Shifting economic and political fortunes lead us to ask what makes a nation grow powerful enough to impose its will on others.

By Moisés Naím

It was one of those turning points that just go unnoticed in the media. According to the Australian Treasury Department, on March 28 of this year the economies of the world’s less developed countries, taken as a whole, surpassed in size those of the richer ones. “We can now see it for what it was — a historical aberration that lasted about 1½ centuries,” wrote the Australian columnist Peter Hartcher, referring to the fact that, until 1840, China had been the world’s largest economy. “The Chinese look at this and they say, ‘We just had a couple of bad centuries’,” wryly remarked Ken Courtiss, a renowned expert also quoted by Hartcher. Courtiss adds: “In the blink of a generation, global power has shifted. Over time, this will not just be an economic and financial shift but a political, cultural and ideological one.”

Will this be so? Taken together the comments of Hartcher’s readers inadvertently offer a revealing synthesis of a debate that is consuming politicians, generals and academics everywhere: Which nation will dominate the 21st century? Derek, for example, in Canberra, says: “I don’t think we’ve got much to worry about… On paper China and India are power-houses, but most of their citizens don’t even have access to sewerage or electricity. They are still basically third-world countries…” Another reader, who identifies himself as Barfiller, adds: “And let’s not forget other ’emerging economy’ considerations: border conflicts; water and resources rights; patents and other intellectual property; ethnic, religious and ideological differences; cultural diversity; historical arguments and wars; etc, etc. It won’t be all sweetness and light for the newly developed nations.” Another reader, David, stresses the need to consider the “distribution of wealth within the populations of these countries. The difference between the ‘wealth’ of the average Chinese and their privileged comrades in the party is, in my opinion, an un-fillable gap (as per India). In China that’s due to a deeply controlled corruption and in India, an indelibly, culturally/religiously controlled class division.” Thus, according to these opinions, China and India are countries too weakened by their poverty, their divisions and other internal problems to become the world’s leading powers.

But the problems of these rising countries are no longer exclusively their own. They affect others. Caledonia, a reader writing from Sydney, believes that the other readers fail to notice the danger that looms: “If China’s economy comes crashing down, you will find yourself in an unemployment queue and feel lucky if you can get a job as toilet cleaner.” Read more…

Moisés Naím is an internationally renowned columnist and commentator on globalization, international politics and economics whose columns are published every Sunday by Spain’s El País, Italy’s La Repubblica and Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo and reprinted by more than forty leading newspapers worldwide.

As published in www.elpais.com on July 1, 2012.


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