LAUSANNE, Switzerland — In an article on the IMF/World Bank meeting in Washington last month entitled “A Washington gathering of incompetents,” Gerald Baker, while lambasting policyma- kers in the United States and the European Union, handed the first prize for incompetence to Japan. “Every time it seems that policy in that blighted country cannot get any worse, it promptly does,” he wrote. The problem however is not only bad policy, but also often incomprehensible policy. The Bank of Japan’s proposed stock-buying policy is one of the more recent examples.

Policy incompetence in Japan arises from some very woolly thinking, which, in turn, is in good part due to the closed and inward-looking nature of Japan’s policy-thinking establishments: its universities, think tanks, research institutes and the media. Foreign experts living in Japan, as I suggested in an earlier column, can be part of the problem. Indeed, in a Japan policy online forum I participate in, a white South African living in Japan came up with the brilliant idea that Japan — and indeed the world! — should adopt what he called a postgrowth economic policy; in other words, to simply give up on growing!

This echoes the views of a senior Japanese official who said at a meeting I attended recently that Japan was “enjoying a comfortable recession”! The implication is that Japan, having grown spectacularly for several decades, with growth primarily driven by exports to growing and open markets in America, Asia and Europe, should now just cop out and retire and the rest of the world can go fly a kite.

The smugness, complacency, selfishness and irresponsibility in these statements and the many like them are staggering. It is impossible to envisage a black South African ever saying anything like that, or a white South African daring to leave the comfort of his Tokyo suburb and traveling to the poor townships of South Africa, such as Soweto, where, to cite only one of many dismal figures, the unemployment rate is over 40 percent. The atmosphere that has prevailed in Japan for the last decade seems to affect people’s mental abilities and attitudes.

Smugness, complacency, selfishness and irresponsibility are by no means a Japanese monopoly. There is plenty of all of these in Europe and North America. The difference, again, is one of degree. Japan stands out for the extent to which it is smug, complacent, selfish and irresponsible, arising not from any particular national trait, but because of the current isolated and inward-looking insularity of Japan. And this is Japan’s main problem in the global era: the fact that it neither benefits from — is not open to — globalization, nor does it contribute to globalization. By being the very sick man of the international economy, Japan acts as a drag rather than a fillip to global growth. By being intellectually incestuous and thereby intellectually barren, it is not producing ideas or actively participating in the debate on globalization.

The critical importance, vitality and fecundity of global brainstorming on global challenges were vividly illustrated in the inaugural “Young Evian” plenary meeting held in late September at IMD in Lausanne. When I founded the Evian Group in 1995, the intention was to bring together government, industry and opinion leaders, primarily (but not exclusively) from Asia and Europe, to focus on the global trade and investment agenda and thereby establish a coalition for global liberal governance.

By the beginning of this century, my colleagues and I in the Evian Group became convinced that it was not enough to involve the current generation of leaders; we needed to engage the next generation, too. So Young Evian was founded, and the first plenary meeting brought together some 60 professionals under the age of 40 from national governments, international government organizations, business, academia, the media and nongovernment organizations from 29 countries, including the very rich, such as the U.S., Germany, Sweden and Japan, and the very poor, such as Senegal, Bangladesh, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Tajikistan.

Evian gatherings are not huge forums in the media limelight a la Davos, but round-table meetings where members are expected to participate actively. The intention is not to be just a talk shop — as valuable as that exercise is — but to influence policy in the direction of eclectic global liberal governance, including health, the environment and security, with nevertheless a key priority given to achieving growth and poverty reduction in the developing economies and in countries in transition. This is a major challenge now and will be all the more so in the future as population growth in developing countries booms. Growth is needed not only to create jobs and provide for education and health, but also to mitigate some of the dire threats facing the planet, notably the mammoth looming problem of allocation of water resources.

This is a daunting task and there is no pretension that Young Evian — or even the whole Evian Group! — can solve it, of course. But we can strive to make a contribution. Members were given six major themes on which to work and to advise on how Young Evian could contribute. These were: (1) how to promote free trade in the face of persistent protectionism, especially in Japan, the U.S. and the EU; (2) how to promote investment and entrepreneurship in the poorest countries; (3) how to ensure that the world economic community’s newest and biggest member, China, is properly integrated (participants included Chinese from both the private and public sectors); (4) how to manage the demographic challenges and the rising global tides of migration; (5) how to ensure that the information-communication technology revolution serves as a globally integrative force; (6) what the parameters and limits of corporate responsibility are in the process of globalization. (For those who are interested, a summary of the results of Young Evian’s deliberations on these themes will be posted on the Evian Web site — www.eviangroup.org — in about a month.)

While even the most optimistic would need to concede that bringing about a more just and prosperous global environment will take decades, one vital step in the right direction for the immediate future is for exporters from developing economies to gain more access to rich-country markets. And all the greater, therefore, the imperative for these economies to grow.

There were four excellent Japanese participants at the inaugural Young Evian meeting, two from government, one from the private sector and one from an international government organization. How much Young Evian will be listened to in Japan remains to be seen; the Japanese establishment is not prone for taking youth seriously. Bringing together some 60 or so bright globally oriented young professionals from different constituencies and some 30 countries on a regular basis to Japan to address Japan’s global responsibilities would provide a great gust of fresh air and possibly even induce our long-term Tokyo resident South African to come to his senses. No country — especially when it is fabulously wealthy — can be an island.

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