At the start of his final State of the Union address in January this year, President Obama struck a somber note. "We live in a time of extraordinary change," he said, "change that's reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet, our place in the world."
This should not be a cause for alarm, he went on, for "America has been through big changes before -- wars and depression, the influx of new immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, movements to expand civil rights." Citing the famous words of Abraham Lincoln, who warned that it was dangerous to adhere to the "dogmas of the quiet past," he urged Americans to once again think anew, and act anew -- to make "change work for us."
President Obama could equally well have referred to other figures in history who warned of the same perils of failing to adapt in a changing world. "A talent for following the ways of yesterday," declared King Wu-ling of Zhao in northeastern China, in 307 BC, "is not sufficient to improve the world of today."
Leaders in the past have always understood how important it was to keep up with the times.
To many living in North America and Europe, today's world looks unfamiliar, threatening and ominous. Sluggish economies, the closure of once-proud industries -- like motor manufacturing and the steel industry -- and rising levels of inequality have led the Financial Times to conclude that twenty-somethings in the Western world are part of a uniquely unlucky vintage, all but guaranteed to be worse off than the generation before them.
At home, elections are being fought out in terms of pessimism, exclusion and the raising of barriers. Literally. Talk of walls being built on the border between the United States and Mexico matches the reality of barbed wire being erected across the frontiers of the European Union. Anxiety about the future role of religious fundamentalism and the prospect of terror attacks strike fear into the hearts and minds of commuters, travelers and politicians alike. Marco Rubio even claimed to have spent his Christmas Eve buying a handgun "to protect [his] family" from the so-called Islamic State.
The age of the West is all but at an end when it comes to taking the lead and planning for the future.
The international picture is no less worrying. The dawn of the Arab Spring promised a wave of liberalism and a surge of democracy but has given way to a failing state in Libya, military dictatorship in Egypt and intolerance, suffering and fear across the Middle East. ISIS and its adherents seek to take control not only of territory and oil, but also of history -- destroying monuments from the past that clash with a censored vision of what the past should have looked like.
Few seem able to work out how to best engage with Moscow, whose interventions in Ukraine and Syria have proved deeply unsettling to governments in London, Berlin, Washington and elsewhere. After a long period of isolation and apparent confrontation, Iran is now being welcomed back into the family of nations, and not to universal applause -- the most unlikely of fellowships has united Israel and Saudi Arabia into a front that opposes Tehran's rehabilitation.
And then there is China, a rising source of alarm in the West even at a time of slower economic growth than in the recent past. The creation of artificial islands in and territorial claims over the South China Sea have resulted in the dispatch of a U.S. carrier strike group to monitor China's activities, raising the specter of potential military confrontation and escalation. And yet, on the other hand, the massive program of investment known as the "One Belt, One Road" initiative -- in which nearly $1 trillion has been committed to infrastructure projects that will generate energy, pump gas and oil, connect cities with super-fast railways and create and upgrade existing highways -- shows that the age of the West is all but at an end when it comes to taking the lead and planning for the future.
In today's world, hopes for growth have dramatically shunted east. Very few of the world's fastest growing economies in the last two decades are located in the Western hemisphere.
But where hopes for what tomorrow will bring have evaporated in many places in the West, they are still alive and well elsewhere. Those living along the arteries and veins that weave across the spine of Asia are seeing a renaissance. The web of routes known as the Silk Roads once carried merchants, missionaries, travelers and conquerors. They are now rising again. Iran is cash rich thanks to the end of sanctions; massive investment from China promises to transform the fortunes of Pakistan and many of the states of Central Asia. And even despite low oil and gas prices that have tempered exuberance, state-of-the-art airports, rail links and even new cities like Astana are rising up from the steppes.
Populations got along with each other despite linguistic, religious and ethnic differences in ways they did not in the world that views itself as the cradle of democracy.
The states of the Silk Roads -- a loose term for the land bridge that connects the eastern Mediterranean with the Pacific coast of China and Southeast Asia -- do not look, feel or function like countries in the West. Although elections are held in almost all the states -- from Turkey to Kazakhstan, from Russia to China, from Pakistan to Vietnam -- power lies in the hands of the few, not the many. Elites with interests and loyalties closely aligned to those of the leader are the real powers behind the throne. They provide the driving force when it comes to making decisions across business and industry, domestic politics, investment and international relations.
Freedom of speech, government transparency and basic human rights do not mean the same thing as they do in the West. And yet, looking back on the sweep of history, with surprisingly few exceptions, the peoples living across the spine of Asia have experienced different rhythms to those of Europe and the worlds that Europe colonized. In place of warfare and violence one finds cooperation and mutual understanding; by and large, populations got along with each other despite linguistic, religious and ethnic differences in ways that they did not in the world that views itself as the cradle of democracy.
In Europe in particular, we have learned at horrific cost what persecution because of skin color, religion, race or gender can result in: slavery, exclusion, even genocide. We learned the benefits of democracy not through enlightenment, but rather through aggressive exploitation. Perhaps it is no surprise, therefore, that we are also experiencing something of an existential crisis and concern for the safety of our own assumptions and norms.
The poisonous battle to secure the presidential nomination in the United States, along with the serious prospect of the dissolution of the European Union later this summer, betray a dismaying fall in self confidence. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the dream of many to move to Europe or to the United States -- the land of the free, the home of the brave -- where there were no barriers to advancement, no ceiling to where hard work could lead. That is no longer the case; Mexicans and Muslims find themselves the butt of rhetoric that borders on racial hatred. Fear breeds hatred and hatred brings suffering, to paraphrase a certain character from Star Wars.
Those who study the fall of empires recognize the pattern of introspection and self-satisfaction that creates a world of "us" and "them" in which our way is "superior" to those of other cultures, other peoples and other ways of functioning. Historians tend to be poor forecasters of the future. But looking at the present day through the lens of the recent and not so recent past provides food for thought, if not grounds for pessimism.
Failing to adapt to a changing world, as Presidents Lincoln and Obama noted, has consequences. But we've known that for millennia.
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