We must be careful about nostalgia

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: May 27 2005

Look across Europe and the pervasive mood is of insecurity. The humbling of Gerhard Schröder in Germany, the backlash in France and the Netherlands against the European Union's constitutional treaty and the troubles of governments almost everywhere speak to the anxieties of electorates and mistrust of politicians.

Ask why, and the answers come in a cascade. Globalisation has stolen jobs. Europe's welfare system is buckling. Immigration is challenging social, and secular, tradition. High unemployment sits alongside rising crime. Jihadist terrorism threatens our physical security, China's rise the familiar global order. North Korea has nuclear weapons, Iran wants them. America, once a reliable guardian of the status quo, now deploys its military might to overturn it. Political leaders are feckless, voters fickle.

There is more or less truth in each of these observations. Fearful citizens and disoriented politicians are grasping at fragments of a bigger story. We live in an era in which everything has changed and most things are still changing. The ice has melted on the familiar landscape of the second half of the 20th century. Power in all its forms is shifting rapidly and unpredictably. You might even say that we are at the beginning of history.

The other day, preparing a talk to a group of 18-year-olds on the world they might expect to inherit, I tried to map some of the features of the era in which I grew up. The existential threat posed by the Soviet Union sat alongside the solidity of the US security guarantee embedded in the transatlantic alliance. Nato asserted the military strength of what we called the west, the European Union attested to the superiority of our political and economic systems. The west (somehow Japan was slotted effortlessly into this description) generated the ideas and wealth. Most of us expected jobs for life in a world of ever rising prosperity.

There were other axes. North/south described the gap between the rich developed countries and what we knew as the third world. Communism apart, right and left more generally described the degree to which different nations tempered market capitalism with state intervention and social protection.

To the extent that Islam and the Middle East featured in our consciousness, the reference points were past colonial ties, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and our growing demand for oil. China was a secret place of little red books.

Now set this, albeit subjective, list against the characteristics of the world those 18-year olds will soon inherit. The end of the cold war has left the US as the sole superpower. But it has greatly weakened America's interest in Europe and Europe's dependence on America. How much do the values of resolutely secular Europeans have in common with the God-fearing citizens of the American Midwest? As for the EU, what is its purpose now that communism has been conquered?

Economic growth comes mainly from the east. China and India are now important engines of the world economy. China will fairly soon be second only to the US in its share of global output. India - a place of desperate malnutrition in my youth - will be the world's technological hub. North/south will further lose its relevance as Brazil and Indonesia follow these re-emerging giants.

Demography takes us in the same direction. Much of Europe is shrinking. So is Russia. By 2020, the world's population will have reached close to 8bn. Some 56 people in every 100 will be Asian. Only five will come from western Europe and four from the US. The west, if we can still call it that, suddenly looks a very small place.

As to threats to our security, the points of potential danger have moved eastwards from the German plains to an arc stretching from the Middle East right across the Asian landmass. Al-Qaeda may have been broken as an organisation but Jihadism survives as the unifying idea of extremist groups in much of the Muslim world. Elsewhere, can China replace the US as Asia's most important power without a collision? Could Japan, victim of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, awaken from half a century of pacificism to decide it too needs the bomb?

Such uncertainties are not confined to Europe. America is as singularly powerful a nation as any in history. But the coming decades promise a transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world. The war in Iraq has not made the US any less vulnerable. And the economic insecurity born of Asia's manufacturing might is as potent in America as in Europe.

If the above seems relentlessly gloomy - and I might have added climate change and Aids to the roll call - that is not the purpose. We should be careful about nostalgia. Mutually assured destruction had its downside. The cold war was neither as conflict-free nor as inherently safe as it sometimes seems in retrospect. We rightly worry about the broken and failing states of Africa, but we might celebrate too the extraordinary rise in living standards in Asia. And, as the CIA pointed out not so long ago, we are further now from a world war than we have been for a century.

We have all reaped the benefits of globalisation - cheap DVDs and T-shirts, effortless travel and communication, the explosion of new technologies. Modern science and medicine are transforming the quality of our lives. Close to home, if enlargement of the EU is seen as a threat by French and German voters, in reality it stands as vivid proof of Europe's success. The now rising generation will take in its stride changes that unnerve its parents. Danger lies not so much in the facts of shifting power and of ever tighter global interdependence as in an unwillingness to admit them.

It is no surprise that the present generation of European leaders feels the strains particularly acutely. For the second half of the last century the continent's peace and prosperity were built on two bargains: one swapped the nationalism that had brought two world wars for a project of political integration; the other married efficient economics to social cohesion. Both of these must now be remade (not, I stress, abandoned) to fit the new geopolitical and economic landscapes.

Instead of poring over new designs, though, we listen to the cries of pain, anguished echoes of a fatalism that says Europe - indeed the west - can flourish only if it defends the boundaries of yesterday's world. The truth, of course, is the reverse. When we understand that, we may begin again to feel secure.