The social science polymath Richard Rosecrance, in his book The Rise of the Trading State, stipulated the existence of “two worlds” of international relations: a land-based world in which states fight over territory for power and a sea-based world in which states prosper peacefully through international trade. Despite the imperfection of this theoretical model, Rosecrance was able to tease out a rather interesting implication: that the nature of international relations depended at least in part on the physical properties of the substance upon which those relations ensue. Land yields war through conquest, where water yields peace through exchange. Throughout most of human civilization, the land-based world had the upper hand, thus producing the costly wars we observe throughout history. In step with the liberal school of thought in international relations, Rosecrance theorized that a rise in the influence and prestige of the sea-based system would promote greater peace through interdependence – a supposition that became part and parcel of US foreign policy in the post-WWII global order. In this new global order, the sea-based system would get the upper hand.
Certainly, this is the case when would look at the data. As illustrated in the graph below, world exports as a share of global product (or “world GDP”) has increased markedly since WWII.
And by at least one measure, we appear to be living in one of the safest eras in perhaps all of human civilization.
So, it appears that the liberal world view has won. Rosecrance’s prognostication of the rise of the sea-based world mitigating the scourge of war seems to pan out. While there are obviously other factors at play contributing to the decrease in world-wide battle deaths, the interconnectedness of the liberal world economy has arguable been a significant contributor to the era of relative peace in which we now find ourselves.
However, the rise of the sea-based world complicates the international community’s efforts to tackle another looming collective security problem – climate change, an issue for which President Obama recently laid out a new set of regulations and – as the graphic below illustrates – is driven primarily by increased emissions of fossil fuels.
While the scholarly discussion of global trade and climate change focuses mostly on events in the land-based world such as the deterioration of environmental regulation due to increased global competition, little scholarly ink has been spilled discussing the nexus of trade and climate change in the sea-based world – international shipping. This gap in the discourse is particularly interesting given what we know about the environmental effects of container shipping. It is estimated that 16 container ships produce the same level of pollution as all of the world’s cars, and shipping is responsible for 4.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions – figures that are estimated to increase as container shipping increases (see graph below).
While there are some efforts to make shipping more environmentally friendly, the global differentiation in shipping costs produces a wide distribution in shipping efficiency. At some point, policymakers will have to face the fact that promoting free trade and reducing carbon emissions is an untenable agenda if we ignore the impact of global container shipping, an issue that is often swept under the rug. As someone who does research on international trade, I find it interesting that scholars have not exposed this inconsistency in the contemporary Western liberal political economic approach. Politicians across Western countries speak the discourse of expanding free trade and combating climate change without any allusion to the issue at which these two agendas conflict.
So it seems the sea-based world is not without its conflicts. This time, however, rather than states fighting over Earth, the Earth is fighting with the states.
I ship you not, my friend.