World

2020 AD: Who will be in charge?

By J Brooks Spector 21 November 2014

A hundred years after the beginning of a war that destroyed the fabric of the world, J. BROOKS SPECTOR speculates on who will be in charge for the next decade.

A hundred years (and four months) ago, Europe had already tipped over the edge into an appalling catastrophe. The “Concert of Europe” was finished and was being buried under the first waves of millions of casualties – civilian and military – in a conflict that then gave rise to a second, even more disastrous global war, barely twenty years later. And that second war quickly moved on into the Cold War that locked two superpowers into near-nuclear confrontations and a whole series of proxy wars until the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its empire across much of Central and Eastern Europe, some twenty five years ago.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, for some observers such as Francis Fukuyama it was clear that the constant strife of history was now – finally – effectively over. Liberal, social-welfare capitalism was the final terminus and what would come next was merely the eventual, inevitable spread of that particular doctrine to all of the remaining outposts of state socialism or even the odd kleptocratic regimes. Material progress for all was not just possible, but was inevitable – and, with that, the grounds for social and political strife would dry up just as certainly as a shallow puddle in the summer Sun.

Well, a generation after the demise of communism, now we know that things haven’t exactly turned out according to those rosy predictions. Instead, a rather different dynamic seems to have emerged in which a new version of the developmental state, married with state-capitalism seems on the ascendant, as with China’s two decades of extraordinary growth – and East Asia’s “little tigers” before that country’s realization of Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, “to be rich is wonderful”.

A second key determinant in this has been the inevitable march of economic globalisation as it has come to incorporate new economies, one after the other, around the globe – including places as disparate as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Morocco, Tunisia, and El Salvador. In many cases, it has caught up countries that had been overwhelmed by domestic or international conflicts only a generation or so earlier. Hand in hand with this new income, there have been great economic and social dislocations from the revolution of rising expectations and the increasingly unequal income spreads as this new prosperity has created phalanxes of the new rich.

Looking forward for a decade or so, what features will shape the global order? It has become a common-place truism (but one that has the virtue of largely being true) that the continuing pace of technological development will bring many science fiction-esque changes to everyday lives. These will range from advances in bio- and nano-technology (including entirely new ways to fight disease or produce goods and services) as well as increasingly more intensive, extensive and invasive telecommunications networks (including that so-called “Internet of things” where the objects of everyday life communicate with one-another). There will also be the unpredictable impacts of global climate change – together with still-further encroachments on many of the species living in the Anthropocene Era.

And who will be at the global helmsmen of all this – or at least try to guide and direct things through to 2020 – and beyond? First of all, and most importantly, unless there is a true black swan event in the global and political order, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are almost certain to be around for years to come. They will be increasingly large and in charge, and increasingly experienced in doing what they do best.

Since Xi Jinping’s accession to the top in 2013 as president (and party head the year before), numerous commentators have already remarked on the signal difference between Xi and all of his recent predecessors – reaching as far back as Mao Zedong’s tenure when he was the country’s supreme leader. Xi has demonstrated a kind of ease in international dealings and an authoritativeness on the domestic front that will almost certainly see him continue to guide his country to a still more assertive presence vis-à-vis his country’s neighbours; towards a still-stronger use of economic diplomacy in support of China’s drive for access to markets for its increasingly higher-value-added goods and access to raw materials; and with a drive to build a Chinese national economy that – more and more – will come to depend on growth in domestic demand, rather than simply being the global workshop for many manufactured goods.

Certainly at this point, Xi is without any significant opposition within China’s ruling elite. As a result, bet on him to be re-elected for at least another term of office, as long as China’s economy continues on something close to its current trajectory.

Meanwhile, next door, in Vladimir Putin’s case, having virtually eliminated his opposition, and having been in power effectively for nearly a decade and a half, there is every reason to assume Putin will remain at the top of his particular hill, at least through the end of the decade as well. He has been president or prime minister of Russia since 2000 and seems on course to be elected yet again when his current term comes to an end some two years from now. Given the semi-authoritarian political landscape of today’s Russia, and Putin’s actual substantial popularity with many for his effort to re-establish Russia’s place in the global order, smart money would bet on an ever more experienced Vladimir Putin at the steering wheel in Russia for years to come.

This continuing tenure will continue to rebuild a deep Russian sphere of influence throughout its “near abroad” among former constituent republics of the Soviet Union, likely blunting some impulses for neighbouring regimes to link themselves more closely with Western Europe. Here too, Russia will make the fullest possible use of its more limited economic heft, primarily its abundant supplies of natural gas and petroleum that it has been using as both carrot and stick towards Western and Eastern Europe, as well as China. For Europe, energy is a supply that can be restricted for political influence or used as a reward for appropriate behaviour. With the latter nation, Russia is already using its energy resources to counterbalance any efforts by European customers to diversify their own sources of supply and thereby weaken Russia’s energy sales.

Of course there is one real cautionary flag for Putin’s hegemony over his nation’s political future. Russia’s economic circumstances remain deeply dependent on oil prices internationally. This may well come to have even more impact than the recent imposition of financial and economic sanctions by the West as a result of its incursions into Ukraine. It may well be that Russia’s fortunes are tied to a wasting asset with longer-term price and revenue declines in its future as new fossil fuel resources come on stream internationally. If anything, that, much more than any entanglement in Ukraine, may end up being Putin’s Achilles heel in his situation as the sovereign over Russia who can deliver increasing prosperity and stability.

By contrast, when Hillary Ted Scott Jeb Rubio Elizabeth Rand Marco-Clinton-Walker-Bush-Paul-Warren-Cruz takes office as the successor to the increasingly wounded and ignored Barack Obama in January 2017, the world will begin focusing on the likely rhetorical discontinuities in American policy, rather than with long-term policy continuities – as with China and Russia. If the Obama administration tried to reset its relationship with Russia and enable a “pivot” towards East Asia, the former was overturned by increasing authoritarian tendencies inside Russia and then, definitively, by Putin’s Ukrainian adventure. And that pivot has been stymied by other foreign crises – mostly in the Middle East – but also by China’s own longer-term economic-diplomacy initiatives. Somewhere in there has been the re-engagement with Africa but even that threatens to be overwhelmed by those Middle East issues among policy makers and politicians.

But, whoever takes over in 2017 will be forced to redefine American policies – and somehow mesh them with domestic fears about the implacable onward rush of globalisation such as the inevitable decline of older industrial sectors and the on-going distribution of many of those jobs to other countries. (China will more and more, begin to stumble over this same issue in coming years, as growing numbers of its own manufacturing jobs shift from its older industrial heartland to the cities in its interior and then, increasingly outward from China and onward to Southeast Asia and elsewhere as manufacturers chase even lower wage economies to stay profitable.)

Meanwhile, Europe’s ostensible leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seems poised to stay in power within Germany, given her economic record for Germany, and dominance in Europe as a whole, even if her pro-austerity policies have been tough for most other European leaders to accept, let alone actively emulate. In current circumstances at least, no other European leader – whether in France, Italy, the UK, or even the head of the European Union Commission – has anywhere near the political or economic policy stature of an Angela Merkel, let alone the backing of their respective populations. But Europe’s halting economic recovery will continue to limit Merkel’s ability to exercise major international leadership on a par with the Chinese, Russian or American leaders.

The same may also be said of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and India’s Narendra Modi. Both leaders have expansive visions for ambitious makeovers of their respective economies, but both will continue to have real roadblocks in their paths, keeping them largely focused on domestic leadership. But, like Merkel, both Abe and Modi should be around for years to come, barring major economic or political disasters in their respective nations.

Similarly, it is unlikely the leaders of international organizations at the UN, the World Trade Organisation – WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund – the IMF, will be able to exercise global leadership commensurate with their ambitions. This will likely continue if for no other reason than that these organisations have been less than successful in reining in a succession of previous global economic crises – and the fact that earlier crises have leapfrogged beyond the institutional frameworks that do exist.

And to look for global leadership from the rest of the pack, this will likely be a near-impossible task. Are there any global statesmen or women with real staying power or moral force from among the rest of the globe’s nations? Maybe there should be, but, sadly, there are not.

But there may be one exception for this, of course, except that we don’t yet know that person’s name. The Middle East continues to be roiled by the Islamic State’s expansionary goals, by Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions, by authoritarian ambitions in several other states, by weak and unstable polities in many places, and by the intractable Israeli-Palestinian tangle, among other issues. However, a real black swan global leader – for good or ill – may well arise from this area with one leader with real staying power who could permanently remake the map – and thereby draw in other nations even more than they are already involved.

But in common with so many studies that have tried to assess the likely global issues in coming years, although the globalisation onslaught will continue to trump pretty much everything else, continuing revolutionary technological change will continue reshaping the lives of people even in small, rural villages in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America as well. But there are also more problematic challenges. These include possible pandemics, transnational-international terror groups, and religious challenges married to irredentist political movements that may upset the global applecart. For such events, it will be crucial to see if the leadership of people like Putin, Xi and Mr/Ms X in America can find ways to cope with such disorienting, disjunctive challenges. DM

For more, from among thousands of useful items on these topics, read:

  • The Pacific Age, a special report in the Economist;

  • The end of harmony – How the benefits of political order are slowly eroding, a column by Francis Fukuyama in the Economist.

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