Granted the 20th century was no picnic. What with its mass atrocities, slaughterhouse wars, world-wide depression, Cold War, and the existential threat of nuclear annihilation. Yet, with only about a decade gone in the 21st Century, I’m thinking that we may be on a path to match that dismal record. But should we take such a dire prediction seriously?
Consider the severity of the problems out there. Here’s a sampling of what we’re up against. Massed “conventional” warfare is probably off the table, but terrorists will deploy in nation after nation keeping civilian populations on edge. And should they succeed in obtaining even limited nuclear capacity a terrified public will demand a campaign of drastic repression. Additionally, cyber warfare, capable of inflicting systemic disruptions upon a society appears ready for roll out. Just as destabilizing are the massive private and public debt levels that will lock large parts of the world into various forms of long-term economic bondage as knee-jerk austerity measures send unemployment levels dangerously high, producing stagnation impoverishing hundreds of millions of people and reducing the living standards of an equal number. Meanwhile, the world’s elite, perceiving restlessness around the globe and fearing the consequences of this massive downward shift, will do all they can to preserve their enormous wealth and authority.
If you believe the world to be generally better off under American leadership, then surely there are problems ahead. Not only is the U.S. stretched perilously thin overseas, and its voice notably less commanding, it has at home made little progress in tackling the severe dislocations that plague the economy and threaten the nation’s labor force. Neither has it attended to the long-term challenges involving its educational system, infrastructure, renewable energy, growth of inequality and immigration policy. Political stalemate and a widespread suspicion of government activity make progress unlikely in those areas. To the degree that America fails to put its own house in order, its ability to maintain world order suffers proportionately.
That Americans know very little about geography seems beyond dispute. Survey after survey has confirmed that unfortunate state of affairs. Globes are rarely part of contemporary home décor and even all our foreign travel seems to have contributed little to our ability to locate many of the 200 odd countries of the world.
In the Western hemisphere we’re on sure ground only when it comes to Canada and Mexico; after that the picture gets fuzzy. Multitudes of travelers cruise the Caribbean but probably have little idea how the numerous islands there are aligned. Some are probably aware of a region known as Central America, but would be at a loss figuring out how the several countries there are positioned. There’s not much sure footing in South America either. That Argentina and Brazil occupy a good portion of the east coast, and that Chile’s on the western edge may be as far as it goes. As for Peru, Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia – no clue. Guyana? A mystery.
No longer can we refer to Africa as the Dark Continent, but to most Americans it remains a perplexing patchwork. Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya could be found; perhaps, too, Angola and Uganda. But as for the rest – strictly guesswork. Besides, haven’t some of these countries changed names? Certainties do exist in Asia. Japan and Indonesia are after all, a group of islands off by themselves, and Australia and New Zealand are out there as well, while China is a huge territory occupying the eastern edge of the continent (although few have any idea where its major cities are located). Most are aware of other countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand (though maybe not Myanmar), but just where they are is a big question mark.
Expect more precision in Europe. Ireland and Great Britain have always been off the east coast, and across the Channel lies France, and to the South Italy, the country resembling a boot. Germany’s around the corner and Spain somehow gets attached to France, and Portugal to Spain. The Soviet Union used to be relatively easy, but since it’s breaking up too many “stans” have emerged totally confusing the picture.
Those determined to advance geographic intelligence (G.I.) should feel greatly indebted to the U.S. Government. In pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy over the past half century, our leaders have dispatched combat forces across the globe. With each instance the public has been treated to a geography lesson, newspapers printing detailed maps indicating where our troops were engaged. And so we learned the whereabouts of such nations as Korea, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Grenada, Somalia, Kuwait Serbia,, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and recently Libya. Future additions to this list would not come as a surprise.
In an age of galloping globalization, would it not be useful to know your way around the world? Then at least you’d know the location of the country where that last item you purchased was made.
We conduct worldwide beauty contests and sporting events (Olympics), offer prestigious Nobel Prizes and stage international film festivals, all of these open to aspirants from around the globe. So what’s missing? Why hasn’t anyone thought to honor the best of the world’s national leaders? Are not the lives of over seven billion people greatly affected by the capacities and intentions of those who govern them? Would not such a competition, and the recognition attached to those selected, provide incentives for leaders to improve their performances as well as the lives of their people?
Just as the academy awards recently expanded to ten the number of films eligible for “Best Movie of the Year” we might consider nominating an equal number who would then gather together as finalists at yearly ceremonies (perhaps before a special session of the United Nations and televised around the globe). Just imagine the tension in the hall as the cameras zoom in on the hopefuls (each of whose achievements would be summarized in a brief documentary film) as they await the announcement of the winner or winners (perhaps awarded with gold, silver and bronze globes).
How are these individuals to be judged? No simple matter for sure. What should we expect from them? Their performances need to be scrutinized in those areas, over which leaders have a measure of influence, viz effectively communicating to their people, maintaining domestic tranquility, elevating living standards, tolerating an often vitriolic opposition, reducing corruption, presenting a positive vision of the future, and innovating while maintaining valued traditions. In foreign affairs candidates must show respect for the sovereignty of other nations, cooperate on matters of mutual interest, maintain world stability and aid nations in crises or those requiring sustained assistance.
We are setting a high bar, but remember, it’s all relative and we will take into consideration measureable progress toward these desirable goals. And we’ll probably choose to assign varying weight to individual factors. How, for example, should we measure a country cracking down on regional opponents, but at the same time raising living standards? What about a national leader who has seen to the advancement of women , but who has restricted press freedoms?
A further complication – Who will do the judging? A worldwide referendum would doubtless be unreliable as peoples in the most populated nations might dominate the voting. More likely we’d rely upon “experts” who would evaluate relevant data (e.g., levels of unemployment, poverty, corruption, citizen satisfaction, economic progress, opposition freedoms, etc.) and combine it with their own worldly knowledge and experiences. But wouldn’t these experts be inclined to favor their own countries – a bias probably impossible to eliminate? Still we’d attempt to recruit an “internationalist” panel who have already shed a reflexive devotion of their mother country and who’ve long labored for organizations with worldwide perspectives. We should probably select folks from institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, International Red Cross, as well as overseas news correspondents, multi-national corporations, the European Community, the African Union, etc.
An award process and annual ceremony such as we’ve proposed cannot be accomplished overnight. Still knowing that such a competition is underway might have a salutary effect on the policies and actions of leaders around the world.
For a test run, I conducted an impromptu survey of certain current leaders to preview how this sorting process might work. The results of this partial, unscientific “world tour” were not, however, encouraging. Italy with Berlusconi nearly out of the picture, and with its long history of governmental instability did not merit a second look. Vladimir Putin doubtlessly controls the fortunes and future of Russia, but leaning upon traditionalists and tolerating little dissent, he offers no bold blueprint for his nation’s advancement. Nuri-al-Maliki in Iraq is not as yet completely out of the running, but the daily sectarian violence across the nation and his high-handed actions have dashed hopes that a post-war Iraq will be made stable and secure. David Cameron of Great Britain has staked his leadership on the hope that austerity policies will lift his nation out of its economic funk. Thus far, it has not worked – and then there is the vote on Scottish independence looming in 2014. South African leader Jacob Zuma has as yet been unable to overcome the forces of corruption, the high incidence of crime, lagging land reforms and demoralizing inequality. President Francois Holland of France has disappointed many of his own followers, significantly underperformed in public opinion polls while facing the severe challenges of high unemployment and substantial budget deficits. Obviously disqualified are such pariahs as Bashar Assad, a Syrian, and Kim Jung Un in North Korea.
We would not sleight, though not necessarily embrace, such wily and resourceful leaders as Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, King Abdullah in Jordan and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. And we’d best wait to see how recently elevated heads of state, such as President Enrique Nieto of Mexico, Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, China’s Xi Jinping and Hassan Rowhani of Iran perform. Also, we should not overlook Scandinavia since most everyone concedes they do things right there. Sweden is usually singled out; still its Prime Minister Frederick Reinfeld suddenly faces an uncharacteristic upsurge in anti-immigrant sentiment that has severely roiled an otherwise benign national landscape.
So, are there any serious contenders for the top spots? President Barack Obama, despite disappointment and an embittered opposition must be considered. And surely Angela Merkel, the unquestioned leader of Germany, indeed of Western Europe, deserves serious attention.
But can we fill all ten slots as originally proposed? Was this too ambitious a project? Must we reduce expectations or consider inflating the grading system? And if so, what would that say about the current crop of leaders – and the state of the world?
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. Even kings, Shakespeare observed, could be insecure, fearful of rivals who coveted their throne. He might also have extended this observation to powerful nations. Over the centuries most eventually faced serious challenges. This was surely true in the ancient past which featured the rise and fall of one civilization after another.. In modern Europe, did not France and England battle for centuries, then watch as Spain ruled the roost, only to be displaced by the English who in turn contended with the Dutch?
As the 19th Century progressed, the United States seemed destined to assert itself on the world stage, which it succeeded in doing by early in the 20th Century. But by then other rivals could not be ignored. Japan, with its decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese War, thrust itself into the mix. And so did Germany. Indeed it challenged arch rivals England and France in World War I and might have won had the U. S. not joined the Allies. After that Russia, long a sleeping giant began to stir. After helping to vanquish Germany in World War II it emerged as a major challenger to U.S. supremacy in the years thereafter.
High above the mountainous terrain a flying machine passes over just as a van moves along a rutted road below. Without warning, nor an audible sound, a bright orange ball suddenly erupts and engulfs the vehicle. Moments later flames continue to lick at the now motionless metal skeleton, parts of which are scattered all about. A drone attack directed by military forces back in the United States results in a clean kill, or so the report from the field will state.
Looking across the vast expanse of water the sea could not appear more tranquil. There’s nothing in sight, little to attract the eye. But then suddenly there is. A sleek cylindrical rocket breaks through the surface, ascends in a vertical flight path, then arcs across the sky bound toward land. In less than a minute, with a computer guiding its trajectory it will strike its intended target.
American troops approach a village suspected to have been infiltrated by enemy forces.
Street fighting and significant casualties can be expected. Moving slowly down the street, however, are not American infantrymen, but a vehicle about the size of a snow-blower with tank treads. Mounted on the device are a machine gun and a grenade launcher. A video camera on board swivels back and forth, then stops having detected a figure on the roof of a nearby building. A short burst of the machine gun follows while the camera transmits a picture of a man, presumably a sniper, slumped over the ledge on the roof.
This is the face of advanced modern warfare featuring the latest in battle technology. The future is here and more of the same is already being tested on the field. Expect, increasingly sophisticated guided robots, advanced drones and detection devices to be taking over more of the surveillance functions, as well as the dirty work of war. The battlefield will become more remote and bloodless, at least for those able to deploy the new weaponry.
Compare this with some current tactics as described in recent accounts of civil disturbances and mass demonstrations. Protestors gather, clearly in an ugly mood. The local police, supplemented by elements of the armed forces are on hand and under orders to prevent nasty clashes and widespread property destruction. With tempers rising, neither side is prepared to back off. How or who initiates the encounter is unclear, but heading toward a parked car is a group of young men who set it to rocking to the point that it rolls over on its side. Others in their ranks, brandishing clubs and sticks, descend upon nearby stores, smash in window after window. Stones are sent flying in the direction of the police, those hurling them rushing forward, then hastily retreating. That is followed by a barrage of Molotov cocktails, some of the bottles breaking near the feet of the police, then bursting into flames.
The police determined at first to hold their ground and avoid an all-out fight, stand in place, shields held high to ward off flying objects. But their patience does not last. In closed ranks they move forward brandishing clubs and swinging forcefully at anyone within reach while surveillance cameras all about record the turbulent scene. Water cannons filled with putrid fluid send demonstrators reeling as the police begin firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at knots of people. This is followed by the sudden burst of very high-pitched noise frequencies emitted by sound machines a distance away, creating a disturbing and disorienting din. Meanwhile, helmeted policemen, visors pulled down and in full protective gear, direct pepper spray at those close by.
Here we see armed forces employed in two distinct ways, one distant, deadly and chillingly precise; the other close up, even face-to-face with a primitive ferocity, augmented by updated technologies. Take your pick.
Al-Qaeda has become a universally recognized organization closely associated with Moslem fundamentalism, zealous anti-Western and modernist influences and with an attachment to unrelenting terror tactics. As such, it has become a valuable and popular franchise symbolizing boldness, persistence and power. Accordingly, local militant groups, whether in Iraq Yemen, Somalia, Mali, North Africa, etc., have recognized the importance of identifying with Al-Qaeda. In response to this interest, Al-Qaeda has established within its organization a franchise bureau to evaluate would-be affiliates. Thanks to sources which cannot be named we have obtained the application form currently in use.