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Nostalgia versus prospects

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Nostalgia about past “glories” is unwise. They were never as great as they were made out to be. There are still a few British politicians and oldies who dream of empire and of a British-led commonwealth outside Europe. There are also some Japanese nationalists who seem to dream of a unique Japan purified from foreign taint and able to assume the leadership of Asia. These people need to get real.

The world in the 21st century has become more prosperous, but also more unequal. Old dangers remain and there are new challenges.

The end of the Cold War should have made Armageddon unthinkable, but there has been no reduction in the number of nuclear-armed countries. The agreement with Iran has probably postponed a nuclear threat, but the recent North Korean nuclear test underlines that Armageddon is still a possibility if a maniac has access to the nuclear button.

The most immediate threat to peace and democratic values lies in the Middle East. The threat is not simply from Islamic State fanatics, but also from the great Islamic divide between the Sunnis and Shiites. The rationale for this internecine split is hard for most of us, brought up in largely secular societies, to understand. But we should not forget the history of religious strife in so-called Christian Europe or the intolerance toward Christians in Tokugawa Japan.

It is sad that the scientific achievements of Muslims in Spain before they were expelled and the tolerance they then showed toward Jews should be forgotten. Islam has now come to be seen by many only in its most primitive intolerance.

It is safe to predict that the “war on terror” will go on for many years. Even if some progress can be made in Iraq and Syria, there is no sign that an Arab-Israeli settlement can be achieved or that Iran and Saudi Arabia can reach any lasting understanding. Islamic extremism has spread in Africa from Libya and Tunisia to Somalia and Mali, and has damaged life in many other African countries, including Nigeria.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is another leader who suffers from nostalgia, in his case for the military power developed by the Soviet Union, and unrealistically aspires to superpower status. He has a military machine that he is ready to use to intimidate Russia’s European neighbors and to demonstrate that Russia is still a force to be reckoned within the Middle East, but Russian reserves built up during the commodities boom are being eroded and Western sanctions are beginning to bite. There is sadly no sign of another leader like Mikhail Gorbachev on the horizon to work for a reduction in tension.

Russian fences have been mended with China, but the Chinese boom has ended. This makes China more dangerous and unpredictable. No doubt corruption in China was damaging to both the government and the economy and had to be tackled seriously, but the drive against corruption has coincided with a slowdown in economic growth and a crackdown on dissent. This raises serious concerns about China’s long-term stability. There is always the temptation for any regime facing difficulties on the home front to allege foreign threats and whip up anti-foreigner sentiment.

Much depends on the United States. Under President Barack Obama the U.S. has been reluctant to get involved abroad more than absolutely necessary in defense of essential American interests. In this election year this reluctance is unlikely to change. If Hillary Clinton is elected the next president there will be continuity in foreign policy. The Republican candidates are not impressive and their policy statements have not been reassuring. The nightmare scenario is Donald Trump being voted into the Oval Office. A Trump presidency is unlikely but can’t be ruled out.

The European Union must deal with a series of crises. The most pressing is the flood of refugees. A British exit from the EU, which would be highly damaging to the group as well as to Britain, is possible but will not, I hope, happen. Other problems include the anti-democratic tendencies in some European countries such as Poland and Hungary and the growth of anti-EU parties such as the National Front in France.

The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have mixed prospects. The outstanding “member” of this “quintet” is India. It will undoubtedly assume a major role in the world especially in the next two decades. Brazil faces major political and economic problems. We must hope that these will not interfere with a successful Rio Olympic Games. In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma has been a major disappointment and the economy is suffering.

A major factor that concerns every country is climate change. Britain has had the warmest and wettest December in generations and the northern part of Britain has suffered damaging floods. Not all of this and the unseasonal weather elsewhere can be put down to the effects of El Nino in the southern Pacific. The Paris accords in December were at least a recognition of the dangers facing us all and particularly our children, but will they be effectively enforced? Even if they are, we have to be willing and ready to adapt our agriculture to meet the increasing demands for food from a growing world population.

Our leaders, preoccupied with current issues, pay little attention to population trends. These are far from reassuring. The population of China may have stabilized, but the one-child policy has led to a vast preponderance of males at a time when the Chinese population is aging.

Everyone knows about Japan’s population problem. More immigration would help, but this is a “pass the buck” topic. Low European net reproduction rates are mitigated to some extent by net immigration, but this raises social and cultural issues.

Immediate and long-term prospects do not encourage optimism, but the world will no doubt “muddle through” (as the British think that they usually do).

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.