Cat Stevens once posited how 'the first cut is the deepest'. In the same vein, one might argue the last cry is the loudest. Australians should know something along these lines, how the sweetest song of their thornbirds is sung just before they die. A television movie of the same name, starring Richard Chamberlain, depicted just as much. Yet, might this also be the fate of countries, the loudest noise emanating from their policy-makers when the country is all but sunk?
It may be a useful prism to interpret current developments. Donald J. Trump illustrates it most vividly for the United States. Is he ranting so often, frequently misleadingly, but almost always rocking the boat somewhere, with someone, over something as trivial as a Rosie O'Donnell exchange, or earth-chattering as Kim Jong-un testing his intercontinental ballistic missiles, or China packing ships with low-wage products for high-revenue U.S. sales?
If so, as scattered evidences suggest, he may not be the only one. Vladimir Putin seems to be on a crusade to prove a point most likely related to denying Russia's fading global stature. Kim has been verbally more ballistic than his father and grandfather, an outburst conceivably reflecting his country's more dire economic conditions now that sanctions have eroded his several other options. If Brexit raised furore, one can be sure Britain's plight is not as abject as perhaps North Korea, Russia, or the United States, but it does ring a bell that things are not going as well as expected, and indeed, remedies may be getting harder to find. In spite of his dramatic victory, that too with an absolute parliament majority, Emmanuel Macron also seems to be on the edge, and rightfully so: his country has been struggling economically, to the point of breakdown. Even Angela Merkel's sedate ways may be signalling some fast-approaching moment of a verbal explosion.
Something is amiss in all of these hitherto very stable countries, and it is unlikely to be a pleasant discovery. For some it could be slipping ranks, that is, becoming uncompetitive (the United States leads this list, but Britain, France, and many other industrialised countries have been moaning and groaning unusually this century), others could be closer to a complete bust, or bankruptcy (North Korea for sure, but France and Italy may be more precipitously positioned than their names warrant), while yet others may be more concerned about a loss of face than the pains of actual decline (Putin falls solidly in this camp).
Adding up should not be joyful exercise, since more countries may be crying from pain than those that the unaffected can nurse back to health. Circumstances like this often correlate with war or an economic slump. Indeed, at this moment in any historical flow, there happens to be more conflicts than at any given time before: they are local (Palestine), national (Syria), regional (Iran), and global (nuclear missile testing). There also seems to be a recession that refuses to ease: Japan's, from 1990, set the tone, but the post-2008-10 Great Recession pains just do not seem to end, and every uplifting moment represents just a tiny increment, but even as they become so far and few in between, they still rally a resounding upbeat mood. This is particularly evident in growth-rate climbs: any fractional increase in typically developed countries summons the widest smile one can muster these days, and reason enough to party, whereas in other countries, like China and Japan, unless they are tangibly bigger, the response remains muted.
Therefore, Kim's nuclear missile testing may have been a last desperate call for sanctions to be lifted, and if that entailed breaking the diplomatic ice with South Korea or the United States, so be it. If this reasoning is true, watch out for the Kim-Trump summit: the sooner the more urgent the crisis. As of this last week of May, when this piece is being penned, that might also explain Trump's predicament: the quick summit to revive his personal fortunes, given the creeping feeling getting closer to Mueller's investigation coming to an end, and thereby some potential indictment of the president, or the financial plight of the United States, standing, as it does, as the world's largest indebted country with most of that debt owed to none other than its greatest rival, China. [Trump-Kim summit took place on June 12.]
Putin's plight may be his ego: his country's economic credentials are such that other countries can actually ignore it, and no better a way for a trained KGB officer to combat that by going to extremes, like using poison or eavesdropping across boundaries to blackmail. If Russia's case is ego-driven, France's must be reputation-shattering, Germany's command-faltering against the refugee deluge, and so forth.
Most troubling about the times is that it is more fertile with all kinds of innovations, mostly software propelled. Yet, that may be why the malaise: more inventions mean more infrastructure-building, less cash to spare, and a competition trap. Training would fall short, services would follow trade and investment by migrating abroad, and once begun, the flux can easily be undone. Very, very few individuals within any country hope to benefit from the cut-throat competition entailed in innovation proliferation; indeed, very few countries hope to benefit from this scramble as well. Even when they do, the future mileage is increasingly diminishing: as one innovation displaces another from a slightly earlier era, more innovations and multiplications of them mean the time to savour them get shorter and shorter. Even before the 'current' one is consummated, a new replacement hits the market.
No wonder so many people/countries seem to be crying out loud. The only sober thought is simply this: this is the best we can have, since every year into the future, the cries will only get louder, even more explosive. We better get used to shutting out the noise before they shut us down.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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