Until about a year ago, it was widely believed that financial shocks occur only in emerging markets. Advanced countries with ‘mature’ financial systems had discovered the secret of markets that never crash. This so-called wisdom has now been turned on its head. The United States has sneezed, and it remains as true today as it has in the past, that when the USA sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.
Britain and Russia should be friends. Born of originally Russian parents, and brought up in England, I can appreciate the two countries’ cultural appeal to each other, quite apart from the fact that they were allies in the two world wars. But friends can, and do, quarrel, and friendship cannot survive escalating bickering.
American-Russian relations are plagued by ‘mutual misperceptions and misunderstanding’. So says Veronika Krasheninnikova in an important new book амерйка-россиа-холодая воина култур (America-Russia: Cold War of Cultures). Each country perceives the other through its own cultural and ideological lenses.
For centuries, humans have relied on non-renewable energy for their heat, their light and their material progress –and have worried that they would run out of it. Visiting frozen St Petersburg in 1839, the Marquis de Custine commented ‘In beholding the inroads made upon the forests we may ask, with inquietude, how will the next generation warm themselves?’ The answer was coal, a much more efficient system of heating, a few sackfulls providing as much heat as a constantly coppiced forest.
According to Forbes Magazine thirty-nine of the world’s hundred richest people are Americans. Their fortunes amount to 4.6% of US GDP. Fourteen of the world’s hundred richest people, the next largest group, are Russians. The Russian concentration of super-wealth – at 26 per cent of GDP – is much higher, since Russia’s national income is one-seventh of America’s. These figures are reported by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times of 7 November. Wolf writes that such extreme inequalities of wealth, and the inequality of power which goes with it, are bound to call into question the legitimacy of the political and economic system which allows it.
The most popular late 20th century political myth was that the world was headed irreversibly to ‘democracy’. Francis Fukuyama gave it iconic expression in his 1989 article ‘The End of History’. Democracy, argued Fukuyama, was the ‘end point of history’, and most of the world was already ‘post-historical’. Fewer share his confidence today. China and Russia, the two major post-Communist powers, have been surprisingly slow to ‘catch up’ politically; and the prospect of Islamic ‘democracy’ fills the secular west with horror.
‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go’. So says King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I was reminded of the phrase when reading David Owen’s fascinating book, The Hubris Syndrome. Lord Owen was Britain’s youngest foreign secretary in the late 1970s, then leader of a new political party, the Social Democratic Party, so he has seen most of the world’s top leaders at close quarters. He was also a doctor before he became a politician, so he neatly combines medical and political insights.
The recent mass protests in Burma raise one of the most important questions in international affairs: when is intervention in the domestic affairs of other states justified? And if so, what form should it take? Russia and China (and more haltingly India) have taken the view that the troubles in Burma are a purely internal matter; the so-called ‘international community’ (i.e., the West) has been clamouring for stronger sanctions against the military regime, to be imposed by the United Nations.
When will the children grow up? Britain and Russia have been squaring up like surly adolescents. The Cold War is over, but both sides are addicted to Cold War games which have no purpose except to show that their testosterone is pumping powerfully.
I have not written much about the EU in these columns because it’s hard to know what to make of it. On one hand, it’s the most important political invention since the second world war-an experiment in voluntary union which transcends the old conflict between nation-state and empire, and serves as a model for a cooperative world order. However, its very voluntarism makes the EU politically ineffective. It is an economic giant, but a political pigmy. It is full of empty symbolism and bombastic rhetoric, overloaded with ‘processes’ which lead nowhere. It has some of the trappings of a state, and a state-like array of ‘competences’, but its main institutions are riddled with ‘opt outs’, and its members retain veto powers over its most vital functions.