April 27th, 2012
02:10 PM ET

Haass: To the victors go the foils

Editor's Note: Richard N. Haass, formerly Director of Policy Planning in the U.S. State Department, is President of The Council on Foreign Relations. For more from Haass, visit Project Syndicate's excellent new website or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Richard N. Haass, Project Syndicate

A surprising number of elections and political transitions is scheduled to occur over the coming months. An incomplete list includes Russia, China, France, the United States, Egypt, Mexico, and South Korea.

At first glance, these countries have little in common. Some are well-established democracies; some are authoritarian systems; and others are somewhere in between. Yet, for all of their differences, these governments – and the individuals who will lead them – face many of the same challenges. Three stand out.

The first is that no country is entirely its own master. In today’s world, no country enjoys total autonomy or independence. To one degree or another, all depend on access to foreign markets to sell their manufactured goods, agricultural products, resources, or services – or to supply them. None can eliminate economic competition with others over access to third-country markets. Many countries require capital inflows to finance investment or official debt. Global supply and demand largely set oil and gas prices. Economic interdependence and the vulnerability associated with it is an inescapable fact of contemporary life.

But economic dependence on others is not the only international reality with which governments must contend. It is equally difficult – if not impossible – for countries to isolate themselves from terrorism, weapons, pandemic disease, or climate change.

After all, borders are not impermeable. On the contrary, globalization – the immense flow across borders of people, ideas, greenhouse gases, goods, services, currencies, commodities, television and radio signals, drugs, weapons, emails, viruses (computer and biological), and a good deal else – is a defining reality of our time. Few of the challenges that it raises can be met unilaterally; more often than not, cooperation, compromise, and a degree of multilateralism are essential.

A second universal challenge is technology. George Orwell’s vision of 1984 could hardly have been more wrong, because the hallmark of modern technology is not Big Brother, but decentralization. More computing power can now be held on a desktop or in a person’s hand than could be gathered in a room only a generation ago.

As a result, people everywhere now have more access to more sources of information than ever before. making it increasingly difficult for governments to control, much less monopolize, the flow of knowledge. Citizens also have a growing ability through mobile phones and social networking to communicate directly and discreetly with one another.

One consequence of this trend is that authoritarian governments can no longer wield control over their citizens as easily as they once did. Technology is, no doubt, one explanation for the uprisings that we are seeing in much of the Arab world. But modern technology also has implications for well-established democracies. It is far more difficult to generate social consensus and to govern in a world in which citizens can choose what they read, watch, and listen to, and with whom they talk.

A third widespread challenge that awaits emerging leaders is the inescapable reality that citizens’ demands increasingly overwhelm the capacity to satisfy them. This was always true in the so-called developing (and often relatively poor) world. But now it is also the case in the relatively well-off mature democracies, as well as among those countries that have been growing fastest.

Economic growth is slower in many cases than the historic norm. This is readily apparent for much of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. But growth is also slowing in China and India, which together account for more than one-third of the world’s population. Unemployment rates are high, especially in the U.S. and Western Europe, and especially among the young and those nearing the end of their careers (but who are still expected to live for decades). More worrying still, much of this will translate into long-term unemployment.

The net result of these economic and demographic shifts is that a growing share of national income is now being directed to provide health, pensions, and other forms of basic support, while a declining percentage of citizens in nearly every society is now working to support a growing number of fellow citizens. This rising dependency ratio is made worse by widening economic inequality; as more wealth is concentrated in fewer hands, the promise of ever-improving standards of living for most people may not be fulfilled.

Together, these three trends – a loss of economic and physical autonomy, the diffusion of information technology, and slower growth against a backdrop of larger and older populations – will create enormous political challenges in virtually every country. Demands are mounting at the same time as the ability of governments to satisfy them is diminishing. The leaders who will take power after this year’s transitions will confront this fundamental reality.

Leaders will also have to confront the byproducts of increased nationalism, populism, and, in some cases, extremism. Hostility to immigration and economic protectionism, already visible, can be projected to increase.

These developments within countries will make more difficult the challenge of generating global consensus on how to meet threats beyond borders: as governing successfully at home becomes more difficult, so will governing abroad. For citizens and leaders alike, tough times lie ahead.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Richard Haass.

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Topics: Elections

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. ellect mccain for vice president


    April 27, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Whether Romney or Obama wins this fall's election, this country loses either way! Besides, who in their right mind wants to see such a right-wing wacko like John McCain get elected anyway? He is so ignorant on foreign affairs and believes that only brute force will solve anything at all.

      April 27, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
      • Jack

        Say what you will, but McCain was at least a decent fellow, if mistaken on many things. The same cannot be said for Romney.

        Of course, you're right, in that the positions of Democrats and Republicans are virtually identical, orbiting the same point on the political spectrum, and the election of one or the other won't cause much difference in the capitalistic domination of the economic oligarchy of the rich.

        May 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  2. joe anon 1

    the u.s. is certainly attempting to contain freedoms. way aheaD of china in the totalitarian race. in fact, china has a greater respect for its 99% than does nazi america.

    sorry, ww2 germany. everyone knows zionism and capitalism are far more brutal and crueler than the "evil" nazis.

    richard haas is a lying mouth piece for imperial capitalism and zionism.

    haas, screw off! no one needs to hear, read, see you or your ilk.

    April 27, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well put, joe. Thank you.

      April 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  3. ✠ RZ ✠

    This article fairly describes the curent status of a number of countries. One only needs to look around, listen, and live it to see it. And although the underlying causes, as described, do have validity amd pertinence, they are by no means the entire reason for the mess that we're all in today. The author forgot to mention that many governments are only working in their own self-interests, and that this time, they really, really messed up bad.

    April 27, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  4. ronnie simmons

    what Leslie implied I am blown away that any one able to get paid $8584 in 4 weeks on the computer. did you read this link NUTTYRICHdotcom

    April 28, 2012 at 3:52 am | Reply
    • ✠ RZ ✠

      No. You stink of troll.

      April 28, 2012 at 7:21 am | Reply
  5. krm1007

    The problem is that the world currently lacks leadership. Look around at the heads of states of most countries and you will find clowns at the helm with no vision where the world or their countries are or should be going. UN should be dissolved and in place a world government needs to emerge that considers the entire world as a country called Earth. See how fast all the global problems disappear. Let's do it!

    April 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      The very last thing we need krm1007, is a one-world government, especially one dominated by the right-wing thugs in Washington. The clowns in Washington already have far too much control in the affairs of other countries thus creating many of the world's current problems!!!

      April 29, 2012 at 10:10 am | Reply
      • krm1007

        Yes we do, George Patton. It does not have to be Washington dominated.as it will be democratically elected. The goal is to end dominance of anyone power. The point is, collectively, we need to be taking humanity towards a common goal rather than at the whims of singular powers. Let's do it. You heard it on CNN !!!

        April 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Perhaps in twenty years when we look back, we might think that life hadn't been as black as Mr. Haass depicted!

    April 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  7. deniz boro

    It is the best summary I have read on current and future conditions. There can only be humble suggestions to be made to this reality. I will try to add a woman's touch by reminding of the flow of every waterway (best pictured in Smetana's Mldava). It will take too long to start from the spring so I will lead you to a region where a tributary mixes in the main stream. There are many back-currents while both waters run in parallel without intermixing for a while. Or an area where all the water body is forced to run in between rocks. The power of water may be distructive but also may be turned into generating useful power....There are many lessons to learn from the course of water. Maybe the most important one is that it can not be barred, it will find a way and reach an equal level. Underlying that all civilizations were founded on waterways, may I suggest that people interested in social and economic conditions to take a look at the course of water?

    April 29, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Reply
    • ✠ RZ ✠  

      Great analogy, but keep in mind that the path of least resistance never leads to higher ground.

      April 30, 2012 at 8:28 am | Reply
      • deniz boro

        It does actually, Up to the clouds:)

        May 1, 2012 at 5:24 pm |

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