Review: Two Lodestar Books for the World Ahead

by Michael Marien, April 5, 2021

Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World.
Fareed Zakaria.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2020, 307p, $26.95.

The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions.
Jeffrey D. Sachs.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2020, 262p, $24.95.

The COVID-19 pandemic, officially announced by WHO in March 2020, has brought widespread death, long-haul disability, and economic and mental distress to many, albeit unevenly within and between countries.   Despite ramping up of vaccine production and distribution, COVID is not yet tamed, due to new variants spreading worldwide and vaccine hesitancy or outright rejection, varying, for example, by some 10% in China to 40% in France.

Nevertheless, we can look forward to a post-pandemic world where the virus will likely not be eliminated, but at least tamed.  And, in the tug between returning to normal and moving to a new normal, what lessons should we consider from the pandemic?  These two books under review address this question as well as anyone, and serve as exemplars of wide-ranging well-documented multidisciplinarity.  They also complement each other in several ways.

Fareed Zakaria, a well-known figure who has served in various editor positions with Foreign Affairs, Newsweek International, and Time, and currently writes a weekly column for The Washington Post while hosting an international affairs show for the Cable News Network, gets right to the point with his “ten lessons.”

Zakaria begins by describing COVID-19 as an “asymmetric shock”—an event that starts out small and ends up “sending seismic waves around the world.”  A tiny viral particle from China that “has brought the world to its knees,” demonstrating how small changes like a single software glitch can have big consequences.  “Since 1990, sudden, massive seizures have gripped the world—about one every ten years—with cascading effects.  We will have more.

They don’t happen by conscious design, but neither are they entirely accidental.  They seem to be an inherent element of the international system we have built.  We need to understand that system…in order to see the emerging post-pandemic world.” (p.12)  Ten lessons follow.

  1. Buckle Up. The pandemic has upturned many of our daily patterns and assumptions. But, Zakaria writes, it has highlighted one of the oldest truths about international life: that ultimately, countries are on their own, even in the EU.  Yet our highly dynamic form of global capitalism can result in supercharged growth, but also financial crashes.  We have created a world that is always in overdrive, with the pace quickening in the past few decades. People are living longer, producing and consuming more, inhabiting larger spaces, consuming more energy, and generating more waste and greenhouse gas emissions.  Biodiversity is disappearing and ecosystems are collapsing.  “We have to recognize the ever-greater risks we are taking and act to mitigate them.”  We are not doomed, but we need to take action that balances dynamism with safety.  Most urgently, countries need strong public health systems that learn from and cooperate with one another.
  2. Quality of Government Matters, Not Quantity. After an important and compelling first chapter, this second “lesson” is largely out-of-date, in that most of it is devoted to the Trump administration’s “delayed, weak, and erratic response.”  The new Biden regime, thankfully, exudes competence and compassion.  Zakaria references growing up in India, where a large bureaucracy was “a model of incompetence and inefficiency, destroying India’s prospects for decades.”  Good government is about limited power but clear lines of authority, with bright and devoted people who serve their country and earn respect for doing it.  The chapter begins by noting the October 2019 Johns Hopkins University Health Security Index, ranking the US as #1 and the UK as #2 among 189 countries in preparedness for a pandemic, which they obviously were not.  However, it was stressed that all countries were unprepared.
  3. Markets are Not Enough. The liberation of markets over the past decades has produced growth and innovation, but also “an impoverished public sector, rising inequality, a trend toward monopolies, and a political system bought by the rich and powerful.”  But the pandemic “has come along at a moment in history when there is much greater dissatisfaction with the economic system.”  The textbook definition of socialism is government ownership of the means of production.  But today‘s meaning is quite different, where self-professed socialists such as Bernie Sanders want greater government investment, new and expanded safety nets, a Green New Deal, and higher taxes on the rich.  The pendulum is now swinging toward properly tailored regulations and tax policies to help workers more and capital less.  [NOTE:  This lesson may be a no-brainer for many Europeans, but largely aspirational for Americans, where the old definition of socialism is still used to pummel Democrats.  Still, there are many promises of a swinging pendulum in Biden Administration policies, albeit politically fragile.]
  4. People Should Listen to Experts—and Experts Should Listen to People. “Now that the world has experienced a global pandemic, it should have become painfully clear that people need to listen to experts.”  But that has not happened in many countries, notably Brazil, Mexico, the UK and the US.  The core of the new populism—“the most significant political trend on the last decade”—is a deep antipathy toward the establishment, and the pandemic has widened this division.  But “the world has gotten very complicated, so we will need more experts, not fewer.”  The alternative—government by gut and the celebration of ignorance—is unthinkable in the modern age.  Still, “experts and elites should take greater pains to think about how to connect with people and keep their needs front and center.”  There are many examples of experts who develop empathy despite being in positions of great power.  And the public can grasp nuance if presented honestly.
  5. Life Is Increasingly Digital. Over the last two decades, we have seen the rise of a digital economy, with much of the world connected by 2018.  COVID-19 removed the one remaining obstacle: human attitudes.  The pandemic and lockdowns compelled changes in behavior, and a new normal now exists.  The pandemic served as a forced mass product testing for digital life, and many technological tools passed.  The most significant resulting trends are to more closely tie work to life at home, thus reducing commuting and office space, and providing health care at a distance.  Medicine will also be transformed by artificial intelligence, where machines are already on a par with or outperforming doctors.  The most lasting effect of COVID on AI will likely be the rise of robots that will reduce health risks and safeguard productivity.  Some jobs will go away, but overall productivity will rise, and “everyone’s quality of life could improve.”
  6. Cities Will Grow and Endure. The intermingling of people in cities has always made them vector-rich venues for disease.  Pandemics will always hit cities first because they are the most globalized parts of any country.  But in most nations, the disease soon spreads to suburbia and the countryside, with many areas facing worse per capita death rates from COVID.  And good public policy can make city life safe.  Prophets of urban decline point to Zoom and other work-at-home tools, but remote work is an imperfect substitute for actual human contact, and there are deep urges for social interaction.  In 1900, there were only 15 cities with a million people; by 2000 the number was 371, and by 2030 it will surpass 700, with 40 megacities of 10 million people or more.  “No rural awakening is at hand.”  Most of those leaving large cities are relocating within their metro region or relocating to smaller cities.
  7. Inequality Will Get Worse. Pandemics should be the great equalizer.  But COVID-19 is “the great unequalizer,” which may erase many of the gains made by developing countries over the last quarter century, and “return us to a world of great and widening global inequality.”  The density of work and living quarters, poor sanitary conditions, and sparse hospitals and ventilators in lower income countries are a combustible mixture.  In many developing countries, large segments of the population make just enough each day to feed their families; if governments shut down the economy, people starve; if they keep it open, the virus spreads.  There is also the debt crisis, capital flight from emerging markets, loss of remittances, and loss of income from many countries that depend on tourism (e.g. Thailand and Mexico).  Moreover, “the retreat to safety and security will manifest itself in corporate life, where the big will get bigger,” which accelerates an ongoing trend.  Large digital companies will continue to flourish, as people live a more digital life.  Large firms have stronger lines of credit, and wider networks of supply and demand.  Within the US, COVID will widen inequality, where poor urban neighborhoods and minorities in general have higher infection and fatality rates, in part due to preexisting conditions and the necessity to work outside of their homes.
  8. Globalization Is Not Dead. Concerns about COVID and globalization “have rapidly congealed into the notion that the pandemic will unravel our interconnected world.” People have been warning of globalization’s demise for decades, and books have been written decrying it.  But “globalization is “easy to hate, convenient to target, and impossible to stop.”  The current argument against it is that we are too intertwined and have lost control over our own destiny, and that global supply chains make us vulnerable to critical shortages.  Short-term effects of the pandemic and lockdowns will probably grow into a phase of modest deglobalization.   But the biggest recent shift in global economics has been the rise of the booming digital economy, which is by nature global.  The rate of increase may slow or pull back modestly, but there are too many structural forces pushing globalization forward.
  9. The World Is Becoming Bipolar. “The sense of shock prompted by the pandemic and America’s hapless response was real…COVID-19 did not just accelerate talk about American decline; it did so in the context of concerns about the rise of China.”  Washington’s ineffectual pandemic response was set against Beijing’s effective taming, and America’s decaying infrastructure was often compared with China’s gleaming cities and competence.  Arguments for American decline are not new, and could be another mistaken case of doom and gloom.  In any event, “China has arrived.”  It has been the single largest source of recent global growth, and is now the world’s leading manufacturer and trading nation.  One can now see the outlines of a bipolar international system, where the two top powers are far ahead of all the others.  “Bipolarity is inevitable; (but) a cold war is a choice.
  10. Sometimes the Greatest Realists Are the Idealists. COVID-19 is a global phenomenon that has, paradoxically, caused nations everywhere to turn inward—to hunker down, shut their borders, and make their own plans for recovery.  At this point, restoring an American-dominated international order is not possible: too many new powers are rising, and too many new forces have been unleashed.  But America could play a pivotal role in this new era as the leading power, setting the agenda, forming coalitions, and organizing collective action.  If it works, “an international system that gives greater voice to more countries would result in a more vibrant democratic system… (and) offers a chance to solve common problems.”  Climate change is the most dramatic example.  The liberal international order of our time is incomplete and has many faults.  But, on the whole, it has bettered the lives of more people than any previous system.  “The idealism underlying liberalism is simple and practical: if people cooperate, they will achieve better outcomes and more durable solutions than they could acting alone.  If nations can avoid war, their people will lead longer, richer, and more secure lives.”

Zakaria concludes that “Nothing Is Written.”  The pandemic has upended society, but “people can choose which direction they want to push themselves, their societies, and their world.”  The rich are getting richer and the big are getting bigger.  Technology is moving so fast that humans may lose control over their own creations.  Globalization will persist, but opposition to it is growing louder.  The US and China are headed toward a bitter confrontation.  And “we could settle into a world of slow growth, increasing natural dangers, and rising inequality.”  Or we could choose to act forcefully, making “massive new investments to equip people with the skills and security they need in an age of bewildering change.”  There will never be a global “one world government,” a phrase designed to scare people.  What exists, and what we need more of, is global governance among nations to solve common problems.

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     Jeffrey Sachs is University Professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.  He played a leading role in shaping the UN’s Millennial Development Goals and the successor Sustainable Development Goals, and is the author of The Age of Sustainable Development (2015) and A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism (2018), both from Columbia University Press.

The Ages of Globalization “is about the complexities of globalization.”  The COVID-19 pandemic hit as the book was going to press.  But the Preface notes that “the new coronavirus reminds us yet again that the benefits of global trade and travel have always been accompanied by the global spread of disease.”  Development of vaccines and new drugs to fight COVID is a global effort, and distribution will also require cooperation.
The core of the book describes seven ages: The Paleolithic Age of hunting and gathering (70,000-10,000 BCE), The Neolithic Age of diffusing agriculture within ecological zones (10,000-3,000 BCE), The Equestrian Age of animal domestication (3000-1000 BCE), The Classical Age of land-based empires (1000 BCE – 1500 CE), The Ocean Age of high seas navigation (1500-1800), The Industrial Age of an energy-rich economy and the beginnings of global governance (1800-2000), and The Digital Age of the 21st century, with its challenges of sustainable development, inequality, planetary boundaries, and risks of China-US conflict.
The final 20-page chapter, “Guiding Globalization in the 21st Century,” is highly recommended as a succinct and readable overview of five “large goals” to effectively govern a globally interconnected world.

  1. Sustainable Development. The key to well-being is the triple bottom line of pursuing wealth, lower levels of inequality, and environmental sustainability.  “It must be the essential vision for our time.”  The 1987 Bruntland report of the Commission on Environment and Development introduced the concept of sustainable development, adopted by the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.  But follow-up results were “distressingly small,” and human-induced global warming continued unabated, while destruction of biodiversity accelerated.  At a follow-up conference in 2012, governments decided to launch an Agenda 2030 set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  To achieve the goals, we “need to look to the future in a systematic and rational manner.”  Planning is crucial for success, and “part of successful planning will be multidimensional systems thinking.”
    Also needed is an active interchange of ideas, global R&D cooperation, rapid dissemination of best practices across countries, a great amount of consensus building, and ESG standards for investing.
  2. Social-Democratic Ethos.  UN member states are pursuing the SDGs with widely varying degrees of consistency and commitment.  Some are on track to achieve most or all of the SDGs, including decarbonized energy systems and reduced inequality.  The countries at the global forefront are in northern Europe.  These countries also have the highest levels of self-reported life satisfaction, and share a philosophy of “social democracy,” which includes a market economy with private ownership, combined with a high level of worker unionization, labor rights, paid family leave and ample vacation time, and public finance of quality healthcare and education.  This “middle way” strategy will be even more important in the Digital Age, as more and more jobs are displaced by smart machines.  To insure that all parts of society benefit from technological advances, public policies will have to tax the winners to ensure human rights to healthcare, education, and social protection
  3. Subsidiarity and the Public Sphere.  The doctrine of subsidiarity holds that provision of public goods and services should be managed at the lowest feasible scale of governance.  “A major policy challenge is to set the right boundaries between the private and public sectors, and between the public sectors at varying political scales.”  Some public goods are most effectively provided locally, e.g.: schools, clinics, police, and roads.  Other public goods are national, such as defense and a national highway system.  Still others are transnational or regional, such as diversion of river flows, flood control, hydroelectric power, and navigation rights.  Others are continental, such as major transport systems, long-distance power transmission, transboundary pollution control, and protecting biodiversity and ecosystems shared by many nations, e.g.: the Amazon Basin’s nine countries.  A growing number of public goods are global, such as climate change, epidemic disease control, international tax evasion, nuclear non-proliferation, and development assistance for poor countries.  “In the 21st century, many dimensions of sustainable development will require goods on a multi-country or global scale.
  4. Reforming the United Nations. The UN was established in 1945, and now has 193 member states.  Yet it remains a mid-20th century institution guided by rules laid down by the US in 1945.  Most important, the five victorious allied powers (Soviet Union, UK, US, France, and China) were given special status as permanent members of the UN Security Council, with a veto over its decisions and any subsequent change in the UN Charter.  The Security Council currently has 15 members, the P5 plus 10 rotating seats with two-year terms and no veto power.  The global center of gravity is shifting toward Asia and Africa, but their underrepresentation is one of the glaring weaknesses on the UN system today.  Sachs proposes a reformed Security Council expanded to 21 seats, with six new permanent members: Brazil, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Nigeria.  But even this modest change would involve a relative diminution of power of the P5 countries.  “Reform will come when the US and the other P5 members finally appreciate that a healthy and vibrant UN is essential for global peace and security, including the P5 countries themselves.
  5. Ethics in Action for a Common Plan. “The challenge of globalization from the earliest days has been the lack of consensus.”  Our species has evolved for cooperation within our clan, while equally primed for conflict with the “other.”  Pope Francis wrote in 2015 that “A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems which cannot be resolved…by individual countries.”  To take up this challenge, Sachs recently co-led a multi-faith effort to find a common basis underlying global action for sustainable development.  Leaders of the world’s major faiths (Christianity,  Shia and Sunni Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and First Nation beliefs), as well as secular ethicists, gathered over two years to forge a common framework that could engage communities across the divisions of faith, culture, race, and ethnicity.  Three moral precepts common to all the world’s faiths were identified: 1) the Golden Rule of reciprocity; 2) giving due attention to the poor; and 3) protecting creation—the physical Earth on which our survival depends.  “These principles can be the building blocks of a common global plan for sustainable development, if politics does not get in the way.”  Our common fate does not mean homogeneity, but “a global society strengthened by distinctive cultures in a world made safe for diversity…facing the interactions of geography, technology, and institutions.”

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  In sum, our changing world of still-growing human population is increasingly awash in information—books, reports, articles, blogs, videos, films, social media postings—as well as disinformation.  Overall, where are we headed globally and what should we do to secure a future for ourselves and our children?  How can global leadership for the critical decades ahead be oriented?

Each of the two books reviewed here can provide an intelligent starting point.  Both are amply documented: Zakaria has 61 pages of endnotes (but no index), and Sachs provides 24 pages of notes and bibliography, as well as a helpful index.  And both are quite readable, despite the impressive multi-disciplinary scholarship.
Either book can serve as a worthy lodestar for leaders and citizens.  But they are ever better considered together.  Zakaria covers current trends and short-term futures influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic;  Sachs has a long-term evolutionary view, while positing five “large goals” to govern a globally interconnected world.  Both books stress the fact of globalization and our emerging digital age.  Neither author mentions “a human-centered world,” but this ideal condition is strongly implied in both books.

“Michael Marien is Senior Principal of The Security & Sustainability Guide”