The world is in an uneasy mood.
On the face of things, the outlook is quite reassuring. There is peace between the great powers, the global economy is in reasonable shape and an unending cascade of new technologies seems to be opening up a boundless future for mankind.
And yet there are shadows. There is no peace in Africa — on the contrary, the continent seems cursed by a succession of vicious civil wars, rebellions and guerrilla campaigns. Nor has global prosperity or the benefits of the information-technology revolution reached tens of millions of impoverished people.
The electronic age has empowered individuals as never before and weakened over-mighty governments. But the other side of this coin is that all kinds of localized vendettas and volatile factions have sprung up, sending ripples of civil disorder through societies from Seattle to the South Seas.
The question is whether the forthcoming Okinawa summit — or any gathering of the leading nations of the earth, for that matter — can bring calm and direction to this confusing scene, whether it can distill the insights and find the words and phrases that will focus people’s minds on the real problems of the e-age and the new millennium. And, in particular, whether the host country, Japan, will play a forward and positive role in developing this new perspective.
Until recently, the answer to these questions seemed very hopeful. Led by late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Japanese policymakers have been opening up interesting new approaches to global problems and bringing to bear genuinely original thinking on the issues raised by the communications-technology explosion and its social and political consequences.
Boosted by the important insights of the so-called Obuchi report — “The Frontier Within” — it really looked as though this particular summit might break away from tired cliches about “growth” and “global stability” and start to indicate exactly how the huge potential of the IT era could be harnessed to benefit all, not just a few.
This goal may still be achievable, but it has to be recognized that the sad death of Obuchi has been a grievous setback, and not just for Japan. This would have been a summit on Japanese soil (and a very emotive and historic part of that soil), but which would have no cause to be distracted by local Japanese problems.
Now, with Obuchi gone and Japanese politicians finding that the electorate has dealt them a new hand of cards, one cannot be so sure.
Nevertheless, we live on hope, and the hope for Okinawa must be that the world’s leaders really can shake off domestic issues for a day or two and bring their whole attention on to the central task — the urgent need to define and focus the unstructured globalization debate.
The first step in this task should be to unravel the oversimplified and overpolarized nature of the whole globalization “argument.” The question is not, as some like to pose it, whether globalization is “good” or “bad,” whether it widens inequalities or narrows them, whether it undermines or enhances social cohesion.
It does all those things. Yet this is simply the wrong axis along which to address the debate. Globalization, not just of finance but of all the information and exchange on which the human condition rests, is the inevitable outcome of technological progress and the political leaders’ job is not to bless or curse it, but to show how to handle it.
The summiteers must demonstrate some understanding of how the e-age changes the relationship between governments and governed and demands new priorities to be brought to the fore if civic society is to be upheld and strengthened. The Obuchi report was especially good on this aspect.
From this, it should follow that the keystones of a sound global order are sound and confident nation-states. All talk of a grand supranational order and of new “global architecture” should come a long way second to this central reality.
Second, the summit leaders must show, and show in practical detail, how the world’s leading nations, working together, can transmit their prosperity and ingenuity to the developing world.
This in turn means understanding that “the developing world” is itself a changing concept and that the globe can no longer be neatly delineated in terms of rich industrialized nations and poor ones.
Which category is China in? This will be a particularly sensitive question to ponder.
Or what about India, which now has one of the fastest growing and most advanced IT sectors in the world? Or the giant nation of Indonesia, which used to be firmly on the growth path to modern nationhood but is now floundering in civil wars and religious strife?
Where does South Africa fit in to the old model of “First and Third Worlds”? Or lumbering Russia with its distinct signs of a return to more authoritarian rule? Or a huge nation like Brazil, which contains a dozen different worlds and cultures within its borders?
The answers from the summit have to be specific. Grand and ambitious generalizations will help no one. There is detailed work to be done — for example in calming fears about genetically modified foods, in bringing new science to bear on diseases in poorer areas, in tackling crime on the Internet, in alternative energy development, in new forms of care and support for the elderly (very much Japan’s own problem but also shared in many other societies).
Very expert and careful new thinking is also required on the nuclear-weapons front, where the increasingly shaky nonproliferation regime, combined with new technologies for missile defense that negate the old weapons and deterrence doctrines, create an urgent need for a fresh appraisal.
A recent advisory group of U.S. think tanks, supported by a glittering caste of ex-ministers, central bankers and gurus, urged the G8 countries to agree at Okinawa to all manner of new mechanisms for expanding the global economy, coordinating new plans for aid and development, constructing global foreign policies, pushing on into a massive new world trade negotiation and a dozen other such high-sounding “initiatives” and “reforms.”
This is precisely the wrong approach. The world of ordinary people is tired of pyramids of plans and sand castles of promises. It wants detailed and workable proposals for addressing the glaring social problems of the day and for meeting the unfamiliar and sometimes frightening prospects which globalization opens up.
The Japanese are supremely practical people — although they have a romantic streak. This is a chance for the Japanese summit hosts to show that these great gatherings, which are meant to be informal, not ceremonial, can produce solid and practical results.
So the best advice to offer them is this: Do not listen to the “global experts,” the think tanks and the spin doctors and flowery speech writers. Listen to the world as it actually is, in all its diversity and complexity, and show that even great world leaders and lofty officials, assembled on a beautiful and historic island, can remain in touch with the everyday life and times of the rest of humankind.
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