Welcome to the Future
Are we ready for the post US-century, asks Afsan Chowdhury
The market crash of the 2008 and the election of Barack Obama, the first bi-racial US president happened within months of each other. Both had been in the process of happening for a long time, and brewed to the top as a final explosion of 2008.
Both events have fundamentally changed the world, and the events are in all probability much more consequential than even the attacks on 9/11, which resulted in a fundamental shift in internal diplomacy, asymmetric wars, and production of a global hate race.
All of them were very significant and extremely significant conflict-wise, but the events of 2008 are transformative in nature -- and appear to be shaping the next century for the rest of the world in all aspects from economics to the environment.
The shift in the global balance is indicated by the eclipse of the G-7 and near formalisation of the new grouping of G-20. Within that group China, India, Brazil and Russia play a special role with China at the top of the new pyramid. The US recognised the shift when George Bush, during whose watch the US’s power declined, said at the APEC conference that the economic central point had moved from the West to the East.
Recovery from the present meltdown will happen only through the economic growth occurring in the emerging economies as western countries are going through a historically extreme recession. Moreover, China with its two trillion dollars is the only country with a large bank balance to bankroll a global stimulus though all countries are in difficulties. Nevertheless, western recovery is now largely in eastern hands.
For the US, the crisis is not only an economic slowdown as part of capitalism's boom-bust cycle, but because it comes at a time when the West is undergoing its widest collective psychological crisis generated by dismal performances in every sector on which its sense of supremacy rests. It's a transition time that is rarely seen in history.
Most western commentators are hearkening back to the 1930s depression and comparing it with the traumatic events of that period which too was triggered by a market crash in 1929. That depression lasted for eight years and things eased only from the late thirties on as World War II came in and large scale war industries grew up. War saved the US the last time such a huge economic crisis loomed.
But that world has fundamentally changed. If anything, America's two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed significantly to its economic crisis and loss of public morale. War as a way of economic rescue no longer applies to the US and it may be stuck with peace because wars have become too costly for any country, including the US, to run for any long period of time.
In the 1930s, the world resorted to protectionism which froze international trade, especially for the economically advanced world. The developing world with little international trade was less affected. The US also had no economic challenger at that time, not even Germany, which, having suffered through the depression and the punitive restrictions of the Allied powers after World War I, was the first country to overcome the economic low and in the process also produced extreme nationalism on the form of Hitler and the rest of the terrible history.
While the depression of the 1930s energised and empowered the American century through WW II, the crash of 2008 seems to be heralding its certain decline if not the end. It is also marking the rise of other powers. It's certainly a watershed and the transition from G-7 to G-20 is probably more indicative of this change as the world resources, or 85% of it, is now shared amongst 20 countries rather than the previous 7.
That will certainly make the emerging economies feel very happy and proud but it also means that the LDCs, more than hundred countries in all, have seen their own economies continue to suffer and they remain left out of the global prosperity caravan.
In essence, the decline of US power doesn't mean in any way the end of global inequity. It could mean a solidification of the same ideology that has powered the wealth concentration process across the world from one to several. That may have ramifications for the countries now having an opportunity to share global leadership, but for the poorer countries of the world, the challenges remain as before.
Three Main Issues: Economics, Environment and Security
Three issues dominate the global scene. They are economics, security and the environmental crisis. Given that 85% of the resources are in the hands of these 20 countries, the world is more unbalanced than ever before. There is very little support for a fairer international economic regime where extreme poverty can at least be eradicated. The result has been rising poverty, inequity, and unrest globally.
The situation in Africa, where most of the countries if not all have been bypassed by global progress, is extremely difficult. This may be because of the perception that Africa is far away from everywhere and will not affect the world. However, the immigration problem especially of the "illegal" type often forced by desperation and poverty both is already causing problems for Europe. These migrants who are coming from North Africa continue to arrive despite many steps to stop them from doing so. With climate change, the number of refugees from Africa to Europe will increase.
Impoverishment of people living in the LDCs is not a global priority and the rise of India, Brazil and China has actually blunted the criticism of a global economic model which rewards the rich only. The poor have been hidden by the wealth-making of the emerging countries even in their own land. The newly-emerging countries have not followed any different path to prosperity in their own economy and within their borders it's the rich who have benefited most from official policies to focus on wealth creation. The poor have remained poor, and there is low concern about that from everywhere.
The models that operate in the emerging economies do so in political systems that vary widely. In China, the wealth creation is the most innovative and radical because the capitalist system operates under the Communist Party which claims capitalism as its greatest enemy. The party is all-pervasive in China and there is no multi-party or participatory democracy. Lack of access to civil society organising, a judicial system that provides relief to indigents, non-existent human rights scenario, and lack of internal debate about policies within the country makes China a strange practitioner of governance for all. The principal freedom is that to make money without much consideration to either environmental or social costs.
Perhaps the most striking fact is the lack of sharing of this new wealth amongst all and its concentration in very few hands. Government seems to have adopted the policy that as long as money is made nothing can go wrong. This lack of supervision has not been good, as a result of which Chinese products have faced troubles in external markets, from lead-laced toys to the larger scandal of tainted baby milk and many other products.
While China has acted to redress the problems, they remain as examples of lack of regulations and consumer protection and disregard for accountability as part of the production system. Individual rights being limited, people can't complain but have to wait till the party/government acts, which they do when export hurts only.
The situation of those who are not participating in this explosive economic growth is well documented but this has been allowed to grow as an inevitable by-product of the new policies. Since this growth is happening under the leadership of the Communist Party, it's a bit quizzical because if the CP doesn't take care of the people, and there are no alternative power centres, one wonders who will. Millions are not benefiting from the economic miracle and one has no idea what kind of resentment is brewing socially in China which turns to force to control public resentment.
India is the closest to the western model and definitely has the most developed political system amongst the emerging countries. However, India too has left behind its hungry millions and its economic growth again is centered in a small middle class, marginalising its millions of poor and some extreme poor. Historically, India has ignored its poor but lacked a consuming middle class and significant upper class both of which it has now.
However, there are millions of unhappy and resentful people within India, politically and economically -- and some are part of militant insurgencies especially in the north-east. Indian PM Manmohan Singh, had once also described the Indian Maoists who are battling security forces in many parts of India as India's most significant security problem. Caste issues, regional politics, high level of poverty, problems of militancy and insurgency and growing economic disparity within India makes India's sustained economic success somewhat unstable, even unsure.
Environmental Meltdow n, Security Nightmares
Environmental issues were not considered serious matters even a few years back, but not today. Scientists and civil society leaders both recognise that unless something dramatic is done very soon, within a year or so, and carbon emissions are brought down, the world including the G-20 countries will find it almost impossible to survive.
The catch is, both India and China with their billions of people, have reached the top echelon of emitters though with relatively low per capita emission. So, western countries especially the US, Japan and Canada who want to continue emitting as before are insisting that all countries agree to some emission cuts, a move which both China and India oppose.
On the face of it, it does mean that China and India will have to rein in their economic growth somewhat -- which they find a political impossibility. It seems to have become the prime cause of global concern and some major decisions will have to be made by end 2009 at Copenhagen, but till date such agreements don't seem close. It has become a major crisis.
Although the notion of security is widening, including both economic and energy issues, the dominant thinking is still related to military security. Of the major threats of this kind that range through the world, the jihadist threat is the principal one. However much one hates terrorists, it's clear that in this asymmetric world, they have emerged as the most significant security threat, choosing their targets and enemies at will.
If US reports are to be believed, the counter-terror actions of the US to bring down al-Qaeda have not worked although Osama bin Laden is isolated from the group. On the other hand, so many groups have sprung up all over the world that one central al-Qaeda itself is no longer relevant as a force. It has become a movement and not an organisation, and reflects the growing nature of post-modern notions of threat and insecurity.
The jihadist threat is, however, also regional. Much of the Arabian angst comes from the US and allies' links to a misfit prescription for the end of the Middle East problem. This anger has locations outside the region and in most Muslim communities, but the core al-Qaeda activists are Middle Eastern and so are its actions.
Similarly, the South-east Asian Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have a long history of repression which has politically displaced many people, with some of them seeking jihadist spaces. India's problem with Kashmir is well known as is Pakistan's problem with the same, which has kept the regional jihadist enterprise alive. Pakistan's investment in supporting groups like the Taliban which also has a geographical location in the Pushtun area and Lashkar-e-Toiba, primarily a Kashmir outfit, are also open knowledge.
While other factors are, of course, there, but it's the failure to address regional or national political issue that seem to have created a significant part of the problem. To that is added the global US-USSR rivalry when during the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan, it became a lucrative destination to invest to train and fund jihadists by the US and Pakistan as it fought a proxy cold war. Just as the Kashmir problem has become on a smaller scale.
The response and reaction to these three issues are interestingly universal all over the world. Although China is under the Communist Party leadership, it didn't introduce equity components in its economic surge. India has been very traditional in following its economic model. The US not only produced the same crisis as it did in 1930s, but its response is basically the same now, although the equations have changed enormously.
Environmentally, the US, China and India along with other G-20 countries are ignoring the environmental issue as the principal priority because it might put a cap on conventional economic patterns. Despite the Kyoto summit and Bali summit, the attitude of countries is closer to the environmental ethics of the early industrial revolution than the present age of post-carbon life.
Security-wise, people are responding militarily in a way which suits frontal warfare and nation state systems rather than the very changed patterns of terrorist war without borders.
End of Modernity, but No Post-Modern Leadership
In all three sectors, the responses and visions of global leaders are inadequate. The fact that the environmental, economic, and security crisis are all but unmanageable with traditional and conventional weapons of past eras should say that the leadership must face the fact that they can be in power but don't seem to be in charge.
The ideology of the Industrial Revolution is still running the world, and the American century, its best product, is the primary influence in shaping the world. Yet there is no evidence that this approach has worked and will work for long. The G-20 also seems to be constructed along the same lines and have no vision of controlling climate warming, let alone sharing prosperity.
Unfortunately, time is short. Unless climate issues are resolved within a year and dramatic action taken, there is little chance of a viable future for all.
Economically, the global system has shown itself to be very fragile. It totters near the brink far more than we are used to think and as a single year of melting has shown, it is not the kind of platform that can ensure large-scale prosperity or economic security.
Perhaps, it's in the security sector that the challenges are most obvious, as every country has faced non-state actors and seen that large armies are no match for small scale groups unbound by geography. Technology has also made conventional notions of security invalid. Yet, everyone continues to pursue security on the terms set by the enemy. Investment in peace is read as weakness, making the world continuously unsafe.
Our present is full of people with minds resting in the past. Even though none of the critical sectors are working, global leadership has not found a path fit for changed times.
Barack Obama takes rein at a time when the US and the world are going through this great transition, a changing of the guard. The US president-elect has already been briefed by his officials that the old order has shifted and is changing, but the US will continue to play a critical role.
In terms of the military, this will be particularly important, because regional conflicts as a result of the Big Three sectors are feared to increase.
He has not shown much signs that he is the transformative mind that the world expects him to be, but he definitely can provide critical breathing space as new realities make him and the G-20 leaders adapt to change to make them appropriate for the new emerging century.
Afsan Chowdhury, the 2008 Oak Fellow at Colby College, Maine, is an eminent Bangladeshi journalist and writer.