My prepared remarks at the TRT World Forum 2018 in Istanbul
Wednesday, October 3, 2018 at 6:22AM
Thomas P.M. Barnett in globalization

I participated today in the panel entitled, "A World In or Out of Order? A Hundred Years Since WWII."

The following were my remarks prepared in advance.

I am by nature a contrarian, and on this panel, I will remain true to that nature. I don’t view the 20thcentury along the lines described by this forum’s organizers. I don’t recognize its most important historical dynamics in structural terms – multipolar, bipolar, unipolar, etc., because that approach tends to obscure today’s pressing challenges. It does so by convincing us that we live in a world of uncertainty, crisis, conflict, and even chaos – all historically false exaggerations. Our world is anything but fragmented. Instead, we live in a world full of predictability, control, orderly transactions, unprecedented peace, and unequaled prosperity. I do not dispute Turkey’s instinct to view the world in this way, but I’m going to offer you a different, more positive historical narrative – one that does not conflate globalization’s profoundly integrating forces with its social and political frictions, which pale in comparison. In this story, I’m going to sound very Marxist in my mindset, with technology and economics driving the vast bulk of change, while politics and security lag woefully – and sometimes tragically – behind. But, frankly, this is how it has always been – and should be, and so the future will be no different.

I begin my tale in the post-Civil War United States of the late 19thcentury.  Prior to that bloody conflict, America was an agrarian economy clearly divided into regional sections. But following that radically networking event, the nation’s three dozen states plunged into a vast integration scheme of infrastructure development, Westward consolidation, interstate investment, and rapid industrialization - making America the rising China of that era. The key political-economic dynamic? The emergence of the nation’s middle class and its famously insatiable demand for consumption. This led to boom-and-bust cycles generating horrific pollution, extreme income inequality, and pervasive corruption - all tamed by a Progressive Era triggered in response. America cleaned up its act and became a world power in the process.

As the 20thcentury dawned, Europe experienced many similar dynamics, even as colonialism allowed states to avoid accommodating the rising middle class – often until it was too late. The political equations here were simple: What did the poor want? They wanted protection from their circumstances. And the rich? As always, the rich wanted protection from the poor. But what this emerging middle class wanted was far more difficult to provide: protection from the future – from uncertainty that threatened their success.  What did Europe’s Left prescribe? Bolshevism, or rule from below to stifle the bourgeoisie. And Europe’s right? Fascism, or rule from above to protect shopkeepers from revolutionaries. But what was really needed was for the middle to rule itself – a process America pioneered across its progressive era. 

America’s salvation was to transform itself into a middle-class-centric political system – a complex effort led by two cousins of an ethnic Dutch family known as the Roosevelts. Traitors to their class, they regraded America’s economic landscape, placing middle class demands – and fears – at the center of governance. As World War II wound down, Franklin Roosevelt set in motion his “new deal for the world” – a liberal international trade order that we know today as globalization. That is what America actually achieved in the Cold War, which was – in retrospect – less about defeating the Soviets and more about setting in motion the rise of a global middle class, tripling its share from 1/5thof world population in 1950 to 3/5ths of today’s global economy.  Herein lie the planet’s essential challenges going forward.

Challenge #1: Meeting the global middle class’s insatiable demands for personal consumption, economic opportunity, and political freedom in their pursuit of happiness. The temptation here is obvious: retreat, out of fear, to old solutions. Vladimir Lenin’s greatest political invention was single-party rule, which supposes that humanity’s path to happiness is singular, and thus to be entrusted to an all-knowing single political party headed – invariably – by a single indispensable man. But there’s been enough history to know how that story ends – in economic stagnation and political revolt. Without political competition, all manner of innovation wanes. Walls are erected, exclusionary ethnic identities are prioritized, and connectivity with the outside world curtailed - all proven recipes for political failure leading to security breakdowns.

Challenge #2: The rise of the global middle class generates unprecedented resource requirements. Its demands are limitless: unlimited access to education, unlimited bandwidth, unlimited personal mobility, unlimited caloric intake, and unlimited electricity. When the middle class hailed solely from the West, meeting such demands required modest innovation in resource utilization schemes, but now, with 60% of the planet making such demands, there is an inescapable requirement for radical improvements in efficiency. This will not happen if single-party states are tasked with picking economic winners and losers; it will only happen if markets remain unfettered, if cross-border trade and investment flow with reasonable restrictions, and entrepreneurial freedom is enabled throughout the private sector.

Challenge #3: This much-needed adherence to the precepts of a liberal international economic order is now being tested, less so by the stubborn reassertion of single-party rule than by a profound crisis of confidence concerning that system’s enduring utility among its two greatest champions. Here I cite the UK’s stunningly self-inflected wound known as BREXIT, along with America’s historically predictable flirtation with authoritarianism, protectionism, and isolationism – in the form of Donald Trump – when its middle class senses an existential challenge (proximately, China’s rise, but artificial intelligence and robotics). America and the UK have experienced this scary political dynamic before and recovered, and they will do so again, thanks to avoiding the temptation of single-party rule. Competitive elections, whatever the level of partisanship, signal political vibrancy – not weakness. That is not optimism but realism.

The United Kingdom, thanks to its colonial past, and America, thanks to its history of welcoming immigrants, have been forced to adapt to the reality of a multicultural citizenry of synthetic ethnic identity. My own household is a microcosm of this process: After having three children, my wife and I adopted three girls from abroad – one from China and two from Ethiopia. Now, as our third child heads off to college, my wife and I, as white Americans, suddenly find ourselves the majority-minority within our own family – outnumbered by non-white immigrants! But this is already true in every major American city, in the states of Florida, Texas, and California, and in America’s zero-to-age-ten cohort. In just over a generation’s time, it will be true across America as a whole. America, like Britain, has little choice but to accept multiculturalism.

Here’s where the rest of the world will be forced into similar accommodations – my global challenge #4, for it is climate change that is driving this process of mass migration – not conflict. As the planet has warmed over the past several decades, we’ve seen species of all sorts move upward in elevation and pole-ward in latitude – in effect, abandoning an increasingly inhospitable middle Earth. The same is true of clouds, reflecting radical changes in weather patterns worldwide. Humans are not immune to this process, as both North and South are seeing mass migrations come their way, creating huge political tensions on a country-by-country basis and fueling that temptation to resort to, or reassert, the perceived sanctuary of single-party rule. As with rising ocean levels, this reaction is wishful thinking – holding back the tide with a broom.

I am under no illusions here: globalization is a revolutionizing, transformational dynamic. While virtually all nations welcome its physical and virtual connectivity, most have great difficulty processing its content. The former enables easy networking among globalization’s many rejectionists and violent extremists, while the latter prioritizes individual choice above all else – rendering that global middle class all the more unreasonable in its many demands. Here I locate my 5thglobal challenge:  the inescapable competition among the world’s great powers to recast the globalization’s essential rule set to their individual advantage – not just Trump’s America but Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China, to name only the most aggressive. While tumultuous and scary, this process of rebalancing the world order is inevitable and needed.

Simply put: America’s unipolar moments have long since passed –despite white America’s great nostalgia for the so-called good old days.  Globalization comes with rules but not a ruler. There is no single party smart enough or powerful enough to run this increasingly complex world. And while most Americans forget this truth, it was always America’s intention to spawn a world order stable enough to rule itself collectively. However awkward and annoying, the rise of Donald Trump proves that enduring instinct – an America made great again is one suitably unburdened of its disproportionate responsibility to run the world. As always, a proud America has a difficult time making its wishes clear to the world, and so we must all endure the tantrums of Trump, whose targets are accurate even as his tactics are atrocious.

I finish with my sixth global challenge. I believe – and trend analysis backs this up – that global capitalism presently achieves what Karl Marx once labeled its era of “superabundance,” in effect, when the world suffers too much disposable income – as opposed to not enough. This superabundance of worldwide consumption is what fuels climate change, animates the political restlessness of the global middle class, and attracts the planet’s economic migrants. In historical terms, these are the best problems we’ve ever faced. But what they tell us is this: it is not the world system’s structural order that will save us in the end, but a redefinition of capitalism among the world’s leading economies. That challenge captures the essence of a global progressive era that all responsible nations now instinctively seek, whether they realize it or not.

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