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For most of the post-war period there have been countries that have used their power and influence to secure or maintain power and influence as well as significant economic gains within the multilateral system and rules-based international order. Now that more countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America want a greater share of the benefits, there are calls for this order to be abandoned.

It all seems similar to the belief expressed by a US trade representative two decades or more ago that the global trade regime embodied in the World Trade Organisation was “a rich man’s club” and that they wished it to remain that way. This seems consistent with the idea that the powerful tend to kick away the ladder once they get to the top and thereby prevent others from gaining power and influence. Let us look at a few cases.

I haven’t been able to wrap my head fully around the idea that growth is bad. I should add, in haste, that I also did not fall for the narrow argument that growth is necessarily good for the poor. Growth as an end in itself is quite meaningless, especially if it is passed off without discussions or efforts towards inclusivity and distribution. It can only lead to backslapping among economists, and the intellectually lazy position of “letting the market distribute”.

There is some sense in promoting “degrowth” as a way to limit the impact of rampant industrialisation on the environment — the liberal capitalist model and the Soviet communist models both led to quite rapacious environmental destruction. As good an objective as that may be, there have to be more serious, and intellectually humble, discussions about under what conditions degrowth as a portmanteau concept would purposefully address global inequality, poverty, youth unemployment, conflict, communicable disease and the climate crisis.

The fact is that many of today’s powerful countries built or maintained their prominence and place based on “economic growth”, which generally refers to expanded agriculture, manufacturing, industrial and financial services, and reaping the financial rewards over time. It does seem that now that fewer developed countries want to forge ahead with growth, the wealthy are kicking away the ladder, a phrase coined by the German-American theorist Friedrich List (1789—1846), an early thinker on political economy and progenitor of the infant industry argument.

Another recent development is the argument to abandon the multilateral system, the rules-based international order that underpins international co-operation and that serves global governance. A recent argument presented by Andreas Kluth, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist (and a former classmate at the London School of Economics) is that the system created after World War 2 was anachronistic and should be abandoned. He made an appeal that would surely appeal to patriots and anti-globalists in the West and satisfy the urges of radical “freedom” and “market” populists from Argentina to Hungary, and probably Singapore.

“People have laid down their lives for love, freedom, justice, the fatherland and more. But nobody has ever died clutching the banner of the rules-based international order. It’s time to junk that cliché and replace it with something more fitting ... It’s also a shibboleth that when used by American diplomats, in particular, makes US foreign policy look hypocritical from the Middle East to Africa, Asia and beyond,” Kluth wrote last week.

Compliance and enforcement

It sounds at first like a progressive move that is strengthened by Kluth’s reference to the Orwellian language of the rules-based international order. Nobody likes the world so eloquently described by George Orwell. By the way, there is something unsettling about Kluth’s use of language typically associated with patriotism in war. We should be clear — there are convincing reasons for maintaining the rules-based international order, and even better reasons to ensure compliance and enforcement.

It does seem quite disingenuous to (now) suggest that this order be abandoned, and kick away the ladder now that the powerful feel threatened by developing or poor countries climbing up that ladder. I believe, anyway, that the rising interest in abandoning the rules-based order has to do with powerful countries ignoring the laws (over the past several decades) that are supposed to make for better co-operation and global governance, and applying moral arguments selectively.

Not that specific moral positions are universally shared. Consider statements, claims and arguments such as “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, and that doozy “we think that 500,000 dead children was a price worth paying” or something to that effect used by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright to justify her country’s catastrophic sanctions on Iraq, which caused the deaths of about 1.5-million Iraqis by 2003.

There is a belief, a false promise, that poor countries can reach prosperity if they follow wealthy countries up the ladder. But there is no guarantee, nor may it be desirable, for every country in the world to become like the US.

A good place to start, nonetheless, is to make sure there is equal access to policy-making, that laws are equally applicable and that compliance and enforcement are guaranteed. This, surely, would be a better option than to kick the ladder away completely.

• Lagardien, an external examiner at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, has worked in the office of the chief economist of the World Bank as well as the secretariat of the National Planning Commission.

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