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What Will the World Look Like in the 21st Century? - 2003-05-07

The past century has seen two world wars and many revolutions. New nations were created and some old ones obliterated. It was a century of rapidly developing technology and an increasingly global economy. What changes is the new century bringing?

The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the cold war era and gave rise to the hope that free markets and democracy would spread peace and prosperity throughout the world. These lofty goals have not been achieved yet. In fact, poverty, civil wars, ethnic hatred, violent religious zealotry and social ills seem to be on the rise in many parts of the world.

Thomas Barnett, senior strategic researcher at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, says these problems beset mostly countries where globalization has not taken hold.

“If you are looking at violence in the global system, it is overwhelmingly concentrated in those parts of the world, regions and countries that are not integrating their national economies with the global economy, either because they live in an authoritarian state, or because they are isolationist, or because they suffer endemic poverty, or they are dependent on export of a single raw material and that leads to poverty or mal-distribution of wealth - commonly. It leads to civil wars, we find,” he says.

Professor Barnett says these countries make up about one third of the world: almost all of Africa, a great part of Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Caribbean Rim and the Balkans. He says to “leave them alone” as some people suggest, will make their problems worse and our world a less secure place.

“We need to stop terrorist activities, illegal movement of arms, or money, or people, the smuggling of people, copyrights infringement, those kinds of things,” he says. “And the reason why you need to keep a lid on those sorts of bad flows is that there are very positive flows that do have to occur.”

Among the positive flows he cites legal immigration from overpopulated areas to under-populated ones, the flow of oil out of the Middle East and direct foreign investment from Europe and the United States in developing Asia. He says the economic integration of Asia is especially important because it contains almost half the world’s population. But economy cannot flourish without security, and Mr. Barnett says only the United States today has the ability to provide it. For that reason he thinks this century may see more U.S. military interventions like the one in Iraq.

Many analysts ponder the effects of the U.S. display of military power on the rest of the world. Some, like Larraine Segil, an international business consultant, author and lecturer at the California Institute of Technology, see the Iraq War as a major milestone.

“I think that what has happened an Iraq is an enormous and substantial change in the balance of power in the Middle East because it has suddenly become clear that there is somebody in the White House who is prepared to take action to follow words,” she says.

“And I think there’s a significant communication challenge ahead in which the U.S. will have to position itself in such a way that the rest of the world starts to feel a little bit less insecure about this balance-of-power change,” she says.

Ms. Segil says what happens in the next six months in Iraq will shape the coming decade in the Middle East. But she adds that U.S. military power is not the only force for significant change in the world. For her informal alliances of various groups across national borders may be equally significant. China is an illustration.

“Just take the example of China in the last two decades. I first went to China in 1989 and since then, the Chinese economy has exploded,” she says. “And it has exploded because of the alliances that they have made with businesses in Taiwan, in Germany in the U.S. all over the world. The world economic markets and businesses have come to China and taught them everything they know and the Chinese have internalized it and turned around and exploded their economy to a seven to ten GNP rate every year and more.”

Ms. Segil expects that during the next century, the balance of power will move to China.

“I think that the center of the economic world is going to be in China. I think that Europe and Americas will be hugely involved in China so that their economies will be greatly facilitated by what is happening in China,” she says.

Ms. Segil believes African leaders could reduce famine and disease in their countries if they allowed private groups to form alliances with similar organizations in other parts of the world.

In the future, she says, some of the global oppression may be relieved through outside pressure and negotiations, though evil regimes remain that can only be removed with military force.

Many analysts are emphasizing the need for a world order with a more equitable balance of powers. Ann Florini, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says now only the world’s industrialized nations are being heard in international forums at the expense of the less developed ones. “The inter-governmental institutions that have the most influence right now in the world are the IMF, the World Bank, the World trade Organization, the UN Security Council. In all of those cases except the World Trade Organization, the rules are explicitly set up so that a handful of rich-country governments dominate.”

Ms. Florini, is the author of a new book, The Coming Democracy: New Rules for Running a New World. In it she contends that a wide range of trans-national issues, from terrorism to environmental degradation to the global economy can be managed more effectively by including new actors in decision making. She says some non-governmental institutions, citizens movements and private corporations have already shown they can help solve global problems.

“NGOs particularly in northern countries have had in some cases a very significant influence on global rules,” she says. “They have had campaigns on poor-country debt. They have had campaigns on land mines. In those kinds of campaigns they’ve shown that they can have a significant influence in getting governments to consider a broader public interest.”

Ms. Florini says interests of poor southern countries that have long been neglected must be given more consideration. In that part of the world, she says, globalization has not been helpful.

“To the degree that economic integration is beneficial, that it does improve efficiencies, and provide more choices to consumers, and all those kinds of things -- the biggest problem is that most of the world’s population has been completely left out of global economic integration,” she says.

Ms. Florini notes that the overwhelming share of global trade and financial flows are among North America, Western Europe, Japan and some other parts of Asia. There has been almost no foreign direct investment in Africa, while Latin America and parts of Asia receive much less than their fair share in proportion to their populations. She says that U.S. military prowess in Iraq alarmed many people around the world. She notes that all kinds of economic, environmental, social, health and other global problems cannot be solved by force. To regain the cooperation of the rest of the world on these issues, Ms. Florini suggests the United States should make clear its intervention in Iraq is a special case, not a general prescription for the future.