We have entered a new age that promises great things but also poses unprecedented challenges. However, our mind-set remains in the 20th Century, and this overhang may be the most punishing constraint that we face today. This is borne out by the elderly world leadership and concepts and frameworks of a past era that continues to guide our thoughts, concepts, language, and policies. Thus, the first question that we must ask is-- can we, i.e., people largely drawn from the 'boomer' generation, take the world forward safely and guide the ship of humanity to a safe port? I am not optimistic - in my view our generation has failed, and the leadership should now pass to the next, post-boomer generation. We may take note of the major shifts in the horizon that have emerged as challenges.
First, with the drifting of global geopolitics, a clear re-alignment of forces is taking shape - stemming mainly from the fear of a rising China that has grown from strength to strength both economically and militarily. These shifts may promote a new cold war - which if not stalled, may easily turn distinctly hotter.
That the West should look at China with considerable unease is not unexpected although it is pertinent to ask how Western powers are entitled to exert power and influence far from their shores all over the world while China cannot even look over its shoulder to its immediate neighbourhood without being labelled an expansionist harbouring evil designs?
I expect that after the initial China-shock waves have subsided, it should yield to soul-searching in the international community as to how to accommodate the new China, and come to a shared understanding of each other's role in the world.
The rest of the (non super-power) world is not interested in taking sides with one power or the other but would instead want to be left alone to pursue an honourable, independent and dignified path to fulfill their own destinies.
Secondly, the commitment of the West to liberalism of the 1990s introduced by the Bretton Woods institutions has been weakened by two sets of dynamics not necessarily unrelated to each other. At one level, an important segment of experts in the US feel that liberalism has back-fired as far as US and Western interests are concerned although it is clear, that it has immensely benefited China, and Asia in general.
Liberalism and the China-engagement which was based on the presumption that economic freedom and growth will lead to the rise of a large, committed private sector in China and elsewhere - actually did happen. In fact, the scale and magnitude of the success belied all expectations. Curiously, countries that benefited the most were in East Asia led by China - countries that were largely authoritarian.
The other assumption was that market-led, private-sector mediated growth will also encourage China and other beneficiary countries to embrace democratic values and institutions. This did not happen. In fact we have seen the rise of authoritarian trends even in avowedly democratic countries, including India.
Thirdly, that humanity faces is much graver - the looming climate emergency which appears to be already on our doorsteps can no longer be ignored. It is a momentous time, and the decision that we (the boomers) take today will determine whether humankind will survive or go extinct. No greater threat can be imagined, and yet, powerful, big, polluting countries and corporations find themselves unable to garner the will to take the right actions, and are failing to act decisively to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, reduce methane emissions, and commit to a reversal of a consumption style that is totally misaligned with sustainable goals.
The talk instead continues to be of growth in GDP, liberalisation, open markets, and the emulation of an undesirable lifestyle based on high consumption - consumption of vast quantities of energy-dense meat, continued use of dirty fuel while demonstrating greater and greater intolerance of basic human freedoms including the right to disagree.
The fourth challenge is COVID 19 and a future characterised by newer, more frequent bouts of powerful viruses. The power of the virus has been amply demonstrated and human beings will need to develop institutions that can quickly come to its rescue. The need will be to generate international commons managed by appropriate international bodies within an acceptable and fair framework. The vaccine inequality that we witness today is shameful, and not a good basis to build an international consensus to battle global emergencies or plead for a 'new world order based on shared values'.
The fifth challenge is technology. At one level, this is about how the world, and especially the poorer developing countries are going to be able to deal with 4IR. Profound changes in the labour market are being predicted and the way we think about production and consumption may change dramatically. The challenge has equally dramatic implications for advanced countries which may themselves be faced with large, redundant work forces which nevertheless will need to be 'employed' and provided with basic consumption goods, health, and education services.
In the context of technology, there is another vital aspect. Historically, technology or scientific advancement has come to our rescue repeatedly - for example, allowing us to bypass the Malthusian population debacle as it allowed our food production to stay ahead of population growth, enabling high growth based on the Industrial Revolution, prolonging our lives through medical advancement, and ushering in an era of unprecedented, widely shared wealth and prosperity. Can technology deliver us once again from imminent extinction by reversing carbon and methane emissions? Can it drive common sense and a common cause to our world leadership?
What is needed is unprecedented cooperation, collaboration and consensus, and the creation of institutions that will oversee a safe transition away from the suicidal course that the world currently finds itself in. It is in this context that a new world order is needed - a new world order for trade, for energy use, for generation of the needed technology, for sharing technology, knowledge and skills. Given the looming emergency, we need to shed all other differences and agree to fulfill our duties in an orderly, respectful, and sincere manner to create an inclusive framework that sets aside rivalries and works purposefully towards preservation of the global commons, indeed of humanity itself.
The old universal human values did not work. So obviously we need new ones. But do we? First of all I would maintain that the old values did not fail. It's simply the case that the old values enshrined in the UN charter of human rights were never taken seriously by anyone. While these were uttered at regular frequency to much applause, nobody really took those seriously. Western leaders and their allies uttered all the right words and phrases but did not practise what they preached, and often hid behind lies and deceit as was so dramatically exposed in Iraq. So let me say this clearly - there was nothing wrong with the 'old values' - what was wrong was to weaponise them in the interest of less noble pursuits.
IN SEARCH OF A CHINESE VISION?: This question has been discussed by Western experts who have concluded that China has not shared its vision of the world. Attempts to decipher official Chinese policy with regard to its world vision proved 'excruciating'. As Simon Leys wrote, this was like "..Interpreting nonexistent Inscriptions written in invisible ink on a blank page," China File, October 11, 1990. The world and China have come a long way since then; nevertheless this interpretation of Chinese policy opacity remains valid.
China needs to come away from this opacity and allow a bit of light to expose its inner workings in order for the world to understand it better. Part of the fear of China possibly stems from this lack of transparency.
CONCLUSION: What we should do is rally together in the realisation that we face several unprecedented, existential challenges which requires global goodwill and cooperation. We must as human beings, be able to generate the creativity and commitment to forge new values, aspirations and world institutions that can carry us safely into the future. Therefore, a new kind of world leadership is required - much more enlightened, humane, compassionate, and willing to compromise in the interest of human self-preservation.
Dr K A S Murshid is Economist, and former Director-General, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS)
This article is an abridged version of the paper presented at a conference hosted by the Centre for China and Globalisation on December 15, 2021