THE SAINTS!

Did you see Hank Paulson and Alan Greenspan on Meet the Press Sunday? Both betting on the Colts? (I also disagree with their view that we mustn’t let Bush’s tax-cuts-on-income-above $250,000 a year expire. More on that tomorrow, or soon.)

ALBANIA BANS DISCRIMINATION – COULD AMERICA BE NEXT?

Last Thursday, Albania’s parliament unanimously banned discrimination on the grounds of various characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity. No one expects the U.S. Congress to be as enlightened, but it’s at least something to shoot for.

Dripping sarcasm aside, one really does hope we follow countries like South Africa, Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden – and now Albania – as quickly as possible.

After all, it was we who invented life, liberty – equal rights – and the pursuit of happiness. No?

CHINA (AND ASIA) – NOT SO FAST

China’s future may be bright, as suggested in yesterday’s excerpt (and who among us would not wish good things for a sixth of humanity?).

But this equally fascinating piece from Sunday’s Boston Globe by Joshua Kurlantzick (thanks, Nick!) argues that expectations China will lead the world are overdone:

. . . Asia’s growth has built-in stumbling blocks. Demographics, for one. Because of its One Child policy, China’s population is aging rapidly: According to one comprehensive study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, by 2040 China will have at least 400 million elderly, most of whom will have no retirement pensions. This aging poses a severe challenge, since China may not have enough working-age people to support its elderly. In other words, says CSIS, China will grow old before it grows rich, a disastrous combination. Other Asian powers also are aging rapidly – Japan’s population likely will fall from around 130 million today to 90 million in 2055 – or, due to traditional preferences for male children, have a dangerous sex imbalance in which there are far more men than women. This is a scenario likely to destabilize a country, since, at other periods in history when many men could not marry, the unmarried hordes turned to crime or political violence.

Looming political unrest also threatens Asia’s rise. China alone already faces some 90,000 annual ‘mass incidents,’ the name given by Chinese security forces to protests, and this number is likely to grow as income inequality soars and environmental problems add more stresses to society. India, too, faces severe threats. The Naxalites, Maoists operating mostly in eastern India who attack large landowners, businesses, police, and other local officials, have caused the death of at least 800 people last year alone, and have destabilized large portions of eastern India. Other Asian states, too, face looming unrest, from the ongoing insurgency in southern Thailand to the rising racial and religious conflicts in Malaysia.

Also, despite predictions that Asia will eventually integrate, building a European Union-like organization, the region actually seems to be coming apart. Asia has not tamed the menace of nationalism, which Europe and North America largely have put in the past, albeit after two bloody world wars. Even as China and India have cooperated on climate change, on many other issues they are at each other’s throats. Over the past year, both countries have fortified their common border in the Himalayas, claiming overlapping pieces of territory. Meanwhile, Japan is constantly seeking ways to blunt Chinese military power. People in many Asian nations have extremely negative views of their neighbors – even though they maintain positive images of the United States.

More broadly, few Asian leaders have any idea what values, ideas, or histories should hold Asia together. ‘The argument of an Asian century is fundamentally flawed in that Asia is a Western concept, one that is not widely agreed upon [in Asia],’ says Devin Stewart, a Japan specialist at the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs.

Even as Asia’s miracle seems, on closer inspection, less miraculous, America’s decline has been vastly overstated. To become a global superpower requires economic, political, and military might, and on the last two counts, the United States remains leagues ahead of any Asian rival. Despite boosting defense budgets by 20 percent annually, Asian powers like India, China, or Indonesia will not rival the US military for decades, if ever – only the Pentagon could launch a war in a place like Afghanistan, so far from its homeland. When a tsunami struck South and Southeast Asia five years ago, the region’s nations, including Indonesia, Thailand, and India, had to rely on the US Navy to coordinate relief efforts.

America also has other advantages that will be nearly impossible to remove. With Asian nations still squabbling amongst themselves, many look to the United States as a neutral power broker, a role America plays around the world. German writer and scholar Joseph Joffe calls the United States today the ‘default power’: No one in the world trusts anyone else to play the global hegemon, so it still falls to Washington.

Even in the economic realm, the United States remains strong. As Zakaria admits, the United States accounted for 32 percent of global output in 1913, 26 percent in 1960, and 26 percent in 2007, remarkably consistent figures. The United States remains atop nearly every ranking of economies according to openness and innovation. While Asia’s centrally planned economies can build infrastructure without worrying about public opposition – China has built impressive networks of airports and highways – they are less successful at nurturing world-beating companies, which thrive on risk-taking and hands-off government. Compared to Intel, Google, or Apple, China’s major companies still are state-linked behemoths that do little innovation of their own. The leading corporations in most other Asian nations (with the exception of Japan and South Korea) also are either giant state-linked firms or trading companies that invest little in innovation. And censorship or tight government controls alienate the most innovative firms – Google is now threatening to pull out of China entirely.

As Asia throws up barriers to immigration, in the United States immigration helps ensure long-term economic vitality. Chinese and Indian immigrants accounted for almost one-quarter of all companies in Silicon Valley, according to research by AnnaLee Saxenian at the University of California-Berkeley. According to the most comprehensive global ranking of universities, compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, American schools, powered by immigrants and flush with cash, dominate the top 100, with Harvard ranked first. Asia has no schools in the top 10.

Most important, the United States is a champion of an idea that has global appeal, and Asia is not. During the opposition protests in Iran, demonstrators look to the United States, not China or Indonesia or even India, to make a statement. In a reversal of the Iranian regime’s rhetoric, some protestors even chant ‘Death to China’ because of Beijing’s support for the repressive government in Tehran. As long as protestors in places like Iran, or Burma or Ukraine, call out for the American president, and not China’s leader or India’s prime minister, the United States will remain the preeminent power.

To be the global hegemon requires military, economic, and political might, but it also means offering a vision for the world. As Mahbubani admits, during Britain’s imperial period, elites in places like Malaya, India, or the Caribbean wanted to study in England, or read British authors and philosophers, because they believed that the ideas Britain had imparted – the rule of law, the Westminster political system, an idea of fair play, a meritocratic civil service, evidence-based scientific exploration – had merit for the entire world. Even men and women who, ultimately, became some of the biggest thorns in Britain’s side, like Jawarhal Nehru, cherished their British studies and their links to British culture.

So, too, since World War II the United States has been, for many foreign publics, the nation looked up to in this way. Even at the worst moments, such as the period after 9/11 in which the Bush administration created the prison at Guantanamo Bay and allowed torture and other questionable tactics, I have rarely met anyone, in any country, who wanted to move to China, or India, or even Japan, rather than the United States. Foreigners may want to spend a few years in China or India or Indonesia, to see the dynamism of these places, but few, if any, have plans to become Chinese, Indian, or Indonesian citizens. Perhaps one day China or Indonesia or India will draw these migrants, who would come seeking the same dreams and openness as they do today in the United States. But it won’t be soon – and it might not even be this century.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

☞ And here is James Fallows in The Atlantic, having just returned from three years in China, with an equally fascinating take.

. . . Through the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination, or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik through whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind. Pick a year over the past half century, and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse. The first oil shocks and gas-station lines in peacetime history; the first presidential resignation ever; assassinations and riots; failing schools; failing industries; polarized politics; vulgarized culture; polluted air and water; divisive and inconclusive wars. It all seemed so terrible, during a period defined in retrospect as a time of unquestioned American strength. ‘Through the 1970s, people seemed ready to conclude that the world was coming to an end at the drop of a hat,’ Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland, told me. ‘Thomas Jefferson was probably sure the country was going to hell when John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts,’ said Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate. ‘And Adams was sure it was going to hell when Thomas Jefferson was elected president.’ . . .

☞ The Fallows piece is actually more colorful and anecdotal than the Kurlantzick piece – you’ll enjoy it, if you have time.

But just as many scoffed at the notion that U.S. home prices could ever go down – the worry of a few perennial Cassandras – so could it be a mistake to underestimate the work we need to do to remain competitive.

 

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