Bridging the Atlantic

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By Erik Kravets 2017-06-30 15:59:37

(Article originally published in May/June 2017 edition)

IN AN AGE OF NATIONALIST FERVOR, THE BRIDGE CENTENNIAL IS A MUCH-NEEDED CELEBRATION OF COMMON VALUES AND SHARED GOALS.

It’s going to be a beautiful summer when, on June 25, 2017, Cunard’s ocean liner RMS Queen Mary 2 traverses the Atlantic Ocean alongside four trimarans. Port of departure: Saint Nazaire. Port of arrival: New York City. The “racetrack” encompasses 3,152 miles (5,837 kilometers). Both the ocean liner and the trimarans hope to finish in just eight days – but who will be fastest?

Bridge 2017, or the “Bridge Centennial” as it’s being called, is a symbol of Franco-American friendship. It traces the route sailed by American soldiers in 1917 to France. Those soldiers fought along- side their French and British allies in World War I on the Western Front against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The organizers say the race is a celebration “of friendship and solidarity between France and the United States, a historic transatlantic race between the Queen Mary 2 and a fleet of giant trimarans, following in the footsteps of the 1917 landing.” It’s a race with the goal of bringing nations together to celebrate common values – a gesture which, ever since the ancient Greeks hosted the first Olympics, has been the call sign of international competitive sports.

It’s also an opportunity to show how shipping, especially, can bring together the different aspirations of different people under one umbrella.

MARITIME VALUES

In the maritime world, passion and mastery are needed to sail across an ocean using nothing but wind, water, teamwork and the right ship. The IDEC SPORT, Macif, Actual and Sodebo are tri-hulled vessels based on an ancient Polynesian design, comprising a main hull connected to two outrigger hulls by lateral beams. They are capable of speeds up to 35 knots, so long as the weather plays along.

These trimarans demonstrate how humans are beholden to their environment, but also how they can harness the elements. It’s captivating to handle a fast sailing ship as she catches the wind and the waves – ship and crew focused on a single goal.

Sophisticated technology and engineering knowhow are also required to conceive, design, build, outfit and launch a ship like the RMS Queen Mary 2. With 157,000 horses and able to achieve 30 knots, she is going strong long after the era of majestic steamships crisscrossing the Atlantic has ended.

When she passes by my small North Sea port of Cuxhaven, Germany on her regular Hamburg-Southampton-New York run, thousands of people flock to the Alte Liebe (“Old Love”), a scenic outlook, to watch her. Navigating her safely halfway across the world, with nearly 5,000 crew and passengers on board, requires logistics and precision normally reserved for large military deployments.

Shipping embodies all these values – technology and tradition, competition and cooperation, profit and altruism. These contrasts, reflected in the Bridge Centennial contestants, engage different aspects of the human psyche.

What the trimarans and ocean liner have in common is they hearken back to the past but embody the latest and best of today’s technology. They are old concepts given a fresh execution. They remind us of what is possible when we remember not just where we come from but also where we’re going.

The same is true of the venerable Fran- co-American friendship. Since French war- ships intervened at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781, that friendship has been an important ingredient in the world order. The two countries have shared constitutional, civic and ethical values rooted in their common revolutionary heritage.

It would be painful to see that friend- ship strained – with or without the Bridge Centennial.

“BREXIT” AND “FREXIT”

To some extent, the troubles all began with Brexit. President Donald Trump has probably been more publicly supportive of Brexit – and its French corollary, “Frexit” – than a head of state ought to be. In the case of Brexit, he famously announced to Pennsylvanian crowds that his own election would be like “Brexit times five!” To someone like me, this smacked of schadenfreude.

Even more schadenfreude: on the heels of the carnage of a terrorist attack in Paris, on April 21, 2017, Trump praised the National Front’s Marine Le Pen – nickname: “Madame Frexit” – as being “strongest on borders and she’s strongest on what’s been going on in France.” Le Pen and Trump had, by then, formed a mutual admiration society with Le Pen calling Trump’s election victory a “sign of hope for those who cannot bear wild globalization.”

“Wild globalization”? It’s a phrase that summons images of migrants, bad banks, sovereign debt defaults, terrorism, nationalism, job anxiety, foreign policy tension and other harbingers of the apocalypse. Demagogues Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen have stirred these ingredients up into a nasty electoral cocktail, repeatedly egged on by interested onlookers like the U.S. president.

It’s not that French and British voters do what Trump says. It’s rather that what Trump says resonates with French and British voters just as it did with Americans. Farage, Trump and Le Pen all are speaking to a disillusionment that seems peculiar to our time but has an historical analogue in the ennui preceding the breakdown of the global system of the “long 19th century,” the era of stability, trade and prosperity – basically, globalization – that preceded World War I but also created winners and losers much like we’re experiencing today.

Bertrand Russell famously said that “average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war” since it meant the end of the system which they felt trapped by and perceived as stifling.

What about today? Of French voters with incomes lower than 1,250 euros per month, 45 percent voted for Le Pen. Even 41 percent of French voters describing themselves as “extremely left-wing” voted for Le Pen. What’s more, 43 percent of those aged 35 to 49 voted for Le Pen. All these demographics have in common that they are, broadly, not happy with the current system. In a democracy, when such concerns are shared by such a diverse group of voters, they must be addressed.

BLAMING THE E.U.

As a superimposed bureaucratic layer, a kind of virtual government, the European Union often finds it difficult to deal with this flavor of disenchantment. Being so remote, it finds itself the target of both the extreme right and extreme left, who blame it as the source of all that ails them.

Frequently cited are common borders, the currency union, deregulation (but at the same time, overregulation, e.g., rules on bananas and tractor seats) and the common market competition that derives from the unrestricted movement of people and capital and cross-border trade in goods and services.

The E.U. lacks the personnel of the U.S. federal government and, more importantly, depends on the enthusiasm and support of its member states for executive functions. The national governments need to cooperate in order to transpose (i.e., implement) E.U. legislation. For the E.U. to conduct foreign policy and negotiate treaties, national governments must exercise restraint, compromise and even horse-trade. When that enthusiasm and support fade, so too does the E.U.’s cohesion. This is an inherent risk in a system where a lot of trust is required for even incremental decisions.

Unpopular laws and other sorts of bitter pills often come from Brussels, but when things go well Brussels doesn’t get credit. Part of the charm of E.U. legislation is that domestic politicians can blame Brussels for decisions they are reluctant to make on their own. Thus, the sausage gets made even as the people who eat it complain about the sausage factory.

Of course Frexit – as opposed to Brexit – is on ice for now as France’s new leader, Emmanuel Macron, is in favor of continued French membership in the E.U. But that may prove to be only a reprieve. Discursive, open-ended and uncertain processes have failed to resonate with nationalists, who appear to feel more powerful as they become more isolated.

BUILDING BRIDGES

So what does all this have to do with shipping?

Nations working together toward a common goal, team members putting aside their own interests for the sake of the mission, overcoming language barriers and national borders, cooperating in spite of different backgrounds and worldviews – this sounds a lot like shipping.

The rise of nationalism, whether in the U.S., France, the U.K. or anywhere else, is a direct threat to the values that shipping represents and needs in order to thrive as a global industry. The Comité Maritime International (CMI) was founded in 1897 in Antwerp with the goal to “contribute by all appropriate means and activities to the unification of maritime law in all its aspects.”

That sounds like “wild globalization” – and it would be hard to imagine modern shipping without the CMI. Both the famous Hague and Visby Rules go back to the CMI and are the result of many nations coming together and engaging in mutual give-and- take in order to open possibilities for trade.

There’s no shame in advocating for one’s own interests since we are all, ultimately, stronger when we find ways to benefit together rather than at each other’s expense. And when the logic holding the world order together seems weaker than the anger that wants to break it apart, we should at least take a moment to be grateful for events like the Bridge Centennial. Because if hearts and minds close, it definitely won’t be long before ports close too.        - MarEx