The community of ASEAN as we shall know it by the end of 2015 will be one in which differences among member states will remain as noticeable as they have been.
Whereas Singapore can and will boast of a very high quality healthcare service available to its citizens, Cambodian children would still be lining up in the heat and rain outside many Kantha Bopha hospitals – sometimes even without an assurance that they would get the needed treatment.
If so, many – perhaps too many – arguments have framed the discussion about regional economic integration as being a desirable end, there exist doubts as to whether this economic tool could really advance the idea of free trade as it relates to the pursuit of a global justice.
Indeed, the international legal scholar Frank J Garcia has written a thought-provoking new book Global Justice and International Economic Law:
Three Takes in which he proposes that we take a step back to re-examine the various ideas of a global justice in three ways.
The first “take”, he writes, frames “global justice as a foreign policy commitment of liberal states, and leave[s] it to their unilateral actions and multilateral advocacy to establish a liberal vision of justice at the global level, to the extent possible”.
In other words, this so-called liberal internationalism applauds “justice as integrity” by which the liberals shall act in accordance with their own advertised principles and commitments without having to worry much whether the others should act like they do.
In this approach, the causes of inequalities or global injustice are attributable to two major failures: domestic institutional failures and international institutional failures.
This is because when states fail domestically to create conditions for fairness for their own citizens, the unavoidable interconnectedness of global economic relations will create problems for other states.
Garcia points out that “states make and carry out decisions through international institutions that reinforce natural inequalities”.
Thus, the international economic law that disregards the liberal theory of justice would contribute to an unjust global order.
“Take” two entertains the idea of “justice as relationship”.
Here, justice is thought as being “rooted in the shared traditions, practices, and understandings of a specific community as to who gets how much of what social goods”.
We immediately evaluate whether globalisation has assisted in creating a basic communitarian justice for more and more people.
Since each community must define its own identity and justice, the first cause of failure would be the failures of domestic institutions.
And since different political communities have reached different levels of prosperity and since international institutions are “outside of and independent from political community”, they cannot be a cause for failures of justice.
Put differently, the world as a whole cannot suffer, only a few states do.
But Garcia eloquently reminds us that globalisation has made us become – like it or not – mutually responsible for one another.
Thus, he argues that the second cause of global injustice is precisely this “failure, delay, or reluctance to acknowledge an emerging global community”.
The above “liberal” and “relational” modes of justice rely heavily on the application of political theory external to international economic law.
However, in “take” three, Garcia proposes a rather internal approach to the question of global justice by characterising trade as “consisting of voluntary, mutual, bargained-for exchange of roughly equal value”.
The stress here is on the experiences, transactions or interactions based on true consent.
The role of the international economic law should be to create an environment for real consent to flourish.
But instead, he alarmingly warns us: “[We have misled ourselves about the nature of trade and the object of trade law and have focused on freedom from distorting governmental regulation rather than on the nature of trade and its pathologies.
” Thus, through various laws of trade, “we have been protecting and enhancing coercion, predation and exploitation in the guise of trade”.
This short review, I realise, cannot highlight all the rich theoretical and practical insights that Garcia has tirelessly brought to light.
But as far as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is concerned, suffice it to say that ASEAN leaders must pay closer attention to failures created by similar ambitions for economic integrations elsewhere.
If Garcia is correct in his final analysis and if his call for greater protection of consent in trade relations is taken to heart, Cambodian children might, hopefully, be able to benefit from better health care services in the future when the fruits of a consent-based AEC are ripe.
The trick would be to ensure that AEC be based on truly consensual agreements.
Virak Prum received a PhD in international development from the University of Nagoya, Japan, in 2006.