We are told that we live in anxious times, with lots to worry about and no more comforting certainty. But just how comfortable were all those past certainties, anyway?
I grew up in a world in which peace and stability were assured by the threat of global nuclear annihilation. My first term at university coincided with the Cuban missile crisis. The communist East glowered over the Berlin Wall at the democratic and capitalist West. The two sides fought proxy wars in Africa and Asia. Tens of thousands died to hold democracy’s frontline in Vietnam, where foreigners now rush to invest their money. Hundreds of millions were shut out of global prosperity in China and India by the madness of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and the misguided socialism of the Congress Party.
Were those really better times? And what are the big problems today that should cause us to lose sleep?
Well, first and foremost, today’s problems are the result of past success. There are four times more people in the world than there were a hundred years ago, producing 40 times as much output and spewing 17 times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That is the existential issue confronting the world, to which our response remains hopelessly inadequate.
Second, we find ourselves in the unusual position of having a global leader — the US — that is also the world’s biggest debtor. If the US had not in the past borrowed so much, the world would not have grown so fast. The US was more the world’s emporium than its imperium. But just think how different everything would look if the US had a trade surplus and a more manageable level of domestic borrowing than the US$14 trillion run-up in debt by credit-card holders before 2007.
Third, as has always happened in the past, the world is trying with some difficulty to adjust to the arrival of a new and very big kid on the block. China has been the world’s largest country for millennia, and until the mid-19th century it was the largest economy, too — mainly because it had so many consumers and producers. That will soon be the case again, even though in terms of per capita wealth China ranks roughly 100th in the world, trailing Albania.
However, China has re-emerged a big hitter, along with India — whose population will soon be bigger and younger than China’s — and Brazil. How do we cope with this growth of economic and political clout? While China may have started to throw a bit of its weight around — for example, in its own neighborhood in pursuit of maritime reach and undersea oil — the main threat that it poses is that the country falls apart, not that it continues to thrive.
Fourth, while all this has been happening, the institutions set up after World War II to create global rules and to preside over their implementation have lost much of their political and economic sway and legitimacy. The UN and the Bretton Woods institutions no longer reflect the world’s power balance and, even as the scale of problems common to all countries has increased, their willingness to share sovereignty to tackle them has diminished.
In these circumstances, we badly need strong and wise leadership. Absent the US, it is difficult to see where this is likely to come from. An intelligent president in Washington is hobbled by a political system that makes it all but impossible to build a consensus for reform at home or decisive action abroad. Many of US President Barack Obama’s political opponents regard the notion of US leadership of international institutions and a commitment to engagement and multilateralism as a form of un-American treachery.