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Global Uncertainty: Lifting the Fog?

By Shlomo Maital

Bilahari

Bilahari Kausikan

      When I want some help in understanding what in the world is going on, I turn to my friend Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador at Large in the Singapore Foreign Ministry, and until recently Permanent Secretary. Bilahari has met world leaders in person, and is an independent thinker.  Here is Bilahari’s ‘take’ on the global fog, in an essay for Nikkei Asian Review:

   The problem: “The 21st century global order is becoming more uncertain. The Cold War of the last century had one virtue: structure. The threat of nuclear annihilation focused that structure with stark clarity. Today, we still have danger — although of a lesser magnitude — but without structure or clarity.   No one really knows what will replace the Cold War as a frame of reference. More than a quarter of a century has passed since the Berlin Wall was torn down, but we still call that period the “post-Cold War era.” Ours is an age without definition. Without a global structure, there can be no leadership. Without leadership, many urgent issues will be left unresolved or dealt with unsatisfactorily, exacerbating uncertainties.”

     What made it worse: “There was a brief post-Cold War unipolar moment, during which the West seemed to define the world alone. The illusions that flourished in this short period were immensely damaging, particularly in the Middle East, where the interventions that destroyed the existing regional order were justified by the illusion of the universality of certain interpretations of democracy and human rights.   The disintegration of first Iraq and then Syria shattered the regional balance. Chaos in the Middle East has global ramifications that will play out for many years to come. But the illusion of universality has not yet been discredited and still contributes to the difficulties of establishing a new, stable global order. Notwithstanding loose talk about multipolarity, the U.S. is still dominant in most indices of power. But the U.S. clearly needs help to exercise leadership, as it did during the Cold War.”

   So who will step up to help the U.S.? Europe? Forget it. “The region is tangled in knots of its own making” (the worst kind!). BRICS? “Not much unites the BRICS except a vague dissatisfaction with the existing order and the desire for greater recognition of their status. But they are not all equally dissatisfied, and the sources of their discontent are not identical.” China? “China has neither the capacity nor the interest to do so, even in East Asia, its backyard, where Beijing is assertively pursuing a role that is in accordance with what it believes was its historical position and what it believes are its territorial rights. President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy is an ambitious vision of a Sino-centric transcontinental order. Can the vision be fully realized? Can China be “contained”? Should it? Does the vision require the U.S. to be displaced from East Asia? There are as yet no clear answers.    The fact is that neither the U.S. nor China really know what they want from each other, even as they each seek a new modus vivendi. The strategic mistrust that permeates the Sino-U.S. relationship, which is rooted in the universalist illusions of the U.S. on the one hand and Beijing’s triumphalist nationalism on the other, do not make the search for accommodation any easier.”

     Confusing? Ambiguous? Uncertain? Even, dangerous? Indeed. But at least, Kausikan helps us understand why.   And who will do best in this confusion?

   “The successful will be those who have best learned to live with uncertainty.” And that uncertainty, globally, will be with us for a very very long time.

 

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Why We STILL Need America – and Obama

By Shlomo  Maital

Long Ranger

 As a child, I recall listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio.  The Lone  Ranger wasn’t alone; his Indian friend Kemo Sabe rode with him. Together they fought evil, injustice, crime and helped the helpless.

  Today America is again The Lone Ranger.  Ebola outbreak?  America sends 3,000 soldiers to set up as many as 17 emergency treatment centers in Liberia.  Why? No other country can or will.  And Ebola is a threat to all of Africa and perhaps the world. Liberia is an entire nation under lock-down!  And health workers and journalists are murdered in Guinea, by suspicious villagers who think they are bringing the disease rather than fighting it.

  ISIS? (Obama is right.   It is really ISIL,  Islamic State in the Levant, because ISIL believes they will establish the Caliphate throughout the Mideast, including Lebanon and Israel. What you call things DOES matter!).   America to the rescue, leading a ‘coalition’, but have no doubt, most of the military action will be American.  Because Europe has given up defense spending and prefers to shelter under American defense spending.

    If there is a major humanitarian disaster somewhere in the world, that takes resources and abilities,  it will be largely America to the rescue. 

    So, yes, we can criticize America, Americans and their leader President Obama.  But as many have noted,  at present there is no other country who can come close to replacing America, in its will and ability to come to the rescue, like The Lone  Ranger.  And yes, America does stumble, fail to fully understand the cultures in which it operates, and yes, it does endlessly debate its decisions to intervene abroad.  But in the end,  like The Long Ranger, America is there.

    So – thanks, America.  We really do give you a bad rap.

 

National Happiness – 2013 Rankings

By Shlomo   Maital

Happiness

  Three eminent economists – Richard Layard, John Helliwell and Jeffrey Sachs – combine to prepare an annual World Happiness Report.   Their measure is based on self-assessed happiness, interpreted as “satisfaction with life” together with the perceived emotion of wellbeing.  In their latest report,   for the years 2010-12,  (see above), Scandinavian and Northern European countries rank highest, along with Canada, Austria, and surprisingly,  my country Israel (11th), despite the Mideast conflict,  and Costa Rica, a relatively poor but serene and beautiful country.  Note that Mexico, at 16th, ranks above the United States, despite the latter’s $50,000 GDP per capita.

Why?  The answer is simple.  Happiness, note the authors, is driven in part by the standard of living (per capita GDP), but also by life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, and generosity.   This is why Qatar, the wealthiest country in the world by far, with per capita GDP of nearly $100,000, ranks only 27th, because it is a rigid autocracy.

   I am amazed at how poorly individuals and whole nations practice the simple art of best-practice benchmarking.  If you are a political leader, and if your avowed goal is to improve the wellbeing of your citizens, the ones who elected you, would you not explore the world and visit the places in which people are the happiest, and try to find out why?   And would you not try to bring home some of the “recipes”  they use – income equality, social support, generosity, social cohesion?

     I get this response very often when I make this argument:   Israel is not Denmark. Followed by all the excuses.  And my response is:  Well – why isn’t it?  Can we make it so? 

     There is a lesson for individuals in this Report, not just for countries.  True, you do need a basic level of income to be happy. But you also need the love and support of family, the generosity of others, and good health (supplied, as a public good “health care”, by good governments, or at least they should).  Even if you have high income, if you lack the other ingredients, the income may not help much.  Keep this in mind.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
November 2017
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