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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-01-2022 22:00

Adrift in a world out of kilter

Imperfect as the order installed by the United States in the late 1940s may have been, it, or what remains of it, is surely preferable to what seems likely to come next.

Yogi Berra was right. As the well-remembered baseball icon once remarked: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. Eight decades ago, the up-and-coming Army officer Juan Domingo Perón and the many who shared his views still thought the Nazis would win the war they had started. A few years later, they took it for granted that the Anglo-Saxon powers and the Soviet Union were about to come to blows and decided that the best course for Argentina would be to remain as neutral as she had been before Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire were on the brink of defeat. This was seen as a pro-Soviet policy which did not go down well in the United States.

Fortunately for much of the world, Perón and his friends were mistaken when they assumed a new world war was on the way. Had they hedged their bets, they would soon have realised that it would be in their interest to reconcile themselves quickly to a world order with its centre in Washington. Instead they infuriated the North Americans by playing hard to get for far too long and, when they finally decided that on the whole it would be best to be on the winning side, they did so in an ostentatiously half-hearted manner which, as time went by, contributed to the country’s failure to take proper advantage of what the French called “les trente glorieuses,” the 30 years of rapid economic growth that followed World War II which transformed their own country and other democracies into the prosperous societies they became. 

Were those who put their money on the United States remaining a superpower for several generations to come wiser, more realistic and clearer-sighted than others who thought, and in many cases hoped, that the future would belong first to fascism, then communism and, in this part of the world at least, variants of populism? It would certainly seem so. After all, for over a century, combining democracy with a relatively free market made for a system that came to dominate the developed world and proved to be greatly superior to the totalitarian alternatives that fascinated disgruntled intellectuals.

However, this could be about to change. The US is suffering from a wasting disease which, unless she recovers far sooner than even the most optimistic expect, would deprive the world of the only democratic country with enough material and human resources, plus the will to use them, to defend what we call the West against predators. Imperfect as the order installed by the United States in the late 1940s may have been, it, or what remains of it, is surely preferable to what seems likely to come next.

The malaise affecting the US body politic is a symptom of a much deeper one which has to do with socioeconomic progress as most people have understood it for over a century. By depending increasingly on technical and intellectual capabilities that only a minority of individuals can be expected to acquire, the free-market economy is no longer catering to the needs of the many who will never possess them. Most are already surplus to requirements and, if the prophets of artificial intelligence are to be believed, they will shortly be joined by many more. As a result of what is happening, huge numbers of people who for decades could make a decent living in factories or offices without having to make much of a mental effort feel they are getting left behind by elites that despise them. In the US, millions have fallen into despair, hence the ongoing opioid crisis which right now is causing well over a hundred deaths a day,

As was to be expected, the discontent affecting people who think they have been consigned to the trash heap is having a strong political impact. US democracy is in trouble not just because Donald Trump is a loose cannon who likes nothing better than breaking what until recently had been the political rules but also because many of those who despise him make no effort to hide their contempt for many, perhaps most, of their fellow countrymen.

So once again, Argentina’s rulers find themselves facing the sad fact that what strikes most people as reasonable today could look foolish tomorrow. If, as some think, China will be the new superpower, with the US a querulous bystander whose politicians are distracted by bizarre ideological obsessions, it would make sense to get on good terms with the men in Beijing. However, China could be on the verge of stumbling into the same financial trap that put paid to Japan’s apparently unstoppable drive towards international economic supremacy and in her case this would happen long before she enjoys a comparable level of prosperity. What is more, China’s birth rate is falling at a dramatic rate, as it is in Japan, South Korea, Europe and North America, and seems bound to have a negative impact on her economic performance. In other words, China may never become the hegemonic power some are already hailing. 

As for Russia, whose economy is smaller than Italy’s and not much bigger than those of Brazil and Australia, she is of doubtful value as a strategic partner. While Vladimir Putin is more than capable of stirring things up by brandishing nuclear weapons and posing a military threat to neighbours such as the Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic States and even Poland, he must know that unless he somehow manages to restore the Tsarist empire, Mother Russia will be at best a minor power whose vast territorial holdings are certain to attract the interest of China before too many years have gone by. 

For now at any rate, the choice is between China, which in her present incarnation is an authoritarian behemoth with scant respect for other countries but has plenty of money with which to fund the nominally Communist regime’s ambitious geopolitical aspirations, and the US which is experiencing a phenomenal identity crisis which may, or may not, put an end to her historically fairly brief period as top nation.

As things stand, it would be dangerously premature for anyone to make a definite choice. These days the US administration, beleaguered both at home and abroad, is in a touchy mood and liable to snap back at those who annoy it, as members of Alberto Fernández’s government seem determined to do even though they are begging the folk in Washington to make the International Monetary Fund give them a break. Just what, apart from money, they want from the rest of the world is hard to say, but unless they come up with a persuasive plan they will get nothing at all from either the United States or China, a country whose leaders tend to be even keener on fiscal rectitude than are their North American counterparts but who, if given a chance, will be more than happy to exploit the antics of those who pretend it does not matter.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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