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MARGARET WENTE

The world's problems are so big, and our politicians are so small Add to ...

Luckily for our weary brains, there’s always a lot of news you can skip. Consider this week’s drama at the United Nations, where the Palestinians (or some of them, anyway) are pushing for recognition as a state. Vast amounts of air time are being devoted to whether this is good or bad, and how the votes are lining up, and how awkward this development may be for Barack Obama. But, really, you can find all you need to know in one short story in Friday’s Globe and Mail.

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In it, Patrick Martin, our man in the Middle East, interviews a bunch of young people on both sides. When the 1993 Oslo “peace process” began, they were babies. Today, none think there’s any hope of peace. Many young Palestinians oppose the bid for statehood, because they think the entire state of Israel belongs to them. Many young Israelis believe the Palestinians will just keep attacking them no matter what.

For the past 18 years, many of the world’s most powerful men and women have worked strenuously to impose peace on the Israelis and the Palestinians, who together occupy a piece of real estate that’s smaller than Nova Scotia. Yet, peace is as far away as ever. And nothing that happens at the UN is going to change that.

But it’s not just the Middle East they can’t fix. On the biggest issues of the day, our leaders seem more powerless than ever. The European Union is coming unglued. The United States is stuck in the slough of despond. Even if our leaders knew what to do, they seem incapable of doing it.

In the heroic version of history, extraordinary times produce extraordinary men. When the U.S. was on its knees, it produced FDR. When Britain was threatened by Hitler, along came Churchill. Today, great men are absent. Instead, the EU has faceless Eurocrats such as Jean-Claude Trichet, the man who runs the European Central Bank, and divided leaders who continue to insist that Greece will not default, even though everyone knows it’s just a matter of time. Back in the days of 2008, people could at least count on the central banks to get together and figure out a bailout plan. This time, that’s not going to happen.

The EU, as it turns out, has suffered from the same delusions that doomed the Mideast peace talks. The leaders thought you could change human behaviour from the top down. They thought you could make people figure out how to divide up a piece of land and get along. They thought you could make the Greeks behave like Germans because they share a currency. They ignored all the evidence. Culture matters more than policy and good intentions.

The other unpleasant fact of modern times is that some problems are too big to fix. We’re still under the illusion – relentlessly promoted by politicians – that if only we push the right policy buttons or pull the correct levers, our problems will be solved. “Mr. President, we need jobs,” one newspaper headline implored, as if Barack Obama could slide down the chimney and leave some jobs under the Christmas tree. But it’s far from clear that either the Democrats or the Republicans or even Santa Claus himself knows how to speed up job creation. What’s clear is that businesses are unlikely to create jobs so long as stock markets keep plummeting, European banks remain on the verge of failing, and political leaders appear impotent.

Which brings me to Mr. Obama. A devastating new book by journalist Ron Suskind ( Confidence Men) paints a picture of a brilliant amateur who was over his head, unable to effectively manage the economic crisis he inherited. It’s not the accounts of factionalism and infighting that are so damning – most administrations have plenty of that. It’s the failure of leadership. As Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, is quoted as saying, “Obama is smart, but smart is not enough. Leadership is another thing entirely, about knowing your mind enough to make real decisions, ones that last.”

It could be worse. U.S. voters could have elected John McCain (along with you-know-who). And it’s entirely unclear whether anyone in Mr. Obama’s shoes could have done much better. He was dealt a rotten hand of cards. But he hasn’t played them all that well. I hate to say it, but I think Bill Clinton might’ve done better. (Mr. Clinton obviously thinks so, too.)

Something in the air is changing in Canada, too, and it’s not just the weather. Some people are telling me that business is falling off a cliff. Others are battening down the hatches. One person I know is closing his offices – after 25 years – to save on overhead. “We’re going virtual,” he says. “From now on, we’re all going to work from home.”

It’s easy to be gloomy when the markets are tanking and the days are getting shorter. As one analyst puts it, “some days it feels as if the end of the world is knocking at the door.” I wouldn’t go that far. But I think we’re experiencing a new normal, when economic shocks and radical uncertainty are simply a fact of life. The old answers aren’t working any more, and no one knows what will.

 

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