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End of the world as we knew it

by John Kornblum, Advisory Board

End of the world as we knew it

The Atlantic world as we have known it is coming to an end. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is time finally to bid farewell to our tidy post-war community.

Our economic and political lives are being turned on end, not by emerging powers, but by the products of our own ingenuity. No part of the globe can avoid the revolutionary effects of high-speed information and logistics networks, which are being created by western values and technology. Economic life is now based on a globally integrated 24 hour cycle, which has redefined traditional concepts of time and space. Workers and managers live within a seamless web of influences which function without reference to geography or to central authority.

We should not assume that either the Atlantic world or emerging societies will escape the effects of today’s dramatic technological change. Human society will be altered as fundamentally in the next 50 years as it was during the industrial revolution in the 19th century. To find the right answers to the challenges we must learn to ask the right questions.

It is unlikely that new and old powers will confront each other directly in conflicts over markets or resources, as so many now seem to fear. Instead both are already enmeshed in global networks where cooperation is often the best foundation for successful competition. The new benchmark of global political and commercial influence will be success in managing these complex network relationships. The NATO action in Libya is an early example.

Our future will be determined less by outdated concepts of geopolitics, than by our ability to apply intellectual leadership to the design and direction of this new type of global integration. By intellectual leadership I do not mean scholarship, invention or even ideas as such, but rather the ability to demonstrate initiative in finding ways to meet the changing needs of society and to make them a reality.

America will continue as the world’s most influential nation, even though US interest in active management is steadily declining. The US is not well suited to maintaining a multipolar political world, but it has an uncanny ability to project its values across time and space. Its rapidly growing population will do the rest. Europeans seem slow to understand that their economies can flourish only if their community is redefined on a global plane. As a result, they lack strategic vision and are short of tools for influence. Although its companies are rapidly spreading globally, the EU’s only roadmap for the global future is a 20-page treaty which outlines its internal bureaucracy. In coming years, European nations are likely to abandon hopes of an independent global role and increasingly to seek cover from the US. There is no other option.

Most intellectual leadership today comes from technological innovators. We are dangerously behind when it comes to building a new synthesis of values across the spectrum. Closing this gap is likely require a form of self-regulation – already applied in global corporations – in which underlying values serve not as rules, but as the basic operating system for increasingly autonomous integrated political and economic networks.

The most important remaining task will be to ensure that network processes do not develop into value-free zones. This would be a recipe for disarray and conflict. The good news is that for all the talk about state capitalism, one thing is certain: open societies can best meet the challenges of the radically new era ahead.

Our liberal values are the most pragmatic foundation for such self-regulation. Innovation works best in open societies which encourage dialogue and risk-taking. Helping establish these skills in societies around the world will be a service to the cause of sustaining justice, prosperity and peace in the turbulent years which lie before us.