Europeans and Americans fail to realise that the future lies in the east
I feel sometimes as if I live in two worlds. When I am back in old Blighty, I am surrounded by the old and familiar concerns: New Labour, Europe, the Middle East and the rest. If you live in Britain, you will know what I mean – except you won’t, because you will take it for granted that this is what the world is all about. But it provides a very misleading perspective. Why? Because we are increasingly a sideshow, living on the margins of the forces that are transforming the world. When I am back home I sometimes feel as if I am living in a time warp.
My other world is where I am now. I happen to be based in Singapore for four months. But I am not talking about Singapore as such, but east Asia. If you want to understand the future, this is where to be. It may now be a cliche, but it is no less true for that. East Asia – driven by China – is in the process of remaking the world. For two centuries, Europe was the epicentre of the world – no more; now it is here, or will be very soon.
It is difficult living in two worlds – especially when it is the world called home that is becoming more and more parochial and less and less able to understand the wider world. It is becalmed, bemused, defensive, increasingly introverted and fearful. But there aren’t many people I can talk to about it – you see, not surprisingly they are part of the problem.
The preoccupation with the Middle East has only fuelled this problem. I recently wrote a Guardian comment piece attacking European attitudes towards the Danish cartoons. I got 350 emails for my sins. Plenty agreed, but there was an extremely disturbing number that showed a violent, intolerant and ignorant attitude towards Muslims. It was scary. It felt as if I was living at the time of the Crusades. If that is the trough that Europe is descending into, then I fear for its future. What the hell is Europe going to be like when it has to defer to Beijing and Delhi as the new global centres?
But it isn’t just a European problem. The worst, the most aggressive, the most racist responses came from the United States. Reading them made it all too easy to understand the physical abuse that has been heaped on the Iraqis by US soldiers. How are Americans going to react to their country’s decline and the rise of China and India? At the moment they don’t believe it could possibly happen. Despite the disgraceful mess they have made of Iraq, they are still gung-ho. They are still convinced it is the right of God’s chosen people to boss the world. And 9/11, unilateralism, and the invasion of Iraq have hugely encouraged that.
I suspect, though, that it was all a huge historical miscalculation. Always beware your moment of triumphalism: such emotions are a poor steer on the future. And that future is not primarily about the Middle East, but east Asia. Condoleeza Rice is presently touring east Asian capitals giving thinly-veiled threats about the rise of China. The Americans are beginning to get worried. And they should be too.
But I worry about the future too. For rather different reasons. How are the United States and Europe going to adjust to a world in which they are no longer the masters? That moment is fast approaching. My advice: watch this space and hold on tight.