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The U.S. and the world in an Age of Anxiety

Marketplace Staff Feb 21, 2011

The U.S. and the world in an Age of Anxiety

Marketplace Staff Feb 21, 2011


Tess Vigeland: Mitchell Hartman mentioned earlier that the U.S. has very little trade with Libya, meaning little leverage to affect the outcome of the unrest there.

That plays into what Gideon Rachman calls the “Age of Anxiety,” one in which international cooperation has given way to conflict. Rachman is chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, and his new book is called “Zero-Sum Future.” Gideon Rachman, nice to have you with us.

Gideon Rachman: Nice to talk to you.

Vigeland: Your book divides the past 30 years into three epochs. Walk us through what those are.

Rachman: Well the first era I call the Age of Transformation, from ’78 to ’91, which is when the whole world, all the world’s major powers, essentially become advocates of globalization. It begins with the opening of China in 1978, you get the collapse of the Soviet system in the late ’80s, the opening of India in 1991. So by the end of that period, you’ve got a single globalized capitalist system. Then there’s about a 20-year period after the end of the Cold War, which I call the Age of Optimism. That’s the period when I think all the world’s major powers feel comfortable with their place in the world. Then you get the economic crash of 2008, and that I think changes the whole dynamic of international politics and creates what I call an Age of Anxiety, when there’s much more doubt about globalization, particularly in the West and about a sense that we in the West are seeing a transfer of economic and political power from West to East. And that that’s causing rising political tensions.

Vigeland: So if you have a winner, then you have to have a loser. So if China’s on the rise, then by definition, somebody else has to be going down.

Rachman: Yeah, in the globalization era, the idea was that everybody’s a winner. And that is common economic trade theory, that both sides benefit from the trading relationship. And one has to say that that is what leaders continue to insist is the case. But actually, I think if you see the way that the two countries — the U.S. and China — are treating each other, increasingly there is a sense that while a more powerful China is perhaps at the expense of American power in the world. I think even in the European Union, which has really been built around win-win economic logic, that we all get richer together and we kind of more friendly as a result — in the new economic climate, the big recession, actually you see increasing tensions between say, Germany and outlying countries such as Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal.

Vigeland: Well of course now, the world’s focus is on what’s happening in the Middle East. I wonder if we could talk about how the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and some of these other democratic movements that are gaining ground there, play into your notion of a zero-sum future?

Rachman: I think it could fit either narrative, to be honest. I think it’s too early to tell. In some senses, it fits the narrative of this Age of Optimism, when the Americans believed very strongly that there was a global free market wave, and also global democratic wave. I have to say, I think in common thoughts with people, I’m a bit more gloomy than that. I think that it’s perhaps more likely to fit the narrative I call the Age of Anxiety, which is characterized by growing political instability in a sense of a diminishing American ability to control events around the world.

Vigeland: What if, anything, can the U.S. or any other world player for that matter, do to bring this Age of Anxiety to an end — perhaps rebuild what we saw before the economic crash? Or is that simply just a bygone era?

Rachman: It’s never going to be exactly the same. I mean, I think there are reasons for hoping that maybe this will be a transitional period of heightened anxiety and that liberal values, which have proved pretty resilient in the past — I mean liberal in the economic and political democratic sense — that they will resurge. But I think there’s both an international and domestic element to that. I think internationally, there’s not much you can do other than continuing to work away at trying to find these elusive international agreements on things like climate change, the management of political change in the Middle East and so on. But perhaps even more important is the self-confidence of our own societies. I think you in the United States, us in the Europe, need to rediscover the resilience and the economic dynamism of our own societies, and from that, flows confidence and also power to influence the world.

Vigeland: Gideon Rachman is the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times in London. His new book’s called “Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety.” Thank you so much for joining us.

Rachman: Thank you.

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