Nov 30th 2010

Drifting Towards the Rapids

by Chris Patten

Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

LONDON - 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 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 United States - that is also the world's biggest debtor. If America 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 America had a trade surplus and a more manageable level of domestic borrowing than the $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-nineteenth 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.

But 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 neighbourhood 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 United Nations 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 America, 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 President Barack Obama's political opponents regard the notion of American leadership of international institutions and a commitment to engagement and multilateralism as a form of un-American treachery.

For their part, America's post-war partners in Europe, while still representing more than one-fifth of the world's output, are obsessed with their own inadequate efforts to improve their international competitiveness and save the currency that many of them share. It is not much good looking to the European Union for self-confident and concerted political initiative on the international stage.

And what of the emerging powers? China has taken huge advantage of the global marketplace created above all by the US. But it now challenges the principles on which America's successful policy of a democratic and prosperous peace was based, and it has no alternative model to put in its place. Attempting to retain advantages for your exporters and to buy up commodities regardless of the political and economic price is a tactic for China, not a strategy for the world.

Nor is there any plan on offer from other emerging powers, though in time India may show growing alarm about China's muscle-flexing, and Brazil may question whether it has really been wise to cosset Venezuela and Cuba.

So who will contain Iran's nuclear ambitions? Who will broker a Middle East peace? Who will prevent a global drift into currency wars and trade protectionism? Who will ensure that the Cancứn climate-change conference this December does not meet the same fate as last year's Copenhagen summit? Who will add strength and moral authority to the task of rebuilding the failed and failing states that incubate so many of our problems, from terrorism to illicit drugs?

Yesterday was not as good as we remember it. But today lacks leadership, and tomorrow could be far more dangerous as a result. Meanwhile, we drift downstream seemingly oblivious to the looming peril of the rapids ahead.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.
www.project-syndicate.org
For a podcast of this commentary in English, please use this link:
http://media.blubrry.com/ps/media.libsyn.com/media/ps/patten35.mp3

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.
Jun 25th 2019
"Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences."
Jun 19th 2019
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors in the world, and has the great advantage of producing no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is raising the average surface temperature of the earth. India is now for the first time in history investing more in solar energy than in coal. There is a simple reason for this. Coal costs roughly 5 cents a kilowatt hour to generate electricity. India just let a bid for 1.2 gigawatts of solar energy and four companies scooped it up at 3.6 cents a kilowatt hour.
Jun 19th 2019
Extract: "Abe has reportedly nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize – at the request of the US – for opening talks with North Korea. And he has offered to mediate in America’s dispute with Iran. (His recent visit to Tehran – where he reportedly asked Iran’s leaders, at Trump’s request, to release detained Americans – made clear that, even squeezed by sanctions, Iran has no interest in negotiating with a serial violator of signed agreements.) What Trump calls an “incredible partnership” is, in reality, a largely one-sided relationship. But, for Abe, appeasing Trump is not so much a choice as a necessity: he must prove to Japan’s people and their neighbors, particularly the Chinese, that he knows how to keep Trump on his side."
Jun 17th 2019
Extarct: "We know well the damage that corrupt leaders do to their people. We should therefore have much more to say about the quintessential corruption entailed by tolerating lies. Such tolerance allows the poison to spread through the body and soul of democracy, undermining democracy’s institutions by attacking the invisible norms and tacit understandings that support them."
Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.