Redefining the ‘Centre’: International Economic Law and Grand Strategy in a Multipolar World

 

By Horia Ciurtin*

(Legal) Multipolarity Revisited: What Lies Beyond Westphalia?

This brief introduction to such an ambitious thematic must undoubtedly commence by positing its adherence to the (non-legal) core concept of ‘grand strategy’ and its realist avatars in international economic law. More precisely, it shall be argued that – at a certain level – the normative sphere is instrumentalised by competing nomothetic actors in order to enhance their power position and joint economic security, in a troubled multipolar world.

Thus, following John Mearsheimer’s influential paradigm and his (in)famous 1994 article regarding the false promise of international institutions, it can be affirmed that the “[international] institutions are basically a reflection of distribution of power in the world” and that the most powerful actors in the system “create and shape institutions so that they can maintain their share of world power, or even increase it”. For these reasons, international law and its main agents – international institutions – represent a formalised, but temporary consensus in the clash of competing interests.

However, this side of the story is entirely accurate only for an international arena dominated solely by sovereign state actors. Presently, as the Westphalian international system of autarchic legalities disintegrates, paving the way for a post-sovereign order, a different relation between legal macro-spaces (or, as Carl Schmitt famously called them, Grossräume) seems to emerge. New power blocs are forged from the global economic bellum omnium contra omnes, allowing them to surpass the notion of sovereignty and building stranger ‘empires’ bound together by the cold letter of international treaties which – eventually – develops into a more stable quasi-constitutional internal order.

topic-law-institutions.jpgThe European Union, the NAFTA space and the Eurasian Union are just a few examples of this trend. Each of these blocs implies a loss or – at least – a limitation of state sovereignty in several fields, in the quest for attaining the upper hand in a larger global confrontation with other blocs or singular actors. In a certain way, some sovereignty is individually lost so that the sovereigns might increase its projected power in a joint manner, following their grand strategy for hegemony.

In such circumstances, the classical balance of power cannot any longer occur between single states and their shifting alliances, but rather among macro-spaces united in formal legal agreements (later turned into quasi-constitutional orders). Even though, as posited by Mearsheimer and other realists, self-interest and the desire for hegemony might drive sovereigns into such legal constructs, their origin does not account for their further development.

Thus, once roaming the international arena, macro-spaces appear as a new breed of economic ‘predators’, more powerful and more fit for survival than the sovereigns taken separately, factor which convinces such states that a (post)sovereign structural alignment might take them further in the quest for power and hegemony, despite having to share some part of the spoils with the co-victors.

Normative Mimesis: Imperial Weapon or Remedy for Lingering Divisions?

In such a context, can we still refer to a truly international system or just a series of regional sub-orders that economically interact in an episodic manner? Is the international order now also territorially fragmented, in addition to the already decried functional fragmentation?

If once upon an idealist time, ‘autonomous’ normative systems – such as FTAs, BITs, multilateral trade agreements – and the institutions that administrate them were thought to act as gap-filling mechanisms, offering a cohesive and coherent paradigm to an otherwise centrifugal setting, the new global paradigm reveals the original realist tenet.

More precisely, major power brokers – be it soft or traditional – use such instruments for their own strategic goals. While alignment with like-actors is carefully negotiated in a quest for convergence of paradigms and tactics, the relationship with non-aligned or competing actors is defined in different terms, seeking to advocate for rules that would attract the other in one’s own normative realm.

Setting an example, triggers normative mimesis. A ‘centre’ dominates the periphery solely by creating a model. With a model consistent enough, advocated by an actor strong enough (often adversarial), there commences a process of legal emulation and ‘bandwagoning’. The ones left on the margins will try to imitate the centre’s model in order to gain recognition and reflect its power. Once the peripheries and non-aligned actors had been attracted in the ‘gravitational’ area of a hegemonic actor, other hegemons might succumb to the newly created rules. Imitation is the beginning of legal dominion.

However, such a strategic ‘great game’ in the field of international economic law might not have results as cynical as its origins appear to be. The ailing divisions and fragmentation of this system might benefit from mimetic normativism, forcing reluctant actors in one direction or another and opening the path to an ‘imposed’ con vergence, but nonetheless convergence.

Between TPP and TTIP: Where is the ‘Centre’ of the World?

Such realities and tactics is what determined the BIT ‘European gold standard’ to be quasi-universal in the 20th century. It attracted in its sphere of legal influence both the north-American actors, the ‘Third World’, the Communist and post-Communist states. With few exceptions, such a model became the undisputed norm in international investment law. The trend set by EU (EC) member states in their bilateral relations reverberated across the globe, enveloping former colonies and present allies, benefactors and adversaries, richer and poorer states, without limits or tactical setbacks.

However, the first actor to start diverging from the model was undoubtedly the United States. Near the turn of the century, its FTAs and ‘model BITs’ were developed in an innovative way, reflecting a change of options and a new geopolitical framework. Part of another grand strategy, the US new FTAs and model BITs offered an alternative to the classical ‘neat’ European-inspired BIT, advocating a more expansive view upon international trade and investment.

Following this pattern, the US began the negotiation of two ample FTAs (including consistent investment chapters) along its new comprehensive trade and investment policy. Concentrating in ‘crossing’ both oceans, the US crafted a strategy of gaining an intermediary position between its Asian alterity and European kinship, acting both as a bridge and unavoidable toll-house. With this goal in mind, the US acted so as to transform itself into the epicentre of a globalised world that seems to be increasingly multipolar. Thus, in its design, even though the international arena is unavoidable moving towards plurality, the actors need not be of equal rank. Asymmetry reigns even better in a multipolar setting, allowing north America to be the utmost centre among several centres.

TPP. The first of these two agreements – TPP – involved the strategic lines of concentrating on the Asian ‘pivot’ and attracted twelve states from all around the Pacific Rim (both from North/South America, Asia and Australia), in a multilateral effort to create an open economic space. However, everybody seemed (and still seems) to diplomatically ignore the geopolitical elephant in the room: the total absence of China from the negotiations. If this was merely a legal-economic instrument, such a choice and development would have proved incomprehensible.

If, on the other hand, one analysed the situation (geo)politically, it might lead to different conclusions: (a) either this is one initial step of a ‘containment’ strategy directed against China, (b) or the relationship with China is a privileged one, deserving a bilateral approach between two sovereigns of equal calibre.

Nonetheless, even though China is the great absentee in the TPP game, the conclusion of this agreement – with its myriad of typically American exceptions and derogations – sets the scene for any further development of this legal sphere. The TPP example has been set and – with some effort – it will be ratified and come into full force before the US finishes the negotiations with other high-profile ‘centres’ such, representing a ‘living’ precedent that might compel other actors to follow this model or – at least – to make substantial concessions from their previous practice in the FTA/IIA area.

TTIP. As regards the negotiation of the comprehensive agreement with the European Union, the situation proved to be different from the outset. The 28 member states had a single voice in the negotiation (unlike the 11 Pacific states) with the US and their joint economies accounted for a higher power. One EU tactic for reaching an initial negotiation equilibrium was not to approach the US as part of a larger NAFTA space, but rather to take on individually each of the NAFTA states. Therefore, in the TTIP process, asymmetry was less evident and no decisive ‘upper hands’ appeared during the game.

Moreover, the EU itself also managed to have its ‘model’ tested and set out, in the FTA with Singapore and in the finalised agreement with Canada. At the same time, it also began a more ample FTA programme, envisioning a deal with Vietnam, India, South Korea and – eventually – China. Thus, the EU also strives to be the trend-setter in the FTA/IIA area, introducing its own innovations and idiosyncrasies, concentrating upon Asia and the Pacific Rim itself.

In these circumstances, TPP, EUFSTA, CETA proved to be a ‘prologue’ to the much anticipated clash of EU and US during TTIP negotiations, leaving both actors bound to their own models and with less room for manoeuvre. However, what keeps them wired to the endless rounds of negotiations (so far, eleven) is the idea that – once such an agreement reached – it will transform these two ‘centres’ in a formally allied mega-centre that irremediably sets the example for the entire world.

This is the reason for which each of the actors wishes to see its own model enshrined in TTIP. Once there, it will be the model. And the normative mimesis triggered thereafter will emulate the rules of the hegemon that managed to formalise its legal strategy in such an influential agreement.

This article has been originally published on the EFILA blog.

(*Horia Ciurtin is a legal adviser in the field of international arbitration and investment law for Scandic Distilleries S.A. (Romania), as well as Managing Editor of the EFILA blog (Brussels) and Editor at VERSO Journal (Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca, Romania), one of the leading cultural journals from Romania. He is the author of  the constitutional law and legal philosophy volume “The Dilemmas of Constitutional Review: Inquiry in the Euro-American Paradigms”, Rosetti International, Bucharest, 2013.  In 2014, Horia was awarded with the Honorable Mention in the Nappert Prize in International Arbitration and International Commercial Law (organized by McGill University).

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