COMMENT:

The last three years have been the most dangerous for world peace since the 1930s.

True, the world came close to Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the events around Able Archer 83 — a Nato exercise which prompted Soviet fears of a nuclear attack — but those were temporary flare-ups within an otherwise stable international order.

The current danger is less acute but more chronic and concerns the survival of the international institutions that have been so important to maintaining peace among the great powers since the Second World War. If those institutions ever fail, there is a very good chance of a global catastrophe worse than that of 1914 to 1945.

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If we find this difficult to accept that's because we've become sanguine from the very success of those institutions at maintaining peace, along with the stabilising force of nuclear weapons.

Depending on how you define great powers, the three-quarters of a century since 1945 is probably the longest period of peace among them in history.

Without the most careful maintenance of institutions such as the UN, the World Bank, the WTO, the International Monetary Fund, the EU and Nato, the most likely outcome has always been a hasty return to war among the tribes in Europe and Asia.

The peace that the post-1945 institutions fostered and the free-market global economic integration it allowed have been by far the greatest force for human wellbeing in history.

Hitherto unimaginable numbers of people have moved from abject poverty to the middle class, driving the greatest fall in inequality since agriculture first created a leisured class.

Theresa May wants out, but the rest of the EU has never been more united. Photo / AP
Theresa May wants out, but the rest of the EU has never been more united. Photo / AP

The very success of these arrangements and the obvious failure of the socialist alternative has reoriented the political spectrum from being about attitudes towards the ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, to one about comfort with globalisation and difference.

New Zealand has been blessed that apart from the odd hiccup such as Labour's little fling with the anti-TPP mob, there has been a strong bipartisan consensus in favour of the rules-based system, with opponents limited mainly to a few wackos in the universities, NZ First and the Greens.

The two most alarming challenges to the post-1945 consensus are usually seen as Brexit and Donald Trump.

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The latter has been the more worrying. Trump has questioned the value of Nato, flirted with appointing his entirely unqualified daughter to lead the World Bank, launched a trade war against China outside WTO rules, deliberately disrupted the WTO's disputes settlement process by refusing to allow new judges to be appointed to its appellate body, and even fuelled speculation over whether the US would pull out of both it and the UN.

Such moves would have led to these institutions unravelling, putting the world on a fast track to war.

This week, though, Trump's more qualified World Bank candidate was finally confirmed unanimously and may even help reform it.

More importantly, the President has celebrated a win by the US at the WTO over the EU on aircraft manufacturing subsidies.

It feels strange to welcome a ruling allowing the world's largest economy to impose tariffs on the second biggest but the important thing is it will be done within the rules-based system.

Even better, the US says its ultimate goal is both it and the EU getting rid of aircraft subsidies and protection altogether.

Hopefully the WTO win will demonstrate to Trump and his supporters the value of that institution, and that he maintains his line as Turkey's steel and aluminium case against the US progresses.

Brexit is more complex. Viewed externally, the EU is a protectionist monstrosity that the UK is well shot of. Viewed internally, it is the world's purest and best free-trade club.

Either way, the UK has failed to grasp the potential benefits of Brexit and is heading to the worst of all worlds: a customs union keeping it bound by EU rules but without the power to improve them.

With yet another extension, it's now possible Brexit will eventually be abandoned.

The decades of tension between the UK and EU stem from the former seeing it as an exclusively economic organisation while the latter has understood from the founding of its forerunner, the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, that it is primarily about stopping its French and German tribes from having yet another crack at conquering the other.

In that context, Brexit doesn't matter much one way or the other. What matters is that the rest of the EU has never been more united. In France, Italy and Austria — all problem children at one time or another of European history — there is no longer any material agitation for similar exits.

These are only glimmers, and short-term economic forecasts are worsening with unpredictable political results.

Still, they give some hope that the undermining of the structures of great-power peace has reached its nadir and their value is being appreciated once again.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.