Zero-Sum World

Zero-Sum World: Politics, Power and Prosperity after the Crash, by Gideon Rachman, Atlantic RRP£20, 328 pages

“Yes we can”, Barack Obama told us all in 2008. But can we really? We haven’t got much done recently and, looking around the world, we seem even less capable of achieving much that is any good in the immediate future.

This understandably leaves Gideon Rachman a bit gloomy – though, to his credit, not grumpy. He has written a very readable book about the world we live in, with an analysis no doubt culled from a thousand notebooks recording what he has seen, heard and read in half a lifetime of intelligent journalism for this newspaper and others. The world is a messy and dangerous place, and is becoming more so. Its complexity defies the efforts regularly made to explain it away with one all-encompassing theory. Rachman gently – perhaps too gently – picks apart a number of these arguments, and manages to eschew the attempts made by his publisher in the cover blurb to present him as the man with the latest answer to our geopolitical problems. Not for him the portentous nonsense about postmodern paradigms. His world is not flat, but full of sharp bumps and fog-bound hollows; navigating this tricky terrain is best described as a predicament rather than a challenge.

Two-thirds of Zero-Sum World describes how we arrived at our present “Age of Anxiety”, passing through areas of “Transformation” and “Optimism” en route. From 1978 to 1991, the postwar certainties of a world divided between communism and democracy were smashed to pieces, and capitalism was rejuvenated. Deng Xiaoping and Manmohan Singh opened China and India to the global economy. Thatcher and Reagan revived the economies of Britain and the US. Europe embraced the single market. The Soviet Union collapsed. A quick victory in the Gulf war seemed to herald the dawn of a unipolar world, with America the dominant imperium and the big spending and borrowing emporium.

The optimistic years began with Francis Fukuyama predicting “the end of history”, by which, he did not mean that eventful times were a thing of the past but that political and economic liberalism had triumphed. Ideological arguments were over. Alan Greenspan’s belief in untrammelled markets, the technology developed in Silicon Valley and the opening-up of global trade would bring the world not only a surge of prosperity but a democratic peace. Europeans believed they could stabilise their continent in the wake of the collapse of Russia’s empire by offering central and eastern European states membership of their own successful union. Asians were assured that the axis of global power was shifting in their direction, regardless of – or even because of – their disdain for political liberalism. It was a win-win world for everyone, despite the terrorist assault on America, which would be made safe by one of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns”, the application of brute military power.

Then all the smug certainties came crashing down. Nemesis (who could be surprised?) pillaged hubris. There was a self-confessed flaw in Alan Greenspan’s thinking. The world’s only superpower was also the world’s biggest debtor. Much of the world’s growth was based on US borrowing and Chinese exports; the imbalance could not be sustained. Technological military might could not defeat men with Kalashnikovs in one hand and the Koran in the other. China and other emerging powers were reluctant to play global politics by western rules at precisely the moment when global problems needed greater international co-operation to solve them. Failed and failing states became as great a menace as the most powerful had once been. Europe sank into introspection and took its quality of life for granted. The American political system left the US more able to spend $2,000bn to develop Iraq and Afghanistan than to deploy smaller sums to rebuild its own crumbling infrastructure.

So today, China and the US seem locked in an increasingly acrimonious stand-off over issues such as global economic management and climate change that could wreck the world’s economy with growing protectionism, and our planet itself with carbon dioxide emissions. Other emerging economies such as Brazil, Turkey, India and South Africa appear reluctant to sign up to the transatlantic agenda. Nuclear proliferation and narco-terrorism threaten global stability. Europe loses its nerve and its civic idealism, increasingly prey to xenophobic fears of economically necessary migration. Davos Man has lost his swaggering self-confidence along with his credit cards.

What is to be done? Rachman sensibly offers advice from the classic British sitcom Dad’s Army: “Keep calm,” he says, mindful perhaps that we usually manage somehow or other to get by. He has not given up on our ability to forge international partnerships to deal with the biggest problems. His call to the US to avoid protectionism, and on China to allow its currency to strengthen to a level that does not provoke a trade war is wise but may seem a touch hopeful just at the moment. But he wisely counsels against the assumption that Chinese power will inflate inexorably. The Chinese themselves are all too aware of what could puncture Asia’s biggest red balloon.

Both the US and Europe should remember that economic power cannot be taken for granted. Europe’s clout should not be dismissed; with just 7 per cent of the world’s population, it produces 22 per cent of world output, more than the US and almost twice as much as China. But it has to revive its stuttering growth rate and regain its commitment to enlargement, especially embracing Turkey. Moreover, its regular rhetorical commitment to multilateralism would be a bit more convincing if the EU were better at keeping its multilateral commitments and behaving in a less nationalist way in multilateral institutions.

Rachman is unfailingly sensible, not least in his belief that “a strong and successful and confident America remains the best hope for a stable and prosperous world”. I was also gratified by his refusal to be simplistically prescriptive. Readers will finish this book feeling better informed, if not very surprised, by its conclusions. Anyway, there will be surprises enough to come from events that will make the world even more uncertain and dangerous – though not quite so dangerous as to persuade us to abandon the hope that we can probably once again muddle through as we always have before.

Lord Patten is chancellor of the University of Oxford and author of ‘What Next? Surviving the Twenty-First Century’ (Penguin)

Extract from ‘Zero-Sum World’

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