The World in 2062: Who Will Lead Us There?
Where are the leaders of today who have a vision of where to take the world over the next 50 years?
April 19, 2012
The year 2062 is far away and many of us may not live to see it. I for one would be 105 years old — an improbable but certainly not impossible age to reach. Actuaries of all stripes are now considering technical mortality beyond age 120 when calculating the viability of retirement plans. So, good health permitting, I may actually get to witness what our world looks like fifty years from now.
It is easy to find out what was going on fifty years ago, in 1962:
Algeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Jamaica and Uganda all see their occupation by colonial powers end, making 1962 a year of independence. The Cuban Missile Crisis brings the USSR and the United States to the brink of nuclear confrontation. Kmart and Walmart open their first stores, while fast-food chain Taco Bell opens its first restaurant.
The New York Yankees win the World Series (after also winning in 1961). The Toronto Maple Leafs win the first of four Stanley Cups they’d win in the 1960s. Lawrence of Arabia wins Best Picture at the Oscars, Walter Cronkite becomes anchor of CBS Evening News, and the Beverly Hillbillies is the highest-rated show on American television.
The Cold War is in full swing. Nikita Khrushchev, John F. Kennedy, Konrad Adenauer, Mao Tse-tung, Harold Macmillan, Charles de Gaulle — the names of some memorable world leaders at the time. Not everybody likes what they stand for, but they are all recognized as leaders, with a vision and a plan.
Since then, the world has gone through lots of change. Some of it was progress. The Americans landed a man on the moon, Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and the Cold War was ended. Germany rose from the ashes of the Third Reich to become a world economic power within a peaceful European Union, and China reinvented itself to become a global powerhouse.
The world has also created a host of new problems, including a number of recessions, the global financial crisis of 2008, and the sovereign debt crisis last year that left politicians and central bankers alike paralyzed as they ran out of quick fixes and other quasi-palatable options.
Over the past couple of years, we have all come to the sobering realization that the collective “us” simply can’t continue to muddle through, kick the can down the road and pretend everything will somehow eventually sort itself out. The developed world is going down the wrong path, on an increasing slope, and nobody seems to have a good idea of how to stop the slide.
To make things worse, the populace has risen to challenge current leaders, be it politicians or Wall Street CEOs. With an unprecedented degree of coordination, people around the globe, in all major financial hubs, are telling their leaders and the insensitive CEO class that enough is enough.
Never has the approval rating of the U.S. Congress been lower than in the early days of the 2012 presidential election campaign. Americans are unimpressed with their leadership, from the White House to Capitol Hill. And in the Arab world, dictators have been thrown out of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, with resistance movements forming in almost all the other nations in the region. “People power” there easily translates into an explosive power vacuum.
Fifty years after 1962 we seem to be faced with a whole new level of international volatility, spurred on by a convergence of cataclysmic events.
Sovereign nations have become unable to meet their financial obligations. Greece has defaulted, while Ireland and Portugal try to make ends meet with bailout money received from the EU and the IMF.
Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania, declared bankruptcy in 2011 as a consequence of not taking measures to correct municipal overspending a few years ago, when there would have still been time to stop what later became unavoidable. More American cities, if not entire states, may follow Harrisburg down the same path.
Across the Arab world, no clear successors to the former dictatorships have emerged, leaving everything about the future to our imagination. Will there be a peaceful transition to democratic rule, or will the region slip into religious rule administered by a few fanatics? What are the consequences for the West in terms of stability in the region and access to oil? And what will it all mean for Israel and Palestine? Nobody has the answers.
Which begs the question: Where are the leaders today that have a vision of where to take the world over the next fifty years? Will our current leaders look at what directional decisions they need to make to ensure that the progress made over the past fifty years will last long enough for the next two generations to benefit from it? Or will they simply preside over the slow but steady destruction of most of the value that has been created by the past two generations?
Critical and difficult times
These are critical and difficult times in the global village. For one, the issues are of a magnitude that makes them difficult to deal with. But difficulty aside, we are also living in the time of the Internet, when everything we do or say will be immediately broadcast across the ether to the laptops, iPads and smartphones of a global citizenry.
We also live in times when the frustrated and disenfranchised have found a voice over Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media outlets. Politicians have the power to mobilize support through these viral channels, as evidenced by Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. But social media also allows the citizenry to organize “en masse” against those in power, as evidenced by the Arab Spring and the “Occupy” movements.
Democratic institutions don’t favor those with the courage to promote big ideas. This is painfully true now, when big ideas will cause short-term pain before generating a positive impact over the next couple of generations. The political process in Western democracies is dominated by the election cycle. The leaders in power today want to remain in power and therefore have a tendency to steer clear of decisions that will make them unpopular.
Nowhere is this desire to jockey for the next election more evident than in Washington, D.C. The United States is drowning in an increasing pool of debt on all levels of government, but the Congress and the White House continue to play partisan games in an effort to gain ground in the 2012 elections.
In contrast, the problems facing the tiny republic of Greece are so astronomical that the government had no choice but to initiate an austerity package that will almost inevitably lead the country into a depression and, ironically, into insolvency. Switching out prime ministers was insufficient to create a positive outcome for the Greeks.
Political rochades may help the psyche, but they do little to fix a broken economic system. No wonder the Greeks are taking to the streets, refusing to go to work or pay taxes and negating for good the legitimacy of their elected government to think and act on their behalf. Anarchy, after all, is a Greek word — and that may well be where the people from the Peloponnese are going to end up.
The economic crisis will leave European leaders bogged down in survival mode for the foreseeable future, even as America’s political class engages in partisan gamesmanship to ensure its own survival. This kind of survival becomes a full-time job, leaving precious little time for building a vision for 2062.
Europe and America will see their electorates taking a much more direct role in the political process, from the grassroots up. The political institutions in Brussels and Washington don’t know how to deal with this bottom-up approach to political decision-making. They have been used to dictating policy from the top-down for too long — and they have increasingly failed their people.
Maybe, in 2062, we will see a dramatically changed Europe, where nation-states have regained importance and the people have been empowered to make decisions on a local or regional level that work much better than the solutions previously prescribed by some remote bureaucrat in Brussels.
And maybe we won’t have to correct a typing error that so easily occurs when spelling out the words that stand behind “USA.” Maybe, in 2062, it will indeed be more appropriate to call it the “Untied” States of America.
China will not disappoint
So, you may ask, where are the leaders of today who will shape the future of our societies? We know we can’t look to Washington or Brussels, as the politicians there are busy protecting their survival rather than leading anybody or anything.
We also know better than to look to the glass towers at 760 United Nations Plaza in midtown Manhattan. Experience tells us that the consensus-driven culture of solving global problems one resolution at a time is not going to provide the kind of leadership we need to set the stage for success in 2062.
Russia, too, will not be a source of visionary leadership, as they are deeply sunk in their own demographic catastrophe of a shrinking population. “Czar Vladimir” Putin bought himself another six years in the recent presidential election, but there is as yet no dependable path for Russia’s post-Putin era.
This leaves China — and China will not disappoint. The leaders in Beijing are blessed to be running in a system that is much less driven by electoral cycles than the West’s, and they are blessed with a culture that has taught them to think of the long term in terms of centuries.
In the 1970s, then-Chinese Foreign Secretary Zhou Enlai was famously quoted as saying that it was “too early to tell” when asked about the impact of the French Revolution of two hundred years earlier. This quote may be apocryphal, but its point is no less valid: If there are any leaders in the world today that have the culture and structural ability to make decisions for the long term, it is the Chinese.
They have already proven their ability to take an approach to politics and economics that considers long-term consequences over short-term gains. Their resistance to sell out of the declining U.S. dollar is but one example.
This is not to say that China will not see its fair share of issues in the coming fifty years. China will have to deal with uprisings of oppressed peoples within its empire and with socioeconomic imbalances created by its rapid urbanization. Issues stemming from the rapid growth of its internal consumer market will drastically change the fundamentals of its economy.
However, there is a good chance that the centuries-old tradition of long-term thinking that is engrained in Chinese culture and politics will allow the country to master all these challenges better than most other emerging markets.
Possibly, in 2062, the New York Yankees will win the World Series yet again, just as they had done a hundred years before. And possibly, Americans will still be watching reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies. However, the Yankees may be owned by a Sino-American conglomerate and the commercial breaks on TV will show cars built predominantly in China.
Tell your kids to take Mandarin lessons. A second language has always been an asset when job hunting. To be ready for 2062, add a second alphabet.
Across the Arab world, no clear successors to the former dictatorships have emerged, leaving everything about the future to our imagination.
The Congress and White House continue to play partisan games in an effort to position themselves favorably for the 2012 elections.
The political institutions in Brussels and Washington are used to dictating policy from the top-down — and they have increasingly failed their people.
Anarchy is a Greek word — and that may well be where the people from the Peloponnese are going to end up.
If there are any leaders in the world today that have the cultural and structural ability to make decisions for the long term, it is the Chinese.