18 February 2013
The Decline of the West?
By Gwynne Dyer
You know the story-line by now. There are one million US-dollar millionaires in China. (“To get rich is glorious,” said former leader Deng Xiao-ping.) Seventy percent of the homes in China are bought for cash. China’s total trade – the sum of imports and exports – is now bigger than that of the United States. “They’re going to eat our lunch,” whimper the faint-hearted in the West.
It’s not just the Chinese who are coming. The Indians and the Brazilians are coming too, with economic growth rates far higher than in the old industrialised countries, but it doesn’t even stop there. There’s also Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia and half a dozen other big countries in what used to be called the Third World that have discovered the secret of high-speed growth. The power shift is happening even faster than the pundits predicted.
As recently as 2009, the “Brics” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) accounted for less than one-tenth of total global consumption. The European Union consumed twice as much, and so did the United States. But by 2020, the Brics will be producing and consuming just as much as either of the older economic zones, and by 2025 considerably more than either of them.
In fact, if you include not just the four Brics but all the other fast-growing economies of the ex-Third World, in just a dozen years’ time they will account for around 40 percent of world consumption. As a rule, with wealth comes power, so they will increasingly be calling the tune that the West must dance to. Or at least that is the Doomsday scenario that haunts the strategists and economists of the West. It’s nonsense, for at least three reasons.
First of all, a shift in the world’s centre of economic gravity does not necessarily spell doom for those whose relative influence has dwindled. The last time the centre shifted, when the United States overtook the nations of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it did not dent Europe’s prosperity at all.
It’s true that by the latter half of the 20th century there were American troops all over Western Europe, but that would not have happened if Europe had not come close to destroying itself in the two world wars (which can be seen as a European civil war in two parts). In any case, the US troops have mostly gone home now, and Europeans live at least as well as Americans.
Secondly, the new centre of gravity this time, while mostly located in Asia, is not a single country with a coherent foreign policy like the United States. The four Brics will never become a strategic or economic bloc. They are more likely to split into rival blocs, although one hopes not. And the Mexicos and Turkeys and Indonesias of this new world will have their own fish to fry.
So it will be a more complicated world with many major players, and the centre of economic gravity will be in Asia, but there’s nothing particularly strange about this. More than half of the human race lives in Asia, so where else should the centre of gravity be? Asia is very far from monolithic, and there is no logical reason to suppose that its economic rise spells economic decline for the West.
Thirdly, descriptions of the future that are simply extrapolations of the present, like the ones at the start of this article, are almost always wrong. If the widely believed forecasts of the 1980s had been right, Japan would now bestride the world like an economic Colossus. The one certain thing about the future is surprises – but some surprises are a little less surprising than others.
Take climate change, for example. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world, home to almost all of the emerging economic powers, will be much harder hit by global warming than the temperate parts of the globe, farther away from the equator, where the older industrialised countries all live.
There is already much anger about this in the new economic powers. Eighty percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin in the atmosphere were put there by the old-rich countries, who got rich by burning fossil fuels for the past two centuries, and yet they get off lightly while the (relatively) innocent suffer. But even if the newly rich wanted revenge, they are too disunited – and will be too busy coping with the warming – to do much about it.
The centre of gravity of the world economy is undoubtedly leaving the old “Atlantic” world of Europe and North America and moving towards Asia, but how far and how fast this process goes remains to be seen. And there is no reason to believe that it will leave the countries of the West poor or helpless.
True, economists in the West often ask the question: “what will we sell the emerging countries in the future that they cannot produce for themselves?” In the runaway global warming scenario, the answer would be “food”, but the real answer is sure to be more complex than that. Never mind. They’ll think of something, because they’ll have to.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“It’s true…Americans”; and “There is…about it”)
22 December 2012
By Gwynne Dyer
To begin on a happy note, the world didn’t end this year. December 21st came and went without a sign of the Four Horsemen, leaving the Mayans (or rather their ancestors) with egg all over their faces. It just goes to show the perils of prediction – but why would we let that deter us? Nobody is keeping score.
So, instead of the usual trek through the events of the past year, why don’t we use this year-ender to examine the entrails of recent events for portents of the future? Like, for example, the vicissitudes of the Arab revolutions in the past twelve months.
On one hand, there were the first truly free elections in modern Egyptian history. On the other hand, judges inherited from the old regime dismissed the lower house of parliament on a flimsy pretext, and then the Islamist president retaliated by ramming through a new constitution that entrenched conservative “Islamic” values against the will of more than a third of the population. Is this glass half full or half empty?
On one hand, Libyans managed to hold a free election even though the country is still overrun by various militias, and Yemen finally bid farewell to its dictator of thirty-odd years. On the other hand, Syria has fallen into a full-scale civil war, with government planes bombing city centres and 40,000 dead. Did the “Arab spring” succeed, or did it fail?
Well, both, of course. How could it have been otherwise, in a world of fallible human beings? But the mould has been broken, and already half of the world’s Arabs live in countries that are basically democratic.
The political game is being played pretty roughly in some Arab countries, but that’s quite normal in new democracies – and in some older ones, too. In the years to come the transformation will deepen, amidst much further turbulence, and most Arab countries will emerge from it as normal, highly imperfect democracies. Just like most of the world’s other countries.
The European Union staggered through a year during which the common currency of the majority of its members, the euro, tottered permanently on the brink of collapse. The financial markets have been talking all year about “Grexit”, the expected, almost inevitable withdrawal of Greece from the eurozone, and speculating on which country would leave next.
They thought it would be Spain for most of the year, but Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to run for office again – “The Return of the Undead”, one European paper called it – switched the spotlight to Italy in November. The possibility that the common currency might simply fall apart, and take the political unity of the European Union with it, could no longer be dismissed.
Meanwhile, secessionist movements flourished in major EU states. In Spain, both Catalonia and the Basque region elected provincial governments committed to holding referendums on independence. The United Kingdom and the recently devolved Scottish government agreed on the terms of a referendum to be held on Scottish independence in 2014. And in Belgium, Flemish threats to secede seemed more plausible than usual.
It’s a mess, in other words, and Europe certainly faces years of very low economic growth. But the EU was always mainly a political project, intended to end centuries of devastating wars in Europe, and the euro was invented to reinforce that political union.
That project still has the firm support of the political elites in almost all EU countries, and they will pay whatever price is necessary to save it. Even in the regions considering secession from their current countries, there is no appetite for leaving the EU. Indeed, the strongest argument of the anti-secessionists is to say that those regions would have to re-apply for EU membership if they got their independence, rather than just inheriting it automatically.
So the European Union will survive, and will even recover its financial stability eventually. It will also remain a major economic player in the world, athough the centre of gravity of the global economy will continue to shift towards Asia. There is even reason to think that Asia’s triumph will arrive somewhat later, and in a rather more muted fashion, than the enthusiasts have been predicting in recent years.
In the last months of 2012 China went through the ten-yearly ritual in which power is handed on to a new generation of leaders, and both Japan and South Korea elected new right-wing governments. North Korea, the nuclear-armed rogue state that lies between them, put its first satellite into orbit, thus demonstrating its ability to build long-range ballistic missiles. And China was almost continuously embroiled in border disputes with its neighbours (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia) in the South China Sea.
The cloud on the horizon is still “no bigger than a man’s hand,” but it is definitely there. We can hope that the world works differently nowadays, and in some ways it really does, but the fears, the nationalist passions, and even the strategic relationships in Asia are coming to resemble those in Europe a century ago, on the eve of the First World War.
Even if an equivalent war never actually happens in Asia, a growing share of the region’s resources may be wasted on military spending. And if there ever were a real war, the destruction would be so great, given current weapons technologies, that the region could lose several decades’ worth of growth. But it will be some years yet before we know if the region is really drifting in that direction.
The world’s drift towards global catastrophe due to climate change is becoming impossible to deny. This northern summer saw prolonged droughts and heat waves ravage crops from the US Midwest to the plains of Russia, and soaring food prices as the markets responded to shortages in food supply.
This September saw Arctic sea ice cover fall to its lowest ever level: only half of the total area covered by ice in September ten years ago. And October saw Hurricane Sandy devastate much of the US east coast, causing a hundred deaths and over $30 billion in damage. It was the second-costliest tropical storm in American history (after Katrina, in New Orleans, seven years ago).
Yet the global response is as feeble as ever. The annual round of global negotiations on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, held this December in Qatar, merely agreed that they would try to get some sort of deal by 2015. Even if they do, however, it won’t go into effect until 2020.
So for the next eight years the only legal constraint on warming will be the modest cuts in emissions agreed at Kyoto fifteen years ago. Moreover, those limits only apply to the old industrial powers. There are no limits whatever on the rise of emissions by the fast-growing economies of the emerging industrial powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even lemmings usually act more wisely than this.
November brought a week of massive Israeli air and missile strikes against the Gaza Strip, allegedly in retaliation for Palestinian missile attacks against Israel, but the tit-for-tat has been going on for so long that it’s pointless to discuss who started it. And nothing Israel does can stop the growing support for a Palestinian state: in late November the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-voting observer state status by a vote of 138-9.
More worrisome was the threat of Israeli air strikes on Iran, supposedly to stop it from getting nuclear weapons. That would be a very big war if it started: the United States would almost inevitably get dragged in, the flow of oil from the Gulf states would stop, and the world economy would do a nosedive.
But there is no proof that Iran is currently working on nuclear weapons (the US and Israeli intelligence services both say no), and mere air strikes would not cripple Iran’s nuclear industry for long. So the whole issue is probably an Israeli bluff.
A bluff to what end? To get the rest of the world to impose severe economic sanctions against Iran, in the hope that they will cause enough pain to get Iranians to overthrow the present regime. The damage is certainly being done – the value of the Iranian rial collapsed this year – but the power of the ayatollahs is unshaken. They will not be overthrown, and there will not be a war. I think.
And then there’s the United States, where Barack Obama, having accomplished little except health care reform in his first presidential term, was re-elected anyway. The Republican candidate concentrated his campaign on Obama’s slow progress in overcoming the deepest recession in seventy years (which had been caused by the previous Republican administration), but just in time the numbers started to turn upward for Obama.
The economic recovery will probably strengthen in the coming year (unless the United States falls off the “fiscal cliff” in the next week or so), and strong growth will give Obama enough political capital to undertake on at least one big reform project. The highest priority is obviously global warming, but there is a danger that he will fritter his resources away on hot-button issues like gun control.
So much for the big themes of the year. There was also the usual scatter of promising changes like Burma’s gradual return to democracy, the start of peace talks that may bring an end to the 60-year-old war between government and guerillas in Colombia, and the return to the rule of law in growing areas of anarchic Somalia.
Similarly, there was a steady drizzle of bad news: the revolt by Islamist extremists that tore the African state of Mali in half in April, the pogrom against Burmese Muslims in July, and the police massacre of striking miners in South Africa in August.
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is probably dying of cancer, and the rules for choosing his successor are in dispute. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin faced unprecedented public protests after the elections last March, but his power still seems secure. The Mars rover landed successfully in August, and is now busily trundling across the Martian landscape. The existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed (or at least tentatively confirmed).
Business as usual, in other words. 2012 wasn’t a particularly bad year; if you think it was, you’ve been reading too many newspapers and watching too much CNN. Their stock-in-trade is crisis and tragedy, so you can always count on them to give you the worst news possible. It wasn’t all that great a year either, but never mind. There’ll be another one along shortly.
This article is 1750 words. To shorten it, you can omit any of the main themes except the first one (on events in the Arab world) — that is, paragraphs 7-12 (“The European…years”); paragraphs 13-15 (“In the last…direction”); paragraphs 16-19 (“The world’s…than this”); or paragraphs 21-23 (“More worrisome…I think”).
Various single paragraphs can also be dropped: nos. 4, 6, 8, and 28.
14 October 212
Nobel Booby Prize?
By Gwynne Dyer
Maybe they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union because they couldn’t think of anybody else who wouldn’t embarrass them. Nelson Mandela already has one. So does Aung San Suu Kyi. Even Barak Obama has one, though what for is not exactly clear. They even gave it to Henry Kissinger once, but we probably shouldn’t go into that. So who’s left? We’ll just give it to the European Union. Nobody’ll notice that.
But they did notice, and some of them were not amused. “A Nobel prize for the EU at a time Brussels and all of Europe is collapsing in misery? What next? An Oscar for (European Council President Herman) Van Rompuy?” asked Geert Wilders, the Dutch eurosceptic. “Rather than bring peace and harmony, the EU will cause insurgency and violence,” warned Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (which wants Britain to leave the Union).
And France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, asked on its website: “But who will go to Oslo for the EU to receive the Nobel Peace Prize? As trivial as it may seem, the question raises (the legitimacy) of an entity…whose institutional stops and starts and lack of democratic representation are regularly criticised.”
It’s actually not a trivial question at all, because the large EU bureaucracy that is based in Brussels, the EU’s “capital”, was not elected by anybody, and nobody loves it. The member countries are all democracies, but the decisions at the continent-wide level are taken by governmental elites who do not trust their own citizens to vote the right way.
The EU was an elite project from the start, and policy for the 27-member union is still set mostly by politicians and officials, not by citizens. So don’t send a Brussels bureaucrat to Oslo to collect the prize. Send some ordinary citizen, chosen by lot, to represent the 500 million citizens of EU countries who don’t even have a vote on most EU decisions.
However, don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water. The original purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize was to honour people who worked to put an end to the terrible wars that have repeatedly devastated the European continent (and much of the rest of the world as well) over the past four centuries. The EU has made a major contribution to that task, but that is not its greatest achievement.
It has been 67 years since there was a major war in Europe. Indeed, there have been no wars in Europe at all, apart from the various civil wars in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia (which was not a EU member). More importantly, a war between any of the EU’s member countries is now quite unthinkable.
“This started after the (Second World) war – putting together former enemies,” said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in an interview with the BBC. “It started with six countries and we are now 27, another one (Croatia) is going to join us next year and more want to come. So the EU is the most important project for peace in terms of transnational, supernational co-operation.”
That’s a bit over the top. The United Nations surely has more to do with 67 years in which no great powers have fought each other. So do two generations of American and Soviet officials and politicians who showed great restraint and managed to avoid a nuclear war that would have devastated the whole world. You could even give some credit to nuclear weapons themselves, which forced the great powers to behave more prudently than usual.
The great virtue of the European Union, despite its “democratic deficit” at the Brussels level, is that ALL its member countries must be fully democratic, relatively uncorrupt, and fully observant of civil and human rights. Not only has this prevented some members from backsliding into intolerance and authoritarianism in times of great stress; it has also been a huge incentive for prospective members to clean up their act.
Would Greece, Spain and Portugal all have ended up as full democracies after overthrowing their old dictators, and in the latter two cases as relatively honest ones as well, if not for the changes they had to make to qualify for EU membership?
Would the nine ex-Communist countries of Central Europe that emerged from the long night of Soviet tyranny in 1989 have created modern civil societies practically overnight without a great deal of aid from the EU? Would they even have bothered, without the incentive of future EU membership?
Would Turkey have striven so hard to entrench respect for civil rights in the law and force the military to retire to their barracks permanently if it had not been offered the prospect (sadly betrayed) of EU membership?
The Nobel Peace Prize is a misnomer. It should actually be the Nobel Democracy and Human Rights Prize. Occasionally it goes to some person or organisation whose main purpose is building international peace, but much more often it goes to people like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and most recently Liu Xiaobo, whose accomplishment, or at least goal, has been to make their own countries democratic and respectful of human rights.
And if that is the real criterion, then the European Union truly does deserve the prize.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 13. (“It’s actually…way”; “It has been…unthinkable”; and “Would Turkey…membership”)
30 September 2012
By Gwynne Dyer
It is imaginable – not certain, but certainly possible – that Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s strongman ruler since 1998, will lose the presidential election on 7 October. The most recent opinion polls showed that his challenger, Henrique Capriles, has closed the gap between them to only 5 percent or less of the popular vote. If Chavez loses, would he actually hand over power peacefully?
He says he would, of course – but he also says that it’s an irrelevant question, since he will surely win. “It is written,” he tells his supporters reassuringly. But it is not. Chavez really could lose this time, for thirty different opposition parties, ranging from the centre-left to the far right, have finally got together and chosen a single candidate for the presidency. Moreover, Capriles is no Mitt Romney: he knows that the votes of the poor matter.
In previous elections, the Venezuelan opposition railed against Chavez’s “socialism” and Marxism, and lost. Capriles, by contrast, promises to retain most of Chavez’s social welfare policies, which have poured almost $300 billion over the last dozen years into programmes to improve literacy, extend high school education, improve health care, build housing for the homeless, and subsidise household purchases from groceries to appliances.
Capriles can make those promises because, like Chavez, he can pay for them out of the country’s huge oil revenues. He HAS to make them, because poorer Venezuelans – and most Venezuelans are poor – won’t vote for a candidate who would end all that. But Capriles says he will spend that money more effectively, with less corruption, and a lot of people believe him. It would not be hard to be more efficient than Chavez’s ramshackle administration.
Capriles also has the advantage of being 18 years younger and a lot fitter than the incumbent, who has been fighting cancer for the past fifteen months. Chavez says it is cured now, but physically he is clearly not the man he was. Some of his own supporters suspect that he is not long for this world – and while they still love Chavez himself, they neither love nor trust the people around him, who might seize power when he was gone.
Moreover, though Chavez’s rule has benefited the poor in many ways, they are still poor. Venezuela’s economy has grown far more slowly than those of its big neighbours, Brazil and Colombia, even though it has enjoyed the advantages of big oil exports and a tenfold rise in the world oil price.
Indeed, almost all the growth in Venezuela’s economy since Chavez took power is due to higher oil prices; most other parts of the economy have shrunk. And while the oil revenues have been big enough – $980 billion during Chavez’s presidency – to sustain the subsidies at their current level, they will never be enough to transform the entire economy.
You can work it out on the back of an envelope. There are almost 30 million Venezuelans. Even if all of that $980 billion had been shared out among them during Chavez’s twelve years in power, they would only have got about $3,000 per person per year. Since the oil revenue also had to pay for everything from defence to road construction, the real number was more like $1,000 per person per year.
That’s nice to have, but it’s not going to transform lives. In fact, many people now feel that they are sliding backward again, for inflation has been about 1,000 percent since 1998, ten times worse than in Venezuela’s neighbours. And the shelves in the government-subsidised food shops are bare most of the time.
It’s like the old Soviet Union: when a shipment of some basic commodity finally arrives, it is all snapped up instantly, and then there is nothing until the next delivery. Nationalisation and central planning didn’t do the old Communist states of Europe any good, and they haven’t worked in Venezuela either. Something radical must be done to get the real, non-oil economy growing at a decent rate.
So even Chavez loyalists can be tempted by a politician who promises to keep the subsidies, but to scrap the antique Marxist dogmatism that cripples the economy. Henrique Capriles is exactly that politician, and therefore he really might win the election. What then?
What would probably happen is a grudging but peaceful hand-over of power to the newly elected President Capriles. Chavez has not been reluctant to exploit the government’s near-monopoly of the broadcast media and his rhetoric is often vicious – he has called Capriles a “pig” and a “fascist” – but unlike the former Communist states of Europe, he has always held real elections that he could actually lose.
If he loses this one, he still knows that the welfare state he began to build will survive his departure: it is now part of the country’s political furniture. He will be conscious that his health might not be good enough to sustain him through a long post-election crisis. And for all his bluff and bluster about defending the “Bolivarian revolution”, he may actually respect a democratic vote that goes against him.
Whether his colleagues and cronies would feel the same way is another question, but they could hardly reject an outcome that Chavez himself accepted. This thing could still end well.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Capriles also…gone”; and “It’s like…rate”)