By Hugh Holland
The start of a new year with a new government in the USA may be a good time to think about which country(s) will lead the world in our grandchildren’s lifetime. Like any organization, the world will not lead itself. The USA has been the leading country since 1945. Will that continue? Who will lead in the future? Liberal democracy is still the overwhelming choice of most of the world’s almost eight billion people—when they have a choice. In this article, we explore how some notable countries have managed their own affairs and which of the aspiring superpowers could lead in the future. Let’s start by looking at some basic definitions and principles.
Politics is defined as the art and science of governing the total complex of relations between people. That is a tall order and ideally would be done in accordance with meeting the basic hierarchy of human needs.
True leaders have a strong sense of responsibility for engendering trust and empowering people with a sense of urgency toward fulfillment of basic human needs.
Power comes from the ability to get others to do what you want. The USA, China, and Russia have power from the scale of their populations, and economies and military assets, but smaller populations like New Zealand, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, and Germany can lead with good ideas and important achievements.
The United Nations, the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development), the G20, and other international institutions provide some basic measurements that national governments can use to assess and guide their progress, and they provide forums for cooperation and coordination of progress for the world.
This data shows how well some different countries are fulfilling the basic human needs of their population.
The following points are noteworthy:
- Too much inequality leads to social unrest, poverty, homelessness, addiction, and crime.
- The Scandinavian countries are not “socialist disasters”. Sales taxes are high but health care and education through post-graduate level are funded by taxes. That improves equality (wealthy people buy more stuff) which helps to balance economic incentive with social harmony. Their debt-to-GDP ratio is among the lowest. The result is a high quality of life. Americans condemn “socialism” without knowing what it means.
- Canada always ranks in the top 10 in democracy, education, quality of life, and happiness. We are less socialist than Europe but more socialist than the USA.
- In addition to reducing the EU population by 68 million, Brexit weakens the EU in several other ways.
- Since 1980, an extreme-right movement systematically changed US election campaign contribution laws and tax codes to favour the wealthy, resulting in a flawed democracy and high inequality.
- The USA has the highest GDP and GDP per capita. Median household income is high but when expensive private health insurance is deducted, the US advantage is diminished. Due to unfettered capitalism and inequality, financial incentive is ranked ahead of basic needs and social harmony.
- Russia and China are authoritarian regimes struggling to improve their economies and quality of life.
- China ranks #1 in education quality in main cities, but low in widespread coverage. Russia is the opposite.
- China has become a manufacturing powerhouse and China is expected to be #1 in GDP by 2030.
- China has an illogical combination of a liberal economic system and repressive politics. As China’s standard of living improves, it is likely the Chinese people will want more to say about how their country is governed.
- How much military spending is enough? Total NATO spending of $1,040 billion is four times China and 16 times Russia.
- General Eisenhauer said, “Every gun and warship built is a tax on those without food and shelter.”
- US military spending is three times China and 11 times Russia. Increases by one side provokes a response by others.
- Obsession with regional and military power is keeping Russia poor, and the USA poorer than it should be.
- Russia cannot afford to compete with conventional weapons, so they focus on nuclear and cyber weapons.
Here are some examples of US leadership in international diplomacy:
- 1920 – League of Nations after WW1 – Wilson (D)
- 1945 – United Nations after WW2 – Roosevelt (D)
- 1948 – The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after WW2 – Truman (D)
- 1948 – World Health Organization – Truman (D)
- 1949 – First leadership of NATO for shared security – Truman (D)
- 1968 – Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – Johnson (D)
- 1988 – Proposed the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change – GHW Bush (R)
- 1995 – World Trade Organization – Clinton (D)
- 2015 – Paris Agreement on Climate Change – Obama (D)
- 2015 – Iran Nuclear Agreement – Obama (D)
Unfortunately, Donald Trump was able to mislead large numbers of supporters to believe US problems were caused by other countries and he could fix their problems. He pulled back from the above agreements, debased US relationships and reputation, and added to US inequality. Hopefully, Trump will be a temporary aberration from which the US and the world will learn valuable lessons. President-Elect Biden will rejoin those agreements, but it will take years to rebuild US credibility and trust.
No country can escape the effects of global population growth, depleting resources, climate change, pandemics, and the resulting violent conflict and mass migration. Only diplomacy and international collaboration can solve those problems.
COVID-19 clearly shows that the mantra of small government, cutting taxes and weak regulations cannot solve today’s biggest national and global problems. COVID-19 shows that we need intelligent leadership, clear and strong guidelines, and governments with the means to facilitate effective solutions.
The Liberal International order has endured for 75 years simply because it is in everyone’s interest. The world’s natural resources are not equally distributed. Globalization is the only way to ensure that each country can get what it needs. For example, 85 per cent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves reside in only 15 of 200 countries.
Several smaller countries have achieved better ratings in democracy, equality, education, health care, and quality of life, but Russia, the USA, the EU, and China are the potential superpowers, and the USA and China are clearly ahead of the pack.
Given that the economy of China is likely to surpass the US by 2030, China is unlikely to accept US dominance. Even with an overwhelming military advantage, the US would bankrupt itself trying to defeat and control a nation of 1.4 billion people. That nearly happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therefore, a bipolar world seems inevitable. Bipolar is when the top two are miles ahead of the rest. It’s better to have China inside the global system than outside being resentful and disruptive. Bipolarity may be inevitable, but a cold war is a choice that can be avoided with diplomacy and the interdependency inherent in globalization and fair trade.
The United Nations and its many activities are not perfect. But the UN remains the best hope for minimizing confrontation and maximizing collaboration in a bipolar world. Our grandchildren’s lives depend on it.
Median household income by country (50 per cent are higher and 50 per cent are lower)
Perception of Election Integrity (PEI index) by Harvard and University of Sydney, Australia
Democracy index by country: The world Democracy Index is established by the Economist Economic Intelligence Unit. It rates 167 countries on electoral process, functioning of government, participation, political culture, civil liberties, and regime type.
Relative Size of Civil Service by Country: List of countries by public sector size – Wikipedia
10 lessons for a Post-Pandemic World – Book by Fareed Zakaria, Harvard PH.D. in Government
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