The fall of the Berlin Wall freed Europe, but its broader impact only became clear in the first decade of the 21st century. We didn’t see, in our giddiness, the other walls crumbling: say between Turkey, a NATO member, and Syria, then a Soviet ally, where at least 60,000 land mines once sealed the 540-mile border. Some $2 billion in trade now flows annually across a visa-free frontier. Satellites or former republics of the Soviet Union, like Bulgaria and Georgia, similarly discovered the Turkey next door. No longer the edge of the West, Turkey quietly turned itself into the hub of Eurasia.
An Africa consumed in Cold War days by the battle between U.S. and Soviet surrogates learned to look beyond those ideological walls, allowing not only some neighborly discoveries — South Africa and Mozambique — but also the development of China-Africa trade that has risen from $10 billion in 2000 to well over $100 billion today. Africa is expected to grow 5.2 percent in 2011, more than double the predicted U.S. or European performances. Coca-Cola’s chief executive has identified the continent as one of the company’s top investment priorities.
Such changes are part of the deeper and slower, but now visible, currents that flowed out from Berlin.
If the West was thrilled two decades ago to welcome a Europe whole and free, it’s much less happy today about a world where it’s more easily bypassed. The dour set menu of Cold War relationships has morphed into an extravagant à la carte offering. How about Peruvian-Indian fusion? America’s centrality has eroded; Europe has become politically marginal; Japan, the West’s honorary member, is just plain gloomy. “Where’s our leverage?” Western diplomats complain. Often, as in Iran, they have little.
Elsewhere, however, there’s excitement. Latin America, overcoming old reflexes and resentments, now trades with China and India, explores new opportunities in Africa, and hardly cares that the United States is too consumed by war and uncertainty to pay it much attention. “A more self-confident Latin America is not unhappy about U.S. distraction,” Luis Alberto Moreno, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, told me. “It’s looking instead to Asia, whose interest in the region is huge. South-to-south cooperation thrives while Colombian and Panamanian free trade agreements with the United States are denied ratification.”
The essential global divide today is between a worried, depressed and disoriented West (where free trade is framed as loss of jobs) and the buoyant, questing and increasingly confident emergent world of nations like Brazil and Turkey and South Africa. The West suffers from a nagging feeling its time has passed; outside it many countries believe their time is now — or near.
Although there’s talk in the West of a new Age of Anxiety, the neurosis is in fact fairly narrowly confined. True, the unease lies in what is still by far the world’s largest economy — the United States — and is shared by the European Union. The problems there — of soaring deficits, high unemployment, aging baby-boomers and sporadic anti-immigrant anger — are intractable. Excess has given way to distress. Yummy money has dried up. But the vast bulk of the world’s population lives outside these enervated and overextended enclaves. For billions of human beings opportunity is expanding rather than contracting, if very unevenly. This is in fact the new Age of Possibility.
Times of such dramatic shift are dangerous. Consider Germany’s late 19th-century burst onto the European stage as a unified nation-state and the century of bloodshed and confrontation it took to resolve the German question. Consider the global upheavals that cemented America’s 20th-century rise and Britain’s imperial decline.
I don’t believe the power transition in progress today is any less dramatic. China is one vast construction site targeting full development by mid-century and dominance by 2100. It has already created phenom enal wealth. I was chatting last autumn with Eric de Rothschild, who runs Château Lafite-Rothschild, the superb Bordeaux winery. “I know people who bought cases of the 1982 and were looking forward to drinking it,” he told me. “Now, thanks to what the Chinese are ready to pay for it, they’re looking forward to buying an apartment with the proceeds.”
Call that global churn: new wealth replacing old. But churn is of course unsettling.
Middle-class Americans and Europeans watch fungible jobs disappearing to Guangzhou or Bangalore; they see the homes against which they borrowed vast sums declining in value; they work ever longer to maintain their living standards and offer their children the education the tech-friendly modern world demands; they perceive growing inequality and notice the rich alone getting richer; they wonder if basic social entitlements, like health care and pensions, will endure. They’re over-leveraged and, it seems, dispensable. In short they empathize with the figure in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” And so the search for the scapegoat begins and the political movements that identify scapegoats get going. The thriving Tea Party is an American movement but plenty of its brew is being consumed in the Europe of Geert Wilders.
Still, I’m not too worried. This heady early 21st-century transformation is being played out with a handful of distinctive ingredients that make me hopeful the violence that has typically attended such sweeping change can be avoided.
The first is the web of social networks that now span the globe. Half a billion Facebook users constitute some sort of insurance against disaggregation. The insurance may be too intangible to satisfy underwriters but it’s not negligible. Being in touch in ways that dissolve national borders makes it more difficult to be in large-scale violent conflict across fault lines.
The second is the American garrisons in Asia that, in the area of most rapid change, offset China’s rise and reassure other powers. Pax Americana is not yet defunct.
The third is U.S. war-weariness almost a decade on from 9/11: The period of American retrenchment inaugurated by President Barack Obama will endure for some time.
The fourth is the Chinese obsession with global stability. It is seen in Beijing as the sine qua non of the 9 percent annual growth that in turn sustains Communist Party rule. And the fifth is the deep interdependency of U.S.-Chinese ties, a relationship so important to each party that breakdown is almost inconceivable.
Significant stabilizing forces therefore exist as a new world comes into being. That’s why possibility is the paradigm. But my sense, even under Obama, is of an America more inclined to preserve the make-believe of its former sway than embrace the adjustments demanded by the rebalancing of global power. This attitude fans tensions.
All the world’s major institutions, from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund, are still in need of reform reflecting a changed world order. The G-20, unsupported by any meaningful professional structure, is a step but an inadequate one. Currency volatility is causing increasing concern without any sign of agreement on how to address it.
Conventional U.S. thinking about the Middle East — the kind of thinking that views the new Turkey as insufficiently beholden to the West; or imagines that double standards like the wink to Israel’s nuclear arsenal go unnoticed; or holds that no segment of the large political movements that are Hezbollah and Hamas might be usefully engaged; or imagines that the “option” of bombing Iran is not a recipe for almost unimaginable disaster — is still in need of a shake-up, particularly on Capitol Hill.
As a result, Obama has been much less of a change agent than his initial speeches suggested. The wall through the Holy Land rebuffs hope. The American president resembles more and more a man unsure of his core convictions onto whom misplaced idealism was projected in a moment when the United States craved renewal.
Elsewhere, renewal is real. In Turkey, where growth will reach 7 percent this year, it’s palpable. A battle between the ardent secularism of Ataturk, the founder of the modern republic, and the mild Islamism of the ruling AKP party still rages, but on the whole I find that gratifying: Turkey’s mix of the two ideological currents is bracing and a reminder of how much nonsense is mouthed about Islam’s supposed incompatibility with modernity. Istanbul is perhaps the world’s best rebuke to disciples of a clash-of-civilizations worldview.
Even as Turkey’s soul is fought over, the nation’s new outlook seems clear. “Turkey’s geography is such that it does not accept East-West or North-South compartmentalization,” Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, told me in an interview. “We are in the West but also one of the main actors in Asia and the Middle East. We are trying for a normalization of history. The Cold War was an abnormality. The Iron Curtain was not only in Berlin but around us. So therefore we had no good relations with our neighbors.”
He continued: “And we see that in order to be influential in our region you have to have a new image and you have to speak from within, not impose anything.” Davutoglu is tired of what he sees as Western double standards: “When we are active in Afghanistan they are not saying that we are turning East. Afghanistan is further east than Iran. But in Afghanistan everyone is happy that we are in the East.”
The year 2011 will be the 10th anniversary of Al Qaeda’s devastating attack on the United States that left almost 3,000 people dead in New York and Washington. Contrary to fashionable opinion America did not invade Afghanistan — take up its “savage war of peace” — for nothing. Kipling’s lines, nearly 102 years after they were written, still resonate:
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go, make them with your living
And mark them with your dead.
The limits of U.S. power are now abundantly clear even as the way power will be shared, and to what end, in this still young century remains a matter unresolved; indeed a question scarcely broached by those — both apprehensive and ascendant — whom it will principally concern and involve.
Roger Cohen, The Globalist columnist for the International Herald Tribune. Cohen moved in August from New York to London.