Who Will Rescue the Rest of Us?

by Chris Patten Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU Commissioner for External Affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. 29.10.2010

SYDNEY - The rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, from what was feared would be their tomb, gave the world something to cheer about. Hope has not, after all, become a redundant virtue in the twenty-first century. But, looking around us today, there do not seem to be many reasons for optimism elsewhere.

The world lurches towards a currency war, or even towards trade protectionism, threatening to destroy jobs and growth. America's recovery from recession is anemic and largely jobless. China, meanwhile, with foreign reserves worth half its total output, denies with a straight face that it is deliberately manipulating the value of the renminbi. So its trade surplus continues to soar at the expense of other countries.

Nor does a global solution to the challenge of climate change appear any closer. A few weeks of rain in Australia has emboldened those who think that global warming is a gigantic hoax perpetrated by the United Nations or conspiring scientists or maybe men from Mars.

The war in Afghanistan bleeds more lives and treasure into the inhospitable terrain of that sad land, with little immediate chance of whatever might constitute sufficient success to allow America and its allies to quit. And the problems of Pakistan fester next door.

In Palestine, Israeli colonies continue to grow with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignoring Washington's efforts to secure traction for the peace process. Europeans continue to look inward, obsessed with their own problems of declining competitiveness and how to pay for entitlements that they have come to regard as theirs by right.

With the gap between the world's rich and poor increasing, the impoverished South seeks a home or a job in the developed North. Legal and illegal migration triggers far-right hostility in countries that customarily brag about their commitment to civil liberties.

So, as Lenin once asked, what is to be done?

The world obviously needs political leadership of the highest quality to see us through. We need the sort of courage that was the hallmark of Margaret Thatcher. We need Bill Clinton's extraordinary ability to spin a political narrative that enabled voters to identify their own interests with his goals.

We require Helmut Kohl's understanding of the need to identify the big decisions in politics, and to get those decisions right. We need leaders with sufficient mastery of detail, like China's last premier Zhu Rongji, who can not only tell us how they will get us from A to Z, but can actually lead us from A to B.

Looking around, leaders like this seem to be an extinct species. Or, if they exist at all, they appear to be constrained by dysfunctional political systems. Their ability to act is limited by their political environment.

The best example is US President Barack Obama, on whom so many hopes rested - probably too many for any one leader. Obama inherited messy and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and an economy in meltdown. His attempts to revive the economy have inevitably driven up the deficit. But no recovery in the labor or housing markets has yet materialized.

Now Obama faces defeat in the mid-term elections at the hands of Republicans whose past policies created many of the problems that weigh him down today. They want less government, lower taxes, and a smaller deficit, a combination to be achieved seemingly without pain. This nonsense on stilts is articulated by some zany candidates who enjoy the support of the Tea Party, a reference not to the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, which would be fitting, but to the Bostonians who rebelled against colonial Britain's imposition of taxes in the eighteenth century.

The rest of the world needs a strong, self-confident, and decisive America. But America's political system is about to deliver a balance of power in Washington that is likely to produce stalemate and paralysis.

In Europe, meanwhile, many of our problems are exemplified by what is happening in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to recognize demographic and fiscal reality by raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 provoked a wave of strikes and stormy protests from workers and students. Is there not something deeply depressing about 18-year-olds demonstrating about the retirement age? How on earth did they acquire such a statist and conservative mind-set?

Perhaps, then, Asia is the answer. Perhaps the Singapore-based strategist Kishore Mahbubani is correct to write off the West and tell us that the future lies in his own continent.

The evidence on that point is mixed. India is a glorious democracy with an economically literate government and pockets of real economic achievement. But the fiasco in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games showcased some of India's problems, not least deep corruption and inadequate infrastructure. If those problems were sorted out, India's growth rate would outstrip China's.

And what of the booming Middle Kingdom? In Brussels the other day, Premier Wen Jiabao scolded European leaders for pressing for the renminbi's revaluation. Did they not understand, he argued, that this would lead to factory closures and social turbulence in China?

Elsewhere, of course, this sort of turmoil has democratic safety valves. It is more than odd to argue that the rest of the world has to cope with a built-in advantage for China's exporters because its authoritarian political system cannot cope with any change. No wonder the impressive premier is thought to favor some political loosening.

From East to West, politics seems to be operating in a manner that is, to be diplomatic, sub-optimal. Then again, maybe we're lucky that things aren't worse. The Chilean miners survived against the odds, so perhaps the rest of us will somehow get by as well. But who, exactly, is responsible for the rescue operation?

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.
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