Picture a barred door. On one side is Uncle Sam holding it with bracing shoulder. On the other side are smaller figures pushing, but not too hard, and looking back over their shoulders toward an unseen audience, shouting, “See, I am pushing”. That was the world before 2007.
Picture a succeeding cartoon: Pres. Barack Hussein Obama, replacing Uncle Sam, suddenly opens the door, and all the little people – from Syria’s Basher al-Asaad to France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, from North Korea’s Kim Jong Il to Turkey’s Recept Erdogan – have come tumbling through, head over heels, struggling for footholds, chaotically grabbing at one another, a world in microcosm.
Alas! the bloody riots in Tunis, Egypt and Algeria are only the beginning of a new wave of instability – not only in Arab lands but across the whole so-called “developing” world. A perfect storm brings economic and political destabilization. Even those countries hailed as new world growth centers while the West and Japan languish are in trouble.
As with all worldwide currents, the causes are complex, and they meld economic and political factors.
But first and foremost hanging overall has been a worldwide intellectual environment created by growing loss of confidence in the irreplaceable world leader, the United States. The 2007 financial debacle is blamed, rightly or wrongly, on American policy – starting with the housing swamp still to be drained. “The Washington Consensus” – markets, representative government, and open covenants – which had looked to be the dominant ideology of the 21st century is in shreds.
Were that not enough, there is psycho-political sabotage of the U.S. image wrought by the Obama Administration itself. The President’s repeated apologies for real and imagined past failings, the self-deprecation of still overwhelming U.S. economic and political power and confused radical foreign policy feints have all contributed to an international horror vacui. For those like your author who came late for Latin, it’s the name for Aristotle’s old adage that nature abhors a vacuum.
Without realistic, aggressive American leadership – whatever its failings — based on its prestige as the only superpower enhanced by its victory over Communism, the regional players have new fantasies. Turks talk of reestablishing the glories of the Ottoman Empire. Tehran’s mullahs envision a new Persian Empire dominating the Mideast — and world oil. Moscow tries to recreate the vanished awe of Stalin’s Soviet empire. Beijing increasingly is tempted to gamble on restoration of traditional Chinese hegemony in East and South Asia. Individual lunatic religious fanatics wage mayhem for a new caliphate reuniting Islam.
Meanwhile, in the real world, economic forces create continuing crises. The Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” [printing money] – marginally successful at best in recharging American domestic markets — is bloating the world’s common currency, the dollar. With investors hesitant in a difficult economic climate, the dollars flow into commodity speculation or seek higher return in capital-short countries which unlike America and Europe cannot suffer low returns. The inflow is generating inflation – and panic.
A series of natural disasters – in Russia, Australia and Argentina – has clipped grain production. Ditto failures for soy crops in Argentina producing rising prices in the U.S. and Brazil. American diversion of a fifth of its corn production into ethanol hasn’t helped. Because of shortages, sugar prices more than doubled since mid-summer last year. Anxious Indonesia has quadrupled its Thailand imports, pushing up the price of Asia’s ricebowl. [Even chocolate, not a necessity for some of you, is under siege because of threatened ethnic war in Ivory Coast spreading to all the Gulf of Guinea states.] Despite all the talk of takeoff in China and India, both regimes ignored their agricultural sectors and food prices are rising in both countries as a result of that as well as world market pressures.
The Food and Agricultural Organization, characteristically as unhelpful as other UN organizations, argues a seventh of the world’s 6.8 billion people suffer from malnutrition. The pinch will grow demonstrably worse in coming months. So rising food prices are a principal undercurrent for growing criticism and violence against long-standing oligarchic regimes. The mediocre Mubarraks may have provided temporary stability but now find themselves detested, bereft of solutions to unemployment and food scarcities.
I don’t know whether psychiatrists believe paranoia can be a product of nutritional malfunction. But it is clear TV, radio, Twitter and Facebook, spread the word that the developed world eats, generally eats well. That, along with all their other legitimate complaints, is likely to feed the envy which sets in when human existence turns even more tragic. A Brazilian friend already writes his country is being intentionally victimized because of its recent rapid economic advance. The truth is his country has entered a new and dangerous period of world economic instability. Brasilia’s first woman president with few credentials – except her allegiance [so far] to a mentoring ex-president – is befuddled.
Like so many other economies, “the land of tomorrow” now has the Hobson’s choice between blocking invading dollars and inflation or slowing growth [which it has done] and risking political consequences from populations who demand jobs and political choices.