So, “forward” it goes. It’s a second chance more than a second mandate. This means that President Obama will need to make tough and thorough choices. Going forward can mean keeping the same old path, because moving is more important than being headed somewhere. That’s obstination more than progress. But going forward also means acknowledging that the country and the world are at the crossroads, and that a second chance is not about doing the same mistakes again but about learning the lessons and trying again, harder, with a new vision.
There’s the second chance for the political institutions of the American democracy. Its model based on the continuously new frontier to conquer is coming to an end. Because the United States is not anymore the young and restless country it has been. Because it’s not sure it is the land of equal opportunities anymore, as the top 1% is the only beneficiary of the economic growth of the last decades. Because it’s not anymore the generous melting pot of the past, when a white majority created a logic of rights and respect that gave all minorities their hope and their place. The new America will be an America without majority, this means an America with a balance, that moves forward, but even more importantly, that moves together.
The perspectives are not very bright. American elites are powerless. Washington is driving towards the fiscal cliff, each party clinging at one half of the wheel in such a way that no one can turn it, one way or the other. There’s a dim feeling that whoever is candidate, in the end, a few voters of eight or nine medium-sized states will make the call. There’s also the dim feeling that whoever is elected, it won’t make such a big difference.
Yet, there’s the aspiration for a reconciliation. Yet, the American people always found the strength to unite again when the forces of division were at their highest, after the Civil War, after the Great Depression, after the moral crisis of the seventies. In this sense, the deep divisions today are the signal of an awakening to come. Still, this means that a generation must rise to these expectations, this generation Romney called “the worst generation” in American history. This means bridging the gap between the parties, this means resisting the temptations of extremism among each electorate, this means advocating for a new form of political accountability. That’s the way to transform this second chance into a second life for democracy.
There’s also a second chance for the American economy that must be grasped. Yes there seems to be some sort of fragile economic recovery. But it’s not enough to bet on restarting a tired engine. Because you know it’ll fail again. The growth that is hoped for today may well be a false growth, a growth eating up today the grain that was meant to be sown tomorrow ; a growth preparing more difficult times ahead. In a nutshell, a second hand and not a second chance. Why? Because it’s a growth based on the same old advantages of the old economy : making labor force cheaper, making energy cheaper. But what are the consequences? The middle classes are under-investing in the “human capital”, in their education and in their health to keep their heads above water today. The shale gas extraction may well end with costly environmental prejudices. In the short term, it’s an incentive for industries and it may contribute creating up to 5 million industrial jobs, but in the long run it may harm investment and development, as it has done in almost all oil or gas-rich countries around the world. Will Dakota be the new petrostate of the world?
Some seem to think that this is the only way to rise to the Chinese challenge, but that’s not true. This strategy applies to competition with other industrial countries, mostly in Europe. The same economic war that European countries are engaging in with their policies of budgetary austerity. Keeping ahead of China would be a very different challenge. It would mean betting on good basic education for all and a strong higher education at the same time. It would mean investing in green technologies and renewable energies, as Obama’ explained very well in 2008.
A second chance also on the world scene in a changing world that might well not wait for the Western world. We are now part of the Old world. Multipolarity is not a project, it’s an economic, political and cultural reality now. In fact it’s a world with three fragile empires. And this year, all three of them have come to choose their emperors. This year, the three empires are facing tough choices for their future.
Look to your West, beyond the Pacific, and you’ll see a rising empire, China. If you look closer, you’ll see that it’s weaker than it seems, at the eve of changing its key players in thursday’s 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. And this Congress will probably be more important than Tuesday’s election, even if it has not the Hollywood glimmer and glamour that captivates the world. The red emperors are facing social unrest everywhere in China, they are facing an unparalleled crisis of legitimacy. The deal with Chinese Society -silence traded for growth- is becoming more and more complicated : growth is in jeopardy and massive corruption asks for more and more silence. Several major leaders have been put into question in the last months in different scandals. I believe this crisis has a deeper cause. The corrupt elites are the symptom of a dead end in the Chinese development path. The Chinese are facing a choice : either continuing an export-driven manufacturing boom for which increading pressure on social demands for decent salaries and rights is needed, that’s to say a severe grip of the political elites on the social system with a strong police ; either engaging in fundamental change by rebalancing the economic system through interior demand with the high risk of less growth in the near term, that’s to say enough confidence of the people in the elites to leap into thirty more years of “enlightened leadership” with perhaps, in the end, more democratic rights, less inequalities.
The failure of the Chinese political system today is making this choice very difficult.
Look eastwards, and you’ll see another empire, struggling for survival, that’s Europe. For sure, this distant heir of the Roman Empire is stricken with contradictions, insufficiencies and failures, and it looks much more like the Holy German Empire of the 18th century, weak, divided, even falling apart, an empty shell. Last march, the president of the Union, Herman Van Rompuy was chosen for a second mandate. Let’s be honest, this wasn’t tremendous news. This emperor has less power than the Japanese Emperor in his palace. What historians will say in hindsight is : the true power was in the hands of the German chancellor. But Germany must still learn to take into account the moods and demands of his equals, the other heads of State of Europe. Europe has a millennial history of failing empires. Still it always was able to move forward. And I believe Europe will in the future, with its unique mix of idealism and pragmatism. It’s easy today to blame everything that doesn’t work on Europe. There’s no leadership, there’s no vision, there’s even no reason. But here too, the political blockade with the absurd and melodramatic sequence of “last chance summits” of the three last years is only the symptom. Europe has come to the end of one strategy, the pragmatic convergence after centuries of wars. We created federal institutions in silence, without the power to drive them. That’s the key question for the euro. Here too, the failure of Europe’s political elites, because they are stuck in national party politics and can’t promote a real and realistic European agenda is in the way. Still there are hopes, because the institutions can evolve, for example the European Parliament who could stimulate a continent-wide debate and come to choose the European Commission after 2014.
Last of all, look at yourselves. The American Empire too is at the crossroads. Here again, it’s all about tough choices that, because they are not made, begin to fragilize the elites and the common institutions. America’s choice is the choice of its place in the world. The leading nation must make the choice between remaining the leader of a dwindling West, that will need to be more and more aggressive so as to be heard, or becoming a mirror of the world, like all Empires in history who have had a second chance, Rome for instance. They will need to look at the South within themselves, that has the face of dozens of millions of legal but also illegal immigrants from Latin America. The United States need to become a collective power, sharing decisions so as to share responsibilities.
Fleeing away from responsibilities because of the legacy of bad wars, turning towards the cocoon of isolationism is not the solution. Second thoughts are not second chances. It’s about transforming the words of 2008 into actions, because it is still possible. I believe if President Obama uses the four years that he has ahead, he can make the difference in the Middle East, in Central Asia, in Africa. What has been sown needs to be grown and harvested.
In fact, today, these three choices of the three great powers are linked together. America’s choice and Europe’s choice – our choices- are only a part of the solution. They have a common cause: globalization. In the last thirty years, there has been an unprecedented wave that swept over the world, that has led to unify, to compare, to simplify the world. Massive powers have been unleashed, among which greed that has broken the traditional balance of the elites within each culture. Now, the very rich of this world seem to enter a time of secession, where their only goal is to live together apart from the rest of the world, apart from their own people.
America’s, Europe’s and China’s choices must be the cornerstones of a major global choice between anarchy or common good : this means rebalancing globalization, defining institutions for a worldwide governance and tackling the common global challenges of this century, for Latin America, for Africa, for South-East Asia.
2012 must become the second chance of the world, not only for America.
7th November 2012, Huffington Post