First edition of Abraham Ortelius‘ map of Asia (1572), displaying a vast network of waterways across East Asia, advocating his belief that a shipping route existed through China to the Northern Sea and thence, by way of the Northeast Passage, to Europe.
By Tim Abington. Tim is a 6th form student applying to study International Relations at the University of Birmingham in September.
Despite what would appear to be voters’ best attempts to say otherwise, there is still a case for multilateralism. Why? Because time and time again the physical world proves it can quickly overwhelm the human one when single states are simply not able to cope with a geography that ignores the human notions of sovereignty or national borders.
When talking about geography it’s hard not to use a map. Maps should be used more – they illustrate points in a direct manner that is hard to ignore.
So now, turning to your nearest atlas, flick to the relief map of the Middle East and glance at the contours. They show that anti-immigration arguments of misled compassion are missing a major point. Syrian refugees enter Europe partly because geography leaves little alternative. To the East are the Zagros and Elburz mountain ranges; to the South, the Syrian desert; neither are particularly hospitable or inviting to humans. To the West, the European plains, a flat relief, easily navigable and a moderate climate. It is ironic that one of the geographical factors that helped Europe conquer the world is now pushing it into a retreat.
Another geographical factor, climate change, goes well beyond that cliché image of a lonesome polar bear. It causes floods across Northern India whilst turning Southern Spain into a desert. Consequently, agriculture – always sensitive to its environment – is facing its biggest test in decades.
The Earth is getting warmer and crops are feeling its effects. Just as the English lawn turns yellow in summer, maize will wilt and die. Temperature rises will reduce growing seasons, increase heat stress and increase the range of various pests and disease vectors. There is no doubt that the ‘everyday staples’ will be affected by climate change. Last year, orange juice concentrate prices rose 21% as poor weather wreaked havoc with Brazilian harvests. Conditions are not going to get any more favourable, as the globe warms and air masses heat up, they hold a larger quantity of water vapour, resulting in greater precipitation. Quite simply, it rains more.
Across Northern Bangladesh the most common form of cultivated crop is Boro Rice, ideally suited to growing in shallow water. Yet all too easily, the entire crop is washed away by a rainfall that is just too much for paddy capacity. Rice forms the staple diet in South East Asia, so the issue is not limited in scope to just Bangladesh.
Staying in the region, South Asia is actually a perfect example of how international cooperation is required to overcome geographical barriers. The region is covered in rivers, wide and vast bodies of water, they ignore borders and flow as geography allows. The river sources are generally located in the Himalayan highlands of Nepal whilst the mouth flows out across the deltas of India. Any decisions made by Nepal, whether they be the building of dams or reservoirs, will have consequences all along the river basin, leaving rice paddies destroyed and populations displaced. Nepal imports $204 million of rice from India; it is in its interest to cooperate and minimise disruption to rice yields, humanitarian moralism aside, its own population needs feeding.
In September 2013 an article appeared in the ‘Financial Times’, “First Chinese cargo ship nears end of Northeast Passage transit”. 40 years beforehand, such a headline would only have been found in a science fiction novel. Yet a Chinese vessel, sailing from a port of Cold War enemy South Korea to the Netherlands – NATO and EU member – successfully completed a passage through Russian and Norwegian waters. The City saw it a testament to commercial enterprise and a sign of possible profits to come; multilateralists as proof of a need for international cooperation. International cooperation is required at all times, even more so than the current ‘hot spots’ of Suez and Panama, as ice, lack of infrastructure and a lack of civilisation in general make this a high risk (but arguably, a high reward) shipping route.
To maintain its pride of place as ‘the cheapest option’, container shipping operates to a ‘just-in-time principle’ – there is no place for petty disputes when it comes to arctic shipping. Information is needed and if that means cooperating with other less-desirable nations, then so be it.
These examples are but a tiny proportion of the multiplicity of cases where multilateral action is needed to respond to geographical hazards. The common theme across these responses is that it is in many nations’ best interests to act in concert, not so much due to ‘ideologies of cooperation’. Instead, multilateralism is required to counter geographical circumstances that overwhelm single nation states. Geography poses challenges, be it extreme weather, physical landforms or climate change. At the same time, international cooperation allows states to maintain their independence whilst overcoming these difficulties.
Geography remains a factor that will continue to determine domestic and foreign policy and any attempt to ignore it will, for the moment, remain futile.
PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.