Colours and Contrasts in World Politics

Judging from the rhetoric of grand speeches on foreign policy one would be forgiven for thinking that ideological and moral convictions were the main forces at play in international politics. In reality however an increasingly multipolar environment will be forcing leaders around the world to put realpolitik before political colour.

For the United States the geopolitical forecast, a lot of which it has had a hand in shaping, is not looking too bad. Its demographic outlook is quite positive, with net immigration and a healthy birth rate that compares favorably to both its global allies and competitors. The fracking revolution is on its way too, turning the formerly troublesome question of energy supply around and the geographical position, a calm and largely friendly neighborhood, separated from most of the world’s potential hotspots by two oceans, keeps being a major asset. The same, however, cannot be said about some of its oldest and closest allies.

In Europe, Britain has long since been the US’s ally of choice, their relationship is referred to as “special” on both sides of the Atlantic on the basis of shared cultural, historical and ideological backgrounds. For Washington, the Brits have been important allies in themselves, but perhaps most importantly as a way into Brussels, a strong liberal voice to counterweight conservative and leftist views on the continent. The British commitment to Europe, however, has come to look less and less certain. As the euro zone slowly but surely moves towards deeper consolidation, a Eurosceptic public is putting pressure on the government to renegotiate the terms of its membership in the EU or even leave the union entirely. Recently a comment by John Kerry served to highlight the relationship; he was quoted as calling France Americas “oldest ally” as Francois Hollande put his weight behind US plans for strikes on Syria while the House of Commons defeated a bill proposing for Britain to do the same. While the headlines declaring the birth of a new “relation spéciale” were surely a bit hasty, they show that without its strategic component, the relationship is far from set in stone. In the longer run though, Berlin, rather than Paris, looks likely to replace London on Obamas speed-dial. Germany has emerged from the Euro crisis as something of a European hegemon. A weakened France and an absent Britain has left space for German leadership and in Angela Merkel the Americans see a strong leader they respect and can cooperate with.

The chemical weapons deal struck on Syria was hailed as a success for diplomacy and a rare moment of alignment in the interests of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. In Syria however, the brutal civil war continues and a resolution to the conflict seems further away than ever. The American unwillingness to put boots on the ground is widely supported at home, but fiercely criticized by another key US ally, Israel. Abandoning Israel would surely still be political suicide for any American politician, but so would another lengthy and costly military campaign in the Middle East. The steadfast rhetorical support looks increasingly blurry when seen through the lens of realpolitik.

Strains like these are also increasingly visible in the US-Japanese relationship. Ever since the Second World War, Japan has relied on the US for its security, as the size of its own military is constrained in its pacifist, US written, constitution. The emergence of China on the world stage has created friction in what it sees as its sphere of influence. Several disputes regarding the maritime territory in the South and East China Sea has emerged and does not look likely to go away. Japan has had decades of stagnated economic growth and with an old and ageing population the future is less than certain. As China continues to grow the world will be more and more shaped by how the bilateral relationship with the US turns out. As the US seeks to accommodate China there will surely be trade-offs to be made in situations where Japan and China are both involved. Once again the pendulum seems to be swinging towards the strategically, rather than ideological choice.

The outspoken priority of the second Obama administration is fixing the economy. It is a priority shared by and large by the American people, tired of costly foreign engagements and worried of high unemployment and a feeble economic recovery. But the world does not stop moving just because you do your best to ignore it and the world will surely come knocking on the door more than once before the term is over. Obama hopes to be remembered for domestic triumphs like the health care reform and for hopefully reinvigorating the economy; but with so much geopolitical force at work, his legacy might very well be decided by how he handles himself on the international stage.

Text: Anton Ståhl

Systemic Failure

The global economic system is geared up towards, and centered on, the GDP-measurement. The financial markets react quickly and decisively on quarterly reports, and the media reports meticulously on small changes in forecasts or actual figures. GDP has assumed a very special role in our society. The reason for this is logical. For the biggest part of the 20th century we in the West, who drew up the blueprint for the global economic system, experienced an unprecedented rise in living standards. Sweden is a perfect example of this. It entered the century as an, in comparison with Western Europe, underdeveloped nation. It went through the World Wars less affected than most and enjoyed an extraordinary rise in GDP. And, for most of the century, this correlated closely with an equally astonishing rise in parameters like life expectancy, general health, maternal deaths and so forth; in short, well-being. Freed from the shackles of a 12-hour a day work day, relived of the tiresome and time consuming hand-washing, and a lot of other shores by machines, the Swedes found themselves having way more time and possibility to shape and enjoy their lives.

But somewhere we passed a line. At some point, the tight correlation between increased material wealth and increased well-being ceased to exist. Studies now show that even though GDP and productivity has continued to grow, the general level of well-being has stagnated, or even moved backwards. At the core of the issue is the question of what we as a society really treasure. Progress in the form of increased material wealth is a goal only as long as we want it to be, it is not a law of nature, but a human construction. The economic system rests on the foundation of a general consensus that it is the best tool for us as a people to realize our goals. When looking at for example Greece, over a quarter of the working age population is currently unemployed. This begs the question; at what point does the system in its current form cease to be just that, the best tool for the population to realize its goals?

Moreover, the growth that has been produced has come to be less and less inclusive. This has been going on for longer but became accentuated in the wake of the financial crisis. The GINI-coefficient, a measurement of income equality, in the United States is now back at levels not seen since the 1920s. The Dow Jones index is hitting new record highs, but with rising inequality, less and less people are able to benefit from it.

Aside from the social aspects, the economic system is not sustainable ecologically. In schools we preach the message of how we at this rate of consumption will deplete the earths stock of a number of vital minerals. Furthermore, our concerns about the global warming stand in sharp contrast to the strive for more economic growth – at least one fueled by an increased consumption following the current pattern of consumption.

But when starting to question the foundations of our economic model, it must be seen against the backdrop of development elsewhere. Now, for the first time the tiny minority of the global population that we in the West constitute, are not the ones who benefit most from the system. The fantastic journey that we experienced in the 20th century is now underway in large parts of the world. In China alone, hundreds of millions of people have lifted themselves from poverty in the last decades and join a new global middle class empowered by the fruits of international trade and industrialization. This is an amazing development that cannot, and should not, be denied to them. In these parts of the world, as for us before, the GDP-focused view is still highly relevant since the correlation with well-being is still strong.

At the core of the problem, then, is that the nations of the earth are all at either end, or scattered in between, these two extremes. But we all, with very few exceptions, coexist in the same globalized and interconnected economic system. Here, production chains stretch their webs all across the globe in a highly specialized division of labor, underpinned by capital markets that make capital footloose and flexible. This fundamentally good thing – economic interdependence and globalization – has the backside of being just that, global. Because no single country can opt out of it, and in the new multipolar environment that the great catch-up now brings about, global solutions to problems are increasingly hard to achieve. The most prominent proof of this is the string of failed climate summits and free trade rounds that we keep seeing. Unfortunately, stagnating growth under current circumstances is not an option either. The scenes from southern Europe, with capital flight and mass unemployment is scaring examples of what loss of forward motion can lead to. So we try our best to keep pushing forward and thus aptly reveal the central paradox; under the current system the unsustainable path of ever-increasing GDP – is the only economically sustainable one.

Text: Anton Ståhl

City Guide: London

”Do you like London? Well, neither does the English.” This is the first sentence of Berlitz’s travel guide for London published in 1987 to introduce the potential visitor to the city. The author spends the following paragraphs explaining how the English soul rests in the countryside and that their country-dwelling peers look upon the Londoners with something that can most aptly be described as pity.

Since then the British society in general, and the capital in particular, has undergone a spectacular change. The internet revolution came and went and an unprecedented influx of people from all over the world, not least from the Commonwealth, landed on Britain’s shores. Many of them headed straight for London, more than a third of today’s Londoners were born outside of Britain. The great deregulatory spree, embarked upon by Margaret Thatcher was in its infancy in 1987, with most of the reforms being put in place only a year earlier. They have arguably come to have the most profound impact as they brought about London’s return as one of the most important financial centers in the world. These changes have been the foundation for a new globalized environment in which the British capital has thrived. London today is the only truly global city in Europe and one of few worldwide.

London 1

Bearing this in mind when you go to London will keep you open to what really makes a visit worthwhile. The first time visitor will inevitably tick off the list of must-see-things first and with this out of the way will be ready for the rest of it. Being the city it is, London has acted as a magnet for talented people in all fields. So weather you are into art, theater or any genre (seriously, any kind) of music you are likely to be able to find something you like. The main stream events are quite well covered in for example time out (http://www.timeout.com/london), for more obscure gigs or shows you have to dig a little deeper.

In way of food the city’s diversity has been a blessing indeed. Berlitz’s guide writes on the topic: “in the average London eatery you may be faced with a tired piece of meat, swimming in a bleak sauce alongside vegetables that has been cooked to death several times over”. In London today you will find all conceivable kinds of food and it generally comes cheaper than in Sweden. A great way to experience it is through the classic London market. Borough Market, sitting in the shadow of the newly risen skyscraper “the Shard” currently Europe’s tallest building, is a great place to start. Go there the day after a night out to enjoy breakfast, lunch or best of all, both. You can spend hours walking around sampling Indian tea, Swiss cheese, South American salami or any number of other specialties on offer. If you prefer to combine food with shopping Brick Lane market is a great choice. On Sundays the street comes to life and is best enjoyed with a take-away plate of Ethiopian, Mongolian or Japanese food while you sample the ubiquitous supply of second hand clothing and pretty much everything else you would, or would not, consider buying.

Brick lane is also a good stepping stone into the Shoreditch-Hoxton area that borders the city of London to the east. This old working class part of the city has over the past decades gone from run-down to the new creative and preforming arts hub of London. Walking the area you will find galleries and hipster-riddled pubs and coffee-shops. Although slightly pretentious the area is a great night out.

In the otherwise relatively uninteresting area of Highgate, north London, you find Highgate cemetery. The idea of spending precious vacation time in a grave yard might not immediately appeal to you, but this is no ordinary cemetery. It consists of two parts, the eastern and the western. The eastern is open to explore for yourself and is home to a host of dead celebrities, the most famous of who is Karl Marx. But it is the western part that is the real treat. The overgrown Victoriancreation really gets your imagination going, it truly feels like the halfway house into the kingdom of the dead. You have to take the guided tour to get into this part and it needs to be booked in advance.

London 2

But London is ever-changing. Against the backdrop of its iconic landmarks, red buses and lavish parks there is a steady stream of new concepts, ideas and thoughts being tried and rejected or accepted and woven into the fabric of the city. This vibrancy is London’s biggest asset, and the single biggest reason for a visit. Dull and unattractive as it might have seen 30 years ago, London is now on a major high. Go and enjoy it while it lasts!

Text: Anton Ståhl
Photo 1: flickr
Photo 2: flickr