As World War Two broke out in Poland, WH Auden wrote about the despair of watching “the clever hopes expire/of a low, dishonest decade.” We are not yet at that pass, but Auden’s poem bears re-reading by anybody trying to read the signs of our increasingly dark and troubled times.
There are times when the ideas of the world’s rulers and the institutions through which they govern are adequate to the needs of the era, and there are times–like the present–when they are not. It is not just the Obama administration that seems mentally and even culturally unprepared to understand much less to guide the events now sweeping through the world. In Brussels, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo and Delhi — to say nothing of Washington – leaders seem equally clueless, equally committed to outmoded, inaccurate approaches to the issues of our time.
From my earliest posts on this blog, a major theme has been the approach of a dramatic time in human affairs when old certainties, old institutions and old habits of thought will no longer serve. Unfortunately the world’s leaders seem to cling ever more tightly to comfortable old certainties the less sense they make. The collective failure of leadership is most painfully on display at events like the G-20 and NATO summits when world leaders cluster nervously together to have their pictures taken and to issue vapid communiques. As the year of grace 2010 moves towards its end, the leaders of all the world’s major power centers have lost their way. This makes it unlikely that 2011 will be a quiet year; the human race is headed into what looks more and more like a great storm with captains manifestly not up to the task.
The European Union is perhaps the most feckless of the world’s power centers. Its currency is built on a foundation of hopeful assumptions that haven’t panned out: for example that countries as disparate in culture and situation as Greece, Germany, Finland, Ireland and Italy can all live happily under a common currency. There has been no shortage of warning signs for the last decade: there was no secret about the housing bubbles in Ireland and Spain. The falsity of Greek statistics was well known, as were the imprudent habits of its governments and the dysfunctional nature of its economic culture.
Yet the Eurocrats in Brussels and their colleagues in the Union’s national capitals took no thought for the morrow: recklessly making no contingency plans for a day of reckoning. The chronic failures in planning and communication that have marked Europe’s deeply flawed response to the developing crisis for the last two years has deeply unsettled markets. Bank stress tests give banks a clean bill of health months before massive meltdowns; national leaders and banking officials make serial errors. In handling financial crises, unity of purpose and speed of action are the basic and irreplaceable elements of any workable strategy. Europe has neither and, I am sorry to observe, the uncoordinated and sloppy behavior of the Union’s various leaders (with a handful of honorable exceptions like Olli Rehn) has not improved as the crisis unfolds. The European political class is clearly not up to its job, and the accelerating decline of Europe’s world role is the natural and inevitable result of their failures to date.
Worse is clearly to come. The rickety Rube Goldberg contraption called the European Union simply cannot handle the stresses that threaten to shake it today. Europe will be very lucky to come out of the present storm without much deeper damage than it has so far sustained.
The key as always is Germany; and while there is no European country better fitted to take on the responsibility, it is far from clear that Germany will rise to the occasion. Germany is economically rich and the stolid determination of German political culture is admirable; the present German government for all its faults is much more competent and farseeing than its predecessor. Germany and its leadership have not, however, yet risen to the measure of Europe’s crisis. Rigidly self-righteous attitudes combined with political inflexibility will not allow Germany to lead Europe out of its current troubles.
Meanwhile, Europe continues its relentless failure to manage urgent challenges at home and abroad. The Europeans are unwilling (and in some cases, unable) to make the investments that would keep NATO strong; the continuing refusal to take Turkey’s application for EU membership seriously further and decisively marginalizes Europe in the Middle East. Wishful thinking cannot substitute for policy when it comes to the question of immigration, and Europe’s deepening demographic crisis ensures not only a future of population decline but of economic decline and welfare state bankruptcy as well.
This is a global tragedy and not merely a regional one; Europe has so much to offer the world, yet every day it is becoming less able to contribute to the common good, less able to play the role that only Europe can play in the construction of a more peaceful, more democratic and more prosperous human order.
Europe is not the only place where leaders don’t measure up to the problems. Although China is not as democratically governed as Europe, on the whole the technocrats of Beijing have handled the last twenty years better than the bureaucrats of the EU. Nevertheless Beijing is confronting a confluence of economic, environmental and social challenges that pose problems which even China’s leadership is unlikely to overcome. Arguments about China’s currency undervaluation, while real, miss the main point: Whether China revalues the renminbi or not, its model of rapid growth based on manufactured exports is reaching fundamental limits. China’s customers cannot absorb new products as fast as the Chinese want to make them; we Americans continue to struggle to Costco to do what we can, but our credit cards are maxed out and our home equity lines of credit don’t work that well anymore. We can’t increase our purchases of Chinese goods by ten percent a year — and neither can consumers in the EU. Rising raw material prices combined with consumer fatigue in the malls is squeezing the profitability of Chinese industry just as workers are demanding higher wages. Meanwhile, food price inflation in China is triggering mass anxiety and the financial system appears vulnerable to the kind of bubbles that have wreaked such havoc in the West.
China’s problems go beyond economics. Chinese public opinion, smarting from what it sees as two centuries of humiliation, and now elated by (overblown) press reports of China’s rise, wants its government to follow a more assertive and even aggressive foreign policy. Disputes with Japan, Korea and Vietnam over offshore islands stir deep currents of emotion, and public opinion judges the Chinese government by its ability to prevail in these disputes.
In fact, as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, China has less room for maneuver in Asia than it appears. From India right through Southeast Asia and around to Korea, Russia and Japan, China’s neighbors worry about its rising power. Any signs of China becoming assertive encourage the neighbors to build up their armed forces and close ranks with Washington. India, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan all now look to the US to organize a regional response to perceived Chinese pressure.
Few governments have been as competent (yes, and sometimes as ruthless and harsh) as China when it comes to managing the challenges of the last twenty years; the problems now rising on the horizon, however, are so far challenging even China’s ability to cope. The rising expectations of its people, the rampant corruption and self-dealing of local officials, the clash between China’s internal reality and its constrained international position, and the growing complexity of an economy and society undergoing the most rapid and unpredictable series of transformations in the history of the world are combining to take the Chinese government well out of its comfort zone.
Looming environmental disasters threaten China’s future, with issues of water, air quality and the usual environmental devastation that accompanies communist governance on a massive scale already taking a toll. The consequences of the one-child policy threaten a demographic disaster as an aging Chinese population will place a growing burden on a society not yet affluent enough to support it.
I have never been one of those who heap criticism on China’s government without acknowledging the genuine difficulties it faces. China has the world’s largest population; between foreign invasion and domestic revolution it has been scarred by two centuries of upheaval and mayhem; the industrial revolution now convulsing the country is more rapid and far-reaching than the industrial revolutions that helped plunge Europe into a century of fratricidal war.
Perhaps China’s leaders look small only because the challenges they face are so large; but at the moment China appears to be groping for a way forward without a lot of success. The problems are mounting; the time available to solve them is not.
If Europe offers the most shocking example of incompetence, and China faces the greatest possibility of explosion and crisis, Russia’s current suicidal course may be the most tragic example of poor policy intersecting with cultural failure to drive a great people down.
Emerging from the sordid shadows of the Soviet Union, Russia faced four great challenges. It needed to come to terms with the horrors and failures of the past, recognizing the enormous evil that Russia both suffered and inflicted during the Soviet period. Just as Germany had to come to terms with the Nazi past to build a better future after 1945, Russia had to face the ghosts of Bolshevism and Stalin head on. It has failed, and Russian life and culture remain poisoned by the residue of unrepented horrors and uncomprehended crimes.
Second, Russia needed to build a modern and competent state that in turn could provide the framework for a new economy and a new society. Without a full reckoning with the Soviet past — and a full encounter in particular with the evils perpetrated by its security forces — this was not possible. Nevertheless Russia has fallen well short of what it might have accomplished. I remain glad that Vladimir Putin halted the disintegration of the Russian state that was visibly under way during the Yeltsin era, but with every passing year the critical failure of the Putin presidency to build the stable institutions and solidify the rule of law that a genuinely strong Russian state would require becomes more clear — and more costly.
The third task, of building the kind of capitalist economy that could provide its citizens with dignity and affluence, has also been left undone. There is no one who thinks that the rule of law is secure in Russia, or that investors (foreign or domestic) have any real security for their investments. Accumulating failures of governance ensure that Russia cannot enjoy the full benefits of its natural resources and this unhappy society remains a source of concern and confusion for itself and its neighbors.
The fourth task, of finding a suitable world role for a new Russia, has also been decisively botched. Russia has no real friends anywhere in the world; there are those it can bully and those (a much greater number) that it can’t. The United States, Germany and China all seek good relations with Moscow; no one trusts or respects it. Prime Minister Putin’s recent visit to Germany, a country that quite recently hoped that stronger economic relations with Russia would be a cornerstone of its national strategy, was an embarrassing flop. Putin’s call for a free trade zone including Russia and the EU was dismissed by Chancellor Angela Merkel; the Russian leader reportedly spent more time with the discredited former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (who now works for Gazprom) than in substantive talks with German officials.
Russia’s failures in this department are not simply its own fault. The United States, NATO and the EU have been horribly shortsighted in their Russia policies. Since 1989 there have been two great western projects in Europe: the expansions of both NATO and the EU. NATO expansion was seen by Russia as a great threat; EU expansion has the effect of marginalizing Russia both economically and politically. While Russia’s own many failures and bad behavior did much to determine the west on this course, paying so little heed to Russian interests and sensibilities was unwise; now both Russia and the west must cope with the unpalatable consequences.
Other Powers, Other Problems
One can continue this depressing tour d’horizon. There is Japan, which has floundered for twenty years and is still no closer to rekindling the economic dynamism that once made it look like a credible rival to the United States. Dithering, incompetence, corruption and group-think have turned Japan into a pale shadow of its former self. Sadly, there is no sign of a change.
India’s growth and cohesion are challenged by a worsening culture of corruption and the country’s continuing inability to manage basic challenges like infrastructure. High profile scandals affecting the Commonwealth Games and the telecommunications industry, the persistence of utter misery and deep oppression in much of the countryside, the increasingly chaotic nature of the Indian political system, and the growing geopolitical strains of its rivalries with China and Pakistan are going to make life ever more complex for Indian policymakers.
Neither Israel nor its neighbors seems to have a clear vision for ending the Middle East conflict — or at least managing it. Turkey’s government seems to be missing the opportunity to become the kind of stabilizing force the region desperately needs. In a region that urgently needs rising standards of living for the majority and more cultural and political openness, there is little sign that anybody knows what to do.
About American shortcomings I have written in the past and will be writing again. Our propensity to elect charismatic but inexperienced leaders repeatedly lands us in trouble. We remain steadfastly blind to the deterioration of our long-term fiscal position as we pile unfunded entitlements on top of each other in a surefire recipe for national disaster. We lurch from one ineffective foreign policy to another, while the public consensus that has underwritten America’s world role since the 1940s continues to decay. Our elite seems at times literally hellbent on throwing away the cultural capital and that has kept this nation great and free for so many generations.
Our failings may not be as all-encompassing as Europe’s, as threatening as China’s or as sad and destructive as poor Russia’s — but America has a harder job than these other powers. It is our job, for better or for worse, to provide the world with some kind of security system that can allow the various peoples of the world to work out their destinies and to safeguard an economic system under which humanity as a whole can struggle forward into affluence and hope.
To do that, we must first of all take care of ourselves — and at that basic task we have signally failed. Beyond that, we must gain a clear sight of our interests abroad, understand how those foreign and in some cases global interests relate to the core foundations of our prosperity and security at home, and then use what leverage we can to work with others to build a world system that works for us and our friends.
Building a better world is the common task of the world’s leading powers, and requires as well the support of the medium and small powers and peoples. At the moment not one power center on earth seems up to the task; it can hardly be surprising under these circumstances that William Butler Yeats’ prophecies about widening gyres and rough slouching beasts seem more compelling than usual.
Auden closed his grim poem with a flickering hope and a challenge. I hope and pray that the generations of today will not know the sick despair of September 1939; if we are to avoid that kind of fate under even uglier circumstances, we need to start demanding more of our leaders — and of ourselves.