Drifting towards the rapids

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Today's lack of leadership could make tomorrow far more dangerous, argues Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, a former EU commissioner for external affairs and chancellor of the University of Oxford.

The following contribution is authored by Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, a former EU commissioner for external affairs and chancellor of the University of Oxford.

"We are told that we live in anxious times, with lots to worry about and no more comforting certainty. But just how comfortable were all those past certainties, anyway?

I grew up in a world in which peace and stability were assured by the threat of global nuclear annihilation. My first term at university coincided with the Cuban missile crisis. The Communist East glowered over the Berlin Wall at the democratic and capitalist West. The two sides fought proxy wars in Africa and Asia. Tens of thousands died to hold democracy's frontline in Vietnam, where foreigners now rush to invest their money. Hundreds of millions were shut out of global prosperity in China and India by the madness of Mao Zedong and the misguided socialism of the Congress Party.

Were those really better times? And what are the big problems today that should cause us to lose sleep?

Well, first and foremost, today's problems are the result of past success. There are four times more people in the world than there were a hundred years ago, producing 40 times as much output and spewing 17 times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That is the existential issue confronting the world, to which our response remains hopelessly inadequate.

Second, we find ourselves in the unusual position of having a global leader – the United States – that is also the world's biggest debtor. If America had not in the past borrowed so much, the world would not have grown so fast. The US was more the world's emporium than its imperium. But just think how different everything would look if America had a trade surplus and a more manageable level of domestic borrowing than the $14 trillion run-up in debt by credit-card holders before 2007.

Third, as has always happened in the past, the world is trying with some difficulty to adjust to the arrival of a new and very big kid on the block. China has been the world's largest country for millennia, and until the mid-nineteenth century it was the largest economy, too – mainly because it had so many consumers and producers. That will soon be the case again, even though in terms of per capita wealth China ranks roughly 100th in the world, trailing Albania."

To read the op-ed in full, please click here.

(Published in partnership with Project Syndicate.)

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