The world is shrinking, but not so neatly

BY SIMEON TALLEY | JUNE 19, 2009 7:21 AM

The world is changing. But you’ve probably heard this before; most are familiar with Thomas Friedman’s argument that the world is flat. Or, maybe you’ve read Fareed Zakaria’s book The Post-American World, in which he describes the changes taking place in the world as the rise of a new set of powers that will rival the United States. Regardless, that the world is changing and that there are a host of emerging countries asserting themselves and challenging the United States on the global stage may be nothing new.

What you know, and what we all are increasingly becoming aware of, is that the world will look, feel, and work differently sooner rather than later. Yet many of those who write about the world — those who attempt to explain the world in a unifying theory of “everything” — unfortunately get it wrong. It’s like the story of the blindfolded wise men attempting to describe the elephant; they’re so certain in their own truth and how they see the world they end up completely getting it all wrong. Many lack the imagination and creativity to describe this world and the changes that are taking place. The world is changing, true, but not in a way that neatly fits or uniformly aligns with current explanations.

A group of countries that don’t have Western cultural orientations, such as China, India, Brazil, and Turkey, is growing in influence. New international institutions are forming, and old international institutions will be reshaped to account for these changes or may become irrelevant. Large corporations that span borders exert more influence on more people living in many different countries than at anytime in history. Technology has allowed individuals to connect to each other irrespective of time and distance. Globalization, that seemingly irresistible force, has both created a world that is mutually interdependent and deeply divided. All this and much more is taking place at an amazing pace and depth.

Problems new and old persist. The challenges that confront the world in the 21st century are not isolated to any single country or to any one group of people; they affect all, regardless of nationality, religion, or income.

But you know all of this. You’ve heard over and over about China and deficits. You understand that traditional definitions of power are changing as evidenced by the limits of American military power in Iraq or against Al Qaeda. Even if Friedman and Zakaria mean nothing to you, you get it. But why does all of this matter and why is this important to you? What does any of this have to do with you, where you live and the aspirations you have for your life? It matters precisely because the world is changing. Our responsibilities to and our possibilities in the world and to each other have also changed. What all of this implies is that we will have to change as well. We can no longer continue to do what we are doing as individuals, as an institution of higher learning, and as a country. It’s not simply being culturally aware or having an appreciation for cultures outside one’s own that will suffice in this new world. We need to rethink how we define what our community is and who belongs in it.

In February 2008, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn remarked at the end of a speech to the World Affairs Councils of America: “My message to you is not one of hopelessness but of realism: our world is changing. And you can make a hell of a difference by stimulating debate on these subjects and getting our children to understand that the world they will inherit from us is a very different world.”

What is happening in our world does not lend itself to one simple or grand narrative; rather numerous narratives best describe what is happening. A narrative of progress but also of persistent inequality. A narrative of promise and possibility, yet, if we don’t collectively act on issues such as climate change, we all might see disaster in our lifetimes. The world is changing in ways known and unknown. Yet, while the world changes and increases in complexity everyday, the simple fact is and will continue to be that you can make a hell of a difference in it.

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