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William Thorsell
William Thorsell

William Thorsell

In these new books, a global future of power and technology emerges Add to ...

The jury read 22 books this year to determine the winner of the 2013 Lionel Gelber Prize for the best work in English on international relations. At the outset, the list appeared to be hugely eclectic, ranging from Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum, to Pakistan on the Brink by Ahmed Rashid, Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror by Matthew Aid, Soldaten by Soenke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, and the eventual winner, Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland.

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In reading these books, however, two familiar themes came through with clarity: The locus of global power is shifting dramatically from a minority of the world’s population (the “West”) to the majority who live elsewhere. And technology has dramatically expanded the tools of global competition to include many more nuclear players, cyber warfare, and remote deadly weapons such as drones.

Overarching these basic trends is the rise of a small global economic elite – the 0.1 per cent of plutocrats – unmoored from nation states, forming what Ms. Freeland calls “a virtual nation of mammon.” The interests and culture of this mobile, denaturalized elite grow ever more distinct from the rest, even as its influence over the world expands.

Perhaps the single most compelling paragraph describing the necessary shift of our perspective from west to east comes from Pankaj Mishra in From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia:

“For most people in Europe and America, the history of the twentieth century is still largely defined by the two world wars and the long nuclear standoff with Soviet Communism. But it is now clearer that the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European empires. To acknowledge this is to understand the world not only as it exists today, but also how it is continuing to be remade not so much in the image of the West as in accordance with the aspirations and longings of former subject peoples.”

This profound historic evolution informed the selection of last year’s Gelber Prize winner – Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiao Ping and the Transformation of China. The jury described Mr. Deng as the most significant person so far in the twenty-first century, given his critical role in the liberation of China’s economy from communism and its integration into global markets.

While the Chinese still speak of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” we are really observing the fervent re-emergence of Chinese civilization itself, with its strong trading and entrepreneurial roots. This is more like “China with socialist characteristics” inspired less by European Marxism than the dirigiste tradition of Chinese dynasties themselves. We are witness to a profound intellectual and cultural renaissance in China, quite opposite to Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which sought to obliterate any remnant of Chinese civilization. China is fully embracing itself again, loosing on the world enormous dynamism and focus – the liberation of its very history from Western subjugation (including Communism) in the twentieth century.

Mr. Mishra describes the roots of this great revival in China, India and the Middle East with enormous originality and authority. Other books on the Gelber list pile on: Fredrik Logevall’s superb portrait of Vietnam’s tragic struggle for autonomy in Embers of War; S.C.M. Paine’s revelatory The Wars for Asia 1911-1949; Kwasi Kwarteng’s Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World; and Hanoi’s War by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen.

In these books, a younger generation of writers with cultural traditions beyond the West is altering our perception of the 20th Century itself just in time to better understand the 21st. Current conflicts between the United States and Iran, Pakistan, the Taliban and Iraq can be much better understood through the broader lens of history provided by Mr. Mishra and his contemporaries. If the 20th Century saw the emancipation of the world’s human majority from colonialism, the 21st Century will see their preponderant influence on global relations, culture and development. But what kind of influence?

This will occur in the context of two other significant trends: new technologies and new elites.

In Intel Wars and in The Twilight War by David Crist, we see the arrival of transformative cyber tools and remote warfare through drones as instruments of international relations. Together with nuclearized regional conflicts in the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and the Korean peninsula, described by Paul Bracken in The Second Nuclear Age, we live with radical new, material dangers requiring nimble shifts in strategy and organization.

For example, crippling the power grid in the American northeast for one month in January via computer worms would likely see an explosion of social harm and conflict within the United States as devastating as a major physical attack, but with no material investment by the cloaked aggressor. There are many cyber routes to disaster. Who is most likely to employ them?

If technology is creating stark new threats, it is also creating fabulous new opportunities for wealth creation and accumulation. In Plutocrats, this year’s Gelber Prize winner Chrystia Freeland explains the rise of the top 0.1 per cent of billionaires largely as the product of new technologies in a globalizing marketplace. This offers enormous scope for entrepreneurs to vault over existing technological paradigms on a global scale, reaping unprecedented economic rewards as a consequence.

These are largely self-made men – the “working rich” – who operate in their “own global gated community” and affect the fates of billions of people worldwide. Ms. Freeland describes this elite through personal stories that, individually, inspire. But in aggregate, the potential of this group to distort democracy and depress the social mobility of billions presents a growing danger.

The relative power of plutocrats is greatest in the emerging economies of the world’s majority: China, India, Brazil, Russia. Moscow is home to 78 billionaires, New York City to only 58. Russia’s billionaires could buy 20 per cent of that country’s GDP; America’s billionaires could buy only 10 per cent of the U.S. GDP. The behaviour of the world’s majority in this century will be strongly coloured by how its especially powerful plutocrats deploy their unprecedented resources. There are no guarantees about how they will do so.

“There are lots of reasons to be worried about the rise of the plutocrats,” says Ms. Freeland. “The impact that soaring inequality has on civic values, on crime rates, on morality, or even according to some studies, on health.”

She sees a bigger danger though: “As the people at the very top become ever richer, they have an even greater ability to tilt the rules of the game in their favour. That power can be hard to resist.” A myopic plutocracy could create potent conditions for widespread social unrest. A myopic plutocracy with hands on the new technologies of war could do worse.

To read the 22 books on the full Gelber list this year is to realize with clarity that new populations led by new elites employing new technologies will define much of the global experience in this century. To comprehend this well is a precondition to an intelligent response.

William Thorsell, a former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, is Jury Chair for the Lionel Gelber Prize, presented by the Lionel Gelber Foundation and administered through the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in cooperation with Foreign Policy magazine, Washington, D.C. Chrystia Freeland will give a lecture based on Plutocrats at the Munk School on April 15.

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