2011 Megatrends: What's New, What's Not

Commentary | January 28, 2011

It’s that time of year again when the commentators like to identify the big themes. Consider this sampling:

A Polish essayist castigates Europeans in general for their “euro-centrism” that blinds them to the continent’s decline while new centers of economic and political power emerge elsewhere. He morbidly asks: “Will European civilization outlive Europe, or will it collapse with her?”

A French author, true to form, discusses the even bigger challenge all countries are facing: “The information revolution is a political revolution and an intellectual revolution. It calls into question both power and culture. It challenges the distinction between governors and governed.”

Americans have their own worries about their country’s apparent decline. “Increasingly, many of today’s problems are associated with the historic shift from an economic and financial regime dominated by the United States and the dollar to an unstable and multipolar system,” a New York Times article proclaims.

And then, as always, there’s Russia. One of that country’s few genuinely independent voices warns: “In political terms, his [the Kremlin leader’s] recent strategy can be described as a campaign to achieve democratic change through nondemocratic means. The way I see it, it is an extremely dangerous strategy, threatening to bring forth unworkable antidemocratic structures we’ll have to contend with for a long time.”

You hear such talk a lot these days, of course. But these opinions are hardly new—far from it. The first quotation is from the lead essay by Juliusz Mieroszewski in the March 1950 issue of Kultura, the Paris-based Polish émigré monthly. The French author who discussed the information revolution was Jean-François Revel, writing in his book “Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun,” published in 1970. The quotation about the increasingly multipolar world is from an article by Ann Crittenden in The New York Times dated February 4, 1979. And the independent Russian voice is that of dissident Andrei Sakharov, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington on November 14, 1988; the Kremlin leader he was referring to was Mikhail Gorbachev.

My father zealously monitored the Zeitgeist on such issues all his life. Since he is now ailing and unable to do so, I recently started sorting through his remarkable collection of clippings, and found myself intrigued by the eerie similarities to so many of today’s discussions about supposedly new trends and shifting power relationships.  While my father collected articles on everything from the wars in Korea and Vietnam to the John F. Kennedy assassination and John Paul II’s first visit to the United States, he was especially attracted to the writings of anyone who tried to make sense of the big ideas that flowed from the daily headlines.

As I sifted through his collection, I was struck by the degree to which certain preoccupations have been with us for decades—not, as we sometimes tend to believe, just in recent years. We aren’t so much discovering but constantly rediscovering the major global trends of the postwar era: the shift of power from West to East; Europe’s struggle to define its role and identity; the chronic debates about America’s supposed decline; and Russia’s seeming inability to transition to a system that assures its citizens fundamental rights, since even the self-proclaimed reformers too often have failed to embrace democratic principles.

All those are legitimate issues and concerns. And, yes, some trends—most notably, the shift to a genuinely multipolar world as demonstrated by the emergence of China and India as major players—have accelerated significantly in the past decade. The information revolution that Revel wrote about even before the dawn of the digital era, basing his observations on the growing power of television, hasn’t just accelerated: it’s now moving at warp speed. But none of this negates the fact that we are debating many of the same questions that policy analysts grappled with on a daily basis during the last half of the twentieth century.

It’s worth keeping this in mind since it helps put our current preoccupations in perspective. Europeans agonize whether they are losing out to the rising powers in the East, whether the euro-zone can survive its current spate of economic crises, and whether they can handle the cultural tensions produced by their growing immigrant populations. But if they took a step back, they’d see that the current era—when EU and NATO membership binds most of the countries on the continent together as never before—looks pretty good as compared to the 1990s when the Balkans were exploding in violence, or, earlier, when the continent was divided into two heavily armed, hostile camps.

According to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts poll, 50 per cent of Americans viewed the first decade of this century as generally negative, and only 27 per cent saw it as generally positive. In assessing earlier decades, including the 1960s which was dominated by the Vietnam War, protests and assassinations, Americans were far more upbeat. To be sure, terrorism accounts for a large part of that somber mood, but Americans need to remember this was a phenomenon that was widespread earlier, although it hadn’t reached American soil in a way that registered. And anti-Americanism is hardly new either. One of my keepsakes from my father is a mounted chunk of concrete that was thrown through his office window when protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 1961, where he was serving as press attaché.

Revel’s underlying thesis about the United States—that it was in the best position to embrace and creatively exploit the technological leaps of the new information age—still applies today. That’s why he was convinced that much of the talk about America’s decline, along with knee-jerk anti-Americanism in his country and others, was off the mark. Its combination of entrepreneurial spirit and comfort level with broad freedoms would allow it to maintain its leading role in far more than just military might.

Since then, the United States has added cause for optimism because of its population trends. Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Nicholas Eberstadt points out that, barring a severe backlash against immigration, the country “will avoid the demographic stagnation and decline that faces most other OECD countries.” In fact, the U.S. population is projected to grow from 310 million to 374 million in the next twenty years. As he points out, this will keep the country relatively young, with much better economic prospects than Western Europe or Japan.

True, the world today is genuinely more multipolar than before, and America’s leaders have to take that into account. The digital age cries out for more international coordination on cybersecurity, in particular, since everything from trade, finance and critical infrastructure is vulnerable without new protective mechanisms that span borders as effectively as web connections do. And given their push for nuclear weapons, countries like North Korea and Iran can no longer be seen merely as regional threats—or only as America’s problem. That certainly applies to disparate terrorist movements as well.

But there’s hope in those kinds of realizations. That may account for the recent indications that NATO and Russia could cooperate on ballistic missile defense, and that China is beginning—ever so tentatively—to reconsider how it should handle its North Korean neighbor. And that on cybersecurity there’s a growing realization that national policies will fail without concerted international cooperation.

Of course that isn’t a new idea either, as my father would be quick to point out—and he has the articles to prove it. The question is whether a more sensible approach is developing based on the premise that joint actions to meet joint challenges aren’t just an idealistic vision anymore but a necessity for survival. Economic, political and, yes, military competition will continue. But maybe—just maybe—the next half century of articles will be less concerned with who is rising or falling and more with how we pulled together when it really mattered.

Andrew Nagorski is vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute. This article was written for Newsweek Polska, the Polish edition of Newsweek (www.newsweek.pl).