The One-Note Superpower


By Fareed Zakaria

February 2, 2004 Issue

A funny thing has happened. While the war on terrorism has dominated headlines, the great engine of globalization has kept moving.

Covered in blankets of snow, Davos was looking stunning last weekend. The sight even moved the normally unflappable vice president of the United States. Dick Cheney began his speech to the World Economic Forum noting reflectively that settings like these force one to step back from day-to-day pressures and take "the long view." Unfortunately, his own address, well-crafted and thoughtful on its own terms, did not really take up that challenge.

Cheney spoke intelligently about the dangers of terrorism. He noted that today's technology makes possible the killing not just of 3,000 people, but 300,000. His solutions were persuasive: help end the ideologies of violence by promoting reform in the greater Middle East; increase cooperation among countries to battle terrorism, and if and when diplomacy fails, take decisive (meaning military) action.

But the speech fell flat. It's not that people at the conference disagreed with it. But it seemed quite disconnected from what they-politicians, businessmen, religious figures, social activists and writers from around the world-had been talking about and grappling with over the previous few days. You see, a funny thing has happened around the world over the past two years. While the war on terrorism has dominated headlines, the great engine of globalization has kept moving, rewarding some, punishing others, but always keeping up the pressure by increasing human contact, communication and competition. For almost every country today, its primary struggle centers on globalization issues-growth, poverty eradication, disease prevention, education, urbanization, the preservation of identity.

On all these, America is now largely silent. "It's not that we don't worry about terrorism," a head of government (of a pro-American country) said to me. But for him, as for other leaders, it's not how he sees the world: "I have to grapple with a different set of issues. And I have the feeling that the United States has gone off into its own universe and cannot hear or say anything to me about my problems." There is a disconnect between America and the world.

Of all the leaders who attended this meeting, no one could be more concerned with terrorists than President Musharraf of Pakistan. They have, after all, repeatedly threatened his life. Yet his schedule of private meetings, which were mainly with businessmen, reveal his priorities: investment, growth and development. Turkey has recently suffered terrorist attacks. But Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to impress on his audience Turkey's determination to meet the European Union's criteria for membership. Both leaders are showing flexibility on longstanding political disputes (Kashmir and Cyprus) because they realize that these are obstacles to their most important goal: modernization.

Most countries and companies see that globalization is creating enormous opportunities, but also new problems. "We have increasing global trade and commerce, but we still have a hodgepodge of differing standards for everything from earnings to ethics," said Jurgen Hambrecht, chairman of the board of the German company BASF. But Washington is not likely to take the lead on creating new standards or solutions, presumably because it somehow smacks of world government. Even in the war on terror, where the United States seeks (in Cheney's words) "greater cooperation," it has not tried to create a global system that shares information and creates common standards of security. Instead it prefers ad hoc measures. This lack of leadership means, ultimately, a less secure world.

Even in the economic realm there is no clear vision, and so countries are freelancing, jockeying for advantage. Developing nations that once feared globalization are beginning to learn how to use it to their advantage—sometimes ganging up during trade negotiations. Others cleverly combine populist measures with pro-growth policies. Thus Vladimir Putin jails oligarchs, yet opens up parts of Russia's economy. Brazil's Lula and Thailand's Thaksin speak of solidarity with the people even as they liberalize the economy. Most important, China is gaming the global capitalist system to its benefit—devoting immense resources and brainpower to its negotiations on trade, commerce and business law.

While Washington worries about traditional problems of empire—disorder on the periphery—there is a new globalizing world slowly taking shape, in search of leadership.

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