A long time ago in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, the Jesuit order that ran St. Xavier’s High School (my alma mater) had my class memorize some lines by the 19th century British poet Lord Alfred Tennyson—“The old order changeth yielding place to new… lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
Little did I know then that a half century later I would start this new blog with those very lines. They seem to appropriately describe the geopolitical and economic transition that is engulfing our world. That’s what this blog will be about, at least at the start, that transition.
The fact that the transition is occurring shouldn’t be a surprise. History demonstrates that global power transitions are the normal state of affairs. In the last 500 years, the Dutch-led world order of the 15th century that was underwritten by the guilder gave way during the 17th century to a British-led world order underwritten by sterling, which changed to a dollar-fueled American-led order in the 20th century, which, in turn, seems now to be morphing into a renminbi-underwritten Chinese-led order, or perhaps a dual renminbi/dollar, or renminbi/dollar/euro-led order in the 21st.
What might be the impact of this latest transition? It had been conventional thinking in the West that as China engaged with the Western world, China’s economy and government would look more like the liberal Western model. That has not happened. Was it Western hubris to believe it would? As Singapore’s eminent professor and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani is fond of asking, why was it ever assumed that a Western governance system that has been around for a mere half century or so would replace a Chinese system that has survived for 2,000 years?
Further to Professor Mahbubani’s point, might not the hundred or so countries involved in China’s massive infrastructure construction project, the Belt and Road Initiative, be tempted to adopt China’s system as their own? The BRI aims to build roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, seaports, and fiber optic lines to connect those countries to China and to each other. No doubt the BRI countries will reflect on China’s rise from a middling economy to the world’s largest within four decades.
And what about the European Union, arguably the most important geopolitical creation of the 20th century? The EU has achieved an enormous amount since its founding in 1993, including the adoption of a single currency, the euro. Yet, a true fiscal compact and a European defense system has eluded European leaders. But now, these two missing pieces of the EU jigsaw seem to be falling into place under the combined pressures of financing the post COVID-19 pandemic recovery in Europe and U.S. President Trump’s moves to end America’s role as Europe’s defender. Will Europeans continue their march to an ever-closer union and, if so, how will this powerful grouping of European nations affect the emerging world order?
As if these developments were not enough to challenge the most gifted soothsayers, looming in the background are the nations of Africa. Africa’s land area is larger than that of China, the United States, India, and all of Europe, combined. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, by 2025, Africa’s household consumption will total $2.1trillion. By 2050, the continent will be home to over 2.5 billion people. Africa is poised to become the largest business opportunity since China embraced capitalism. And then there are India, South America and Latin America!
English historian C. V. Wedgewood writes that, “History is lived forwards, but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.”
Which brings me to the reason I used Polaris as the name for my blog. The North Star has been used for centuries by sailors to find one’s location within the cosmos and to chart a passage to safe harbor. In like manner, I’d like to think that my iteration of Polaris might serve as a guide to help make sense of the rapidly shifting geopolitical and economic changes this century will bring and to help policy makers safely navigate these tumultuous times.
Let the conversation begin! And I do mean conversation, for I welcome your feedback and comments.