We all remember one phrase from the first presidential campaign by a Clinton.
When Bill Clinton was running for the job in the early 1990’s, one of his staff explained what the central issue in the election was. “It’s the economy, stupid. he said. Economics explains all – jobs, prices, savings, houses. It determines the public mood and sets the political agenda.
The point is reinforced by a curious glossy magazine advertisement that you might have seen recently. It is for expensive luggage. Mikhail Gorbachev sits in the back of a limousine. He is being driven past the Berlin Wall. On the seat next to him is the luxury brand, a leather attaché case. The message?
Who cares about the Wall; forget politics; money rules.
Maybe that’s really how it is. Today the world wrestles with the consequences of America’s addiction to borrowing and with the greed and stupidity of many global banks. Drivers grumble at the cost of filling their cars’ gas tanks. Housewives in poor countries – and in better-off countries, too – despair at the rising cost of feeding their families. In Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, their husbands and sons riot over food prices.
So the economy is the big story. But two others jostle for our attention. They tell us a lot about the politics of the world in a new century. It’s not only the economy that matters, after all.
First, there is Tibet, where apparently the local economy has been growing fast. This does not seem to have impressed the Tibetans. Last year, it was Burma’s Buddhist monks who were shot and beaten with batons. This year it is monks in Tibet.
The history is complicated. But I have no problem in accepting that Tibet is part of China. Many Chinese dissidents take the same view. It seems to be the Dalai Lama’s opinion as well. But can that position be sustained only through state violence?
The Dalai Lama is not a devious terrorist. China does itself no favors by remaining time-warped in the Maoist 1960’s when discussing this issue.
The Chinese have been so smart in so many areas. They devised the “one country, two systems formula for Hong Kong. Is it really beyond the capacity of their political system to work out a formula for Tibet that recognizes its cultural and religious autonomy within the Chinese state?
I hope that this issue does not derail the Chinese effort to use the Olympics as an opportunity to show the world that their country has emerged again as one of the world’s leaders. It would make no sense at all to boycott the Games. A boycott would merely provoke nationalist hostility in China. But those who attend the Games should not be placed under any constraints about giving their views – if they have any – politely but firmly about human rights.
What has happened in China economically in the last 25 years is momentous. China has become the workshop of the world. Its success is not a threat to the rest of us. It is good news for everyone. Momentous, sure – but China is not yet a superpower. It is not a mark of a superpower’s quiet, self-confident authority to beat up Buddhist monks and attack their spiritual leader.
The other big global political story is the American presidential election. This is super-charged American soft power.
A tight contest between the two Democrats, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, has yet to be resolved. Waiting to take on the winner is a tough genuine war hero, John McCain.
The contest between Obama and Clinton, though it has produced some lamentable protectionist sentiments, has captured the world’s attention.
Obama himself represents two qualities that enthuse many people, not just the young.
Obama’s success demonstrates that the United States is still the land of opportunity. If he were to win the election, imagine the impact on the world of his first speech from the podium to the United Nations General Assembly.
He would be there as president of the most globalized country in the world; in a sense he would be everyone’s president.
Second, he does democratic politics a service. Like an earlier son of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, he believes that the average man and woman are a great deal better than average.
Faced with the embarrassment of his pastor’s views on race and on America, Obama did not go into a huddle with spin-doctors to fathom how he should deal with the problem. Instead, he delivered a thoughtful, eloquent, and moving speech about race. He treated the issue head-on, and intelligently. Confronted with an awkward problem, he responded with reason. Whatever else happens in the presidential race, that speech marked a special moment.
So why is all of this – Tibet on the one hand and American soft power on the other – so significant? It’s simple. The century ahead will not be a struggle between China and the US for global leadership. This is not a balance-of-power gladiatorial contest. There will, however, be a battle of ideas.
Does the world want and need Leninism with its shopping malls? Do governments have to lock up dissidents in order to deliver prosperity? Or does the world want the sort of freedom that embraces politics as well as economics?
That is what my children would call a “no brainer.
Chris Patten, a member of the British House of Lords, is a former Governor of Hong Kong and European Commissioner for External Affairs. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and Co-Chair of the International Crisis Group. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).