My kids and I often joke about a scene in the movie “The Lord of the Rings” where two mischievous hobbits Pippin and Merry are messing around while a group of solemn wizards, elves, hobbits and dwarves is deciding to create the Fellowship of the Ring and set out on a dangerous mission to Mordor to save the Middle World from destruction by evil forces. Pippin and Merry burst in at the end of this dramatic meeting and announce “We’re coming too!” before Pippin pipes up, “Right, so where are we going?”
These sweet, not too bright, but very courageous hobbits had no idea what they were in for.
My kids and I think it is funny because we love their combination of optimism and ignorance and we have found that we are often in situations where we have to decide quickly if we want to do something with no idea what will be the consequences.
This past week I was asked to be moderator at a fascinating conference held in the Sala della Regina (the Queen’s Room) in the Italian parliament building which was more or less asking that question, “Right, so where are we going?”
The title of the conference was far more intellectual: “The Decline of the West: In Search of Lost Identity. New Challenges and Strategies in an Era of Global Shifts.”
I work in TV News and I am used to short attention spans, my life is chopped up into soundbites and tweets — short and sweet (like Hobbits), so for me it was an unexpected pleasure to have to spend an entire day listening to intellectuals, ambassadors, military officials and diplomats expounding on the simple question of “Where are we going?”
Being a journalist, I felt it necessary to take notes throughout the day, so here is a brief summary of what was said which I found enlightening although inconclusive. I am basically quoting from my notes here, and none of the opinions are mine. Also, I am leaving out all the statistics and figures that were mentioned. Blog Readers who are not interested in international affairs can stop here.
First there was a fair amount of talk about history. A former Italian Foreign Minister noted that international politics has been a history of rise and fall, in the 17th century the world was euro-centric with Europe divided in nation-states characterized by professional armed forces, economies based on the accumulation of wealth and technological innovation. What we might be seeing now — the decline of the West and the rise of the East, is simply a reversal of an historical moment in the 16th century when the decline of the Chinese empire came as European naval expeditions and capabilities intensified.
In addition to this moment, many speakers mentioned other periods in history — the industrial revolution, the birth of Western Civilization in Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Venetian Republic.
Much of the conversation, however, was centred around what happened after the end of the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall went down, when the Soviet Union crumbled, and the US became the world’s only superpower, many thought it was the ultimate victory for democracy, free-market capitalism and the Western value system. Several people suggested that European nations should have seized the moment to assert a role at the centre of international politics. However, it wasn’t long before many people started looking back almost nostalgically at the bi-polar clarity of the Cold War. The tragedy in the Balkans was a clear indication of the European inability to unite in a post-Cold War era, as was the American ineffectiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the economic crisis in the first decade of the 21st century again have shown, in different ways, vulnerability, instability and uncertainty in the West.
A big focus of the conference was China and what many referred to as the “new Asian century” and either the “rise” or the “restoration” of Chinese hegemony. There was much discussion of how soon China will overtake the US in GDP. Many people spoke about the changes made at the recent 3rd Plenary Session of the Communist Party of China during which the party decided to lift the one-child only policy, make human rights reforms and ease up economic restrictions, liberalizing the economy. One American academic argued that the rise of China and the decline of the US will lead to geo-political instability and that China will become increasingly aggressive militarily in its region, in particular on the Korean Peninsula in the East and South China sea, and towards Taiwan. Other pointed out that the US will still dominate the world both economically and militarily for the foreseeable future, and that China still has a lot of problems to resolve before it can be any threat to the United States, noting that China has a “massive number of very poor people” and “What did China have to offer in the last few decades? Simply low cost labor.”
I was very interested to hear the Charge’ d’Affaires from the Chinese embassy in Italy give her talk. She opened by using a Chinese expression, “You cannot let a leaf block your view”, a Chinese version of , “you can’t see the forest for the trees,” implying that the group was perhaps missing the point on China. (China is not the big, bad wolf who is going to eat you all up, she seemed to be implying.) She spoke about the 3rd plenary session of the Chinese communist party and said that China is in a crucial phase when it has made simple reforms but now needs to tackle the big ones. She also insisted that China is a “responsible member of the international community” ready to work together with other nations through international organizations for the better future of all.
In addition to China, there was a talk about the other nations in the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa), many people mentioned the concern about the rapid, uncontrolled development, exploding populations, and little regard for damage to the environment.
There was a fair amount of justifiable hand-wringing about Europe. One speaker said, “why, 20 years after the Berlin Wall went down, do we have a culture of fear, uncertainty is contagious, we fear for our future, and our inability to control unemployment has created a fragility in Europe.” Several experts mentioned the difference between northern and southern Europe and the inability of Europe to create a unified political identity and effective governing system. Nearly all agreed on the importance for Europe to unify and expand its influence to Eastern Europe, and around the Mediterranean basin. One foreign policy expert pointed out that while John F. Kennedy went to Berlin and showed his solidarity with the people living at the centre of the Cold War conflict, by saying, “Ich Ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner), certainly Angela Merkel would have no intention of showing her solidarity with a economically struggling Greek population by declaring “I am Greek.” Many of the Europeans at the meeting spoke proudly of the continent’s intellectual and cultural past mentioning such greats as Plato, Aristotle and Euclid– a sort of “where would the world be without us?”
Views were varied when it came to the United States. An ambassador said that “America is not only the first and only global super-power, it is also likely to be the last”. A common view was “the US is losing the hegemony it has enjoyed since 1945”. There was a lot of criticism of the US for starting the financial crisis with one academic mentioning the “bankster-gangsters” who plunged the US and then Europe into recession with their irresponsible behavior. Several speakers spoke about the political gridlock in Washington and the “humiliation” of the government shutdown. One noted that the US is behind many OECD countries in such important indicators as health, education and infrastructure. But others were optimistic about the US saying it is making a comeback, it is emerging from the economic crisis, it is investing in technology, increasing its productivity and bringing jobs back to the US. The US is becoming energy self-sufficient and that is changing its geo-political outlook, particularly in the Middle East. Although it may be in “decline” many noted that the US is still the strongest economy in the world and the emerging markets are very dependent on what happens in the United States.
Throughout the day there were repeated references to the internet and the world being more interactive, but less coherent. One public policy expert argued that the US created the internet which has been a fundamental factor in globalization and it will be the key factor in bringing down American hegemony.
Several issues which emerged in various speeches were concern about the world’s demographics — declining population in Europe and rapid population growth in developing economies. The result is noticeable in Italy these days with the intense immigrant flow across the Mediterranean with migrants mostly from Africa willing to risk their lives to seek a better life in Europe. There was concern about global warming, what will happen to the world’s air and water, and if food production can keep up with population growth. Interestingly, throughout the day, concerns about terrorism were minimized and the general view was that Al-Qaeda can be contained. There was some talk about the needing to resolve the problem of the war in Syria, the instability in Egypt and sort relations with Iran, but no one seemed to think these are the world’s most urgent problems. Several academics mentioned the problem of “moral relativism” and decline of “values” in the West, but I couldn’t quite grasp exactly which “values” have been lost.
Finally, there was extensive talk about what is to be done, the ” Strategies in an Era of Global Shifts”. First on a national level in Italy, there was a feeling that Italians need to find a way to be competitive by maintaining the inventiveness, creativity and the quality of their products, and Italy needs to take advantage of its rich cultural patrimony. One professor mentioned a need for creative ways to get young people back to work in Europe and resolve the problem of massive youth unemployment. Many speakers insisted on more European unity and governance and expanding Europe to spread from Eastern Europe down to Northern Africa.
Everyone agreed on the importance of the US and Europe working together to promote common interests and values. One person called for the “re-birth of the trans-atlantic alliance” The sooner the free trade agreement known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TATIP) is implemented, the better, seemed to be the common feeling. That is expected to happen in 2014.
Everyone also seemed to agree that the West needs to invest in “global governance” through supranational institutions — the UN, the EU, the IMF and The World Bank, to name a few and that China needs to play a key role in them.
Heading out of the parliament building after a long day of listening to others pontificate, my heels may have been clicking on the cobblestones but I felt a bit like a naive, furry-footed hobbit unsure if I am headed back to the safety and coziness of The Shire or to the fiery chasms of Mordor.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.