The Global Moment

Guardian columnist Martin Jacques on how the world's seismic changes are creating both great hope and danger.
The Global Moment
Photo: Meghan Kemshead

The western world has been riveted by the contest for the Democratic nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. After the long winter of the Bush presidency, it is as if the spring that no one dared entertain, and many believed might never come, has finally arrived. Above all, the idea that the United States could seriously consider electing a black president has thrilled many. Even if his candidacy should fail, his campaign has given hope around the world that America has another face, that it is not reducible to Bush's extremism, or Bill Clinton's cynicism, or the big-money vested interests that dominate American politics. It offers the alluring possibility that race, in the form of the immovable prejudice of white Americans, the legacy of slavery and the destruction of the Amerindians, does not constitute an eternal closure, and thereby suggests hope for the world more generally.

We should not, though, let the euphoria of Obama's string of primary victories go to our heads, intoxicating as it may be. He may yet fail to win the Democratic nomination: while victory in the presidential election is another matter altogether. It is as well to bear in mind that, notwithstanding the convulsive and inspiring movements of the time, Richard Nixon ended up being elected as American president in 1968 – and John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, who between them defined the hopes of an era, were assassinated. Obama's popularity gives us hope, but America's dark days are not over. In this context, there is a broader intangible that we must contemplate – and which has barely surfaced in the primaries. The United States is descending into a serious recession; some recessions represent little more than punctuation or pauses but this one most certainly does not. It might be described as the first recession of a new era which is defined by American decline and the growing power of China.

The backdrop to Bush's victory in 2000 was provided by the defeat of the Soviet Union, the economic euphoria of Silicon Valley and the dot-com bubble, which led the neo-conservatives to believe that the new century would belong to the United States and that it could assert its power across the world in a quite new way.

In fact, the reverse was happening. The US was in decline and a new rival, China, was on the rise. The United States has not yet begun to think what this might mean. For certain, it will profoundly transform American politics, and the mood of its people, just as Europe has spent the last half-century trying to adjust to a world in which it is merely a secondary player. The vibrancy and optimism that characterise China and India in their rise is destined to be matched by introspection, heart-searching and a pervasive sense of gloom in the United States. The reality is that the US is utterly unprepared for the kind of material and existential crisis that it is likely to face over the next few decades, as it comes to terms with the fact that what it once could do, it no longer can, and what it once was, it no longer is. Great powers always find decline immensely painful and traumatic.

Is this a reason for pessimism? Not really. This, after all, is how history has always worked: no nation reigns forever. And the rise of China and India, between them representing almost 40 percent of the world's population, is a cause for celebration, not dismay: especially as for the last two centuries they have both suffered profoundly at the hands of the West. Their rise offers hope for the majority of the world's population as opposed to the small elite that is the West. New voices, cultures, ethnicities and traditions will belatedly achieve global representation. Such seismic changes, though, also carry with them great danger and uncertainty of the threat of new rivalries and tensions. We are moving into a new and very unpredictable world.

_Martin Jacques is a columnist for The Guardian and visiting research fellow at the Asia research centre at the London School of Economics.

50 comments on the article “The Global Moment”

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Robbi

The increasing wealth of the world's largest populations comes higher birth rates. Higher birth rates means higher environmental degredation. I fear that these new economic worlds that arise will follow the same fate as us north americans, and the mesopotamians before us. Economics is one thing, but there is no economy without the environment. Consider the idea that The largest populations India and China follow suit and consume to the degree in which us N Americans have come to get used to. A shift needs to take place, and we must teach our eastern neighbors how to NOT be like us.

Kat

"what about having a female president in office? What about the glass ceiling and women's rights?" - Anonymous. Well that's the thing A woman in office would be good but it also has to be the right person for the job. People should be prepared to wait for the right female president. Remember Thatcher?

jmc

Funny you should mention money vested interests that dominate American politics. Obama's campaign has spent nearly 30 million in the month of March. I would call that some big money.

Krs

I would argue that at one point black people were forced into slavery by white masters while now we are all being forced into it by the society we have let the demagogs create in our name.....

Rudi

Well said! If the United States and Americans in general are to be able to cope with what is to come in the international community. they must come to grips with the realities that they seem to ignore or just plainly do not see. The US must start asking itself the hard questions that it has refused to ask for so long. This is why I like Barak Obama, because he is asking these very questions, and refusing to apologize for it, despite the criticism and attacks he is taking for it from his opponents Hilary Clinton and John McCain. One such question is why since the civil rights movement, where rights and liberties were extended to all Americans, the unemployment and standard of living in the African American community remains static or has worsened? America must face hard realities, and I believe that Obama is the closest it has to a voice that articulates that message. The other two competing voices, sound all too familiar, and that is why I worry about the outcome of the general election. I fear that Americans will choose what they know and have heard for so long, instead of rubbing their eyes and seeing, with the necessary clarity, that which Obama is drawing attention to: Reality.

JR

We are in a recession, not because of emerging markets, not because of emerging political forces, but because of a multi-trillion-dollar-a-year military spread across every continent, in hundreds of countries with thousands of military bases and millions of personnel spread across this globe. For me, China and India's long awaited industrialization is frightening for environmental reasons, not economic ones. And as far as these developments bringing about some kind of quality of life improvement for the ordinary Chinese or Indian, guess again. Poverty is pervasive in these countries and continues to be with most efforts focused on urban and industrial expansion. The question seems to me not whether we can deal with these new circusmstances, because I do believe that the U.S. has the potential for rapid adjustment if we are so inclined. The question is, can we apply sufficient pressure to change to those who would rather wait until they are on their deathbed to quit smoking.

someone else

would love to see the americans lose their we're superior swagger in this lifetime. new giants are emerging to beat on the old.

Tm

I would first like to point out that I am not from the USA but I realise that most of the people readers probably are. To be honest I would be glad to see the collapse of the USA Your country has committed an impressive list of atrocities, as well as cultivated an incredibly destructive culture around the world this century. I pose a question to you, the average American citizen. Have you done enough to try and stop it?
From outside the USA looks like you are hardly even lifting finger. Face it your demise has been of your own creation. And we are ALL going to be paying for it one way or another.

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