Tunisia, the results have been impressive for democracy even if elsewhere the forces for vested interests have re-emerged.
We do not know how humans will be organized in 200 years’ time. Issues like the environment and global warming will take precedence as the real (rather than promised) effects bite. These and other impacts will provide a changing environment that will, as always, require the most from human ingenuity. As we would appear to the world of 1814, the world of 2214 will feel very different to now – even if we can assume that technology will maintain our enjoyment of the planet.
But, what we assume to be stable – the nations that we are part of – will undoubtedly shift over this century and beyond. As rapid and increasingly ubiquitous communications become ever more the norm for most of us, and, after what may be a long period of difficult adjustment, there could be a tendency towards a better understanding of humanity beyond national boundaries and of our place on this planet.
While the Treaty of Ghent is hardly a cause of much celebration and it has been almost forgotten amongst the sounds of WWI commemorations, it was significant in that it signaled friendly relations between the most prosperous nation on earth at the time (the UK) and its wayward child (the USA) – two “united” nations that remain and prosper 200 years later – much of that owing to their “special” relationship that has matured during that time.
Today, 24th December, 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) comes into effect. Could this be the positive event that will be celebrated 200 years from now? That Treaty has been signed up to by 130 nations – not even signed by Russia and China and still to be ratified by one of the signatories to the Treaty of Ghent – the USA. It took several months for the ratification of that Treaty by the US Senate in 2015 – owing mainly to communication delays. There is no such excuse in 2014/15. Let the ATT not be delayed any further – let nations not be swayed by the arms companies.
For now – let’s all enjoy the festive season and my best wishes for 2015!