Zakaria: A Global Economic Power Shift

One year ago, the world seemed as if it might be coming apart. The global financial system, which had fueled a great expansion of capitalism and trade across the world, was crumbling. All the certainties of the age of globalization—about the virtues of free markets, trade, and technology—were being called into question. Faith in the American model had collapsed. The financial industry had crumbled. Once-roaring emerging markets like China, India, and Brazil were sinking. Worldwide trade was shrinking to a degree not seen since the 1930s.

Pundits whose bearishness had been vindicated predicted we were doomed to a long, painful bust, with cascading failures in sector after sector, country after country. In a widely cited essay that appeared in The Atlantic this May, Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, wrote: "The conventional wisdom among the elite is still that the current slump 'cannot be as bad as the Great Depression.' This view is wrong. What we face now could, in fact, be worse than the Great Depression."

Others predicted that these economic shocks would lead to political instability and violence in the worst-hit countries. At his confirmation hearing in February, the new U.S. director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, cautioned the Senate that "the financial crisis and global recession are likely to produce a wave of economic crises in emerging-market nations over the next year." Hillary Clinton endorsed this grim view. And she was hardly alone. Foreign Policy ran a cover story predicting serious unrest in several emerging markets.

Of one thing everyone was sure: nothing would ever be the same again. Not the financial industry, not capitalism, not globalization.

One year later, how much has the world really changed? Well, Wall Street is home to two fewer investment banks (three, if you count Merrill Lynch). Some regional banks have gone bust. There was some turmoil in Moldova and (entirely unrelated to the financial crisis) in Iran. Severe problems remain, like high unemployment in the West, and we face new problems caused by responses to the crisis—soaring debt and fears of inflation. But overall, things look nothing like they did in the 1930s. The predictions of economic and political collapse have not materialized at all.

A key measure of fear and fragility is the ability of poor and unstable countries to borrow money on the debt markets. So consider this: the sovereign bonds of tottering Pakistan have returned 168 percent so far this year. All this doesn't add up to a recovery yet, but it does reflect a return to some level of normalcy. And that rebound has been so rapid that even the shrewdest observers remain puzzled. "The question I have at the back of my head is 'Is that it?' " says Charles Kaye, the co-head of Warburg Pincus. "We had this huge crisis, and now we're back to business as usual?"

This revival did not happen because markets managed to stabilize themselves on their own. Rather, governments, having learned the lessons of the Great Depression, were determined not to repeat the same mistakes once this crisis hit. By massively expanding state support for the economy—through central banks and national treasuries—they buffered the worst of the damage. (Whether they made new mistakes in the process remains to be seen.) The extensive social safety nets that have been established across the industrialized world also cushioned the pain felt by many. Times are still tough, but things are nowhere near as bad as in the 1930s, when governments played a tiny role in national economies.

It's true that the massive state interventions of the past year may be fueling some new bubbles: the cheap cash and government guarantees provided to banks, companies, and consumers have fueled some irrational exuberance in stock and bond markets. Yet these rallies also demonstrate the return of confidence, and confidence is a very powerful economic force. When John Maynard Keynes described his own prescriptions for economic growth, he believed government action could provide only a temporary fix until the real motor of the economy started cranking again—the animal spirits of investors, consumers, and companies seeking risk and profit.

Beyond all this, though, I believe there's a fundamental reason why we have not faced global collapse in the last year. It is the same reason that we weathered the stock-market crash of 1987, the recession of 1992, the Asian crisis of 1997, the Russian default of 1998, and the tech-bubble collapse of 2000. The current global economic system is inherently more resilient than we think. The world today is characterized by three major forces for stability, each reinforcing the other and each historical in nature.

The first is the spread of great-power peace. Since the end of the Cold War, the world's major powers have not competed with each other in geomilitary terms. There have been some political tensions, but measured by historical standards the globe today is stunningly free of friction between the mightiest nations. This lack of conflict is extremely rare in history. You would have to go back at least 175 years, if not 400, to find any prolonged period like the one we are living in. The number of people who have died as a result of wars, civil conflicts, and terrorism over the last 30 years has declined sharply (despite what you might think on the basis of overhyped fears about terrorism). And no wonder—three decades ago, the Soviet Union was still funding militias, governments, and guerrillas in dozens of countries around the world. And the United States was backing the other side in every one of those places. That clash of superpower proxies caused enormous bloodshed and instability: recall that 3 million people died in Indochina alone during the 1970s. Nothing like that is happening today.

Peace is like oxygen, Harvard's Joseph Nye has written. When you don't have it, it's all you can think about, but when you do, you don't appreciate your good fortune. Peace allows for the possibility of a stable economic life and trade. The peace that flowed from the end of the Cold War had a much larger effect because it was accompanied by the discrediting of socialism. The world was left with a sole superpower but also a single workable economic model—capitalism—albeit with many variants from Sweden to Hong Kong.

This consensus enabled the expansion of the global economy; in fact, it created for the first time a single world economy in which almost all countries across the globe were participants. That means everyone is invested in the same system. Today, while the nations of Eastern Europe might face an economic crisis, no one is suggesting that they abandon free-market capitalism and return to communism. In fact, around the world you see the opposite: even in the midst of this downturn, there have been few successful electoral appeals for a turn to socialism or a rejection of the current framework of political economy. Center-right parties have instead prospered in recent elections throughout the West.

The second force for stability is the victory—after a decades-long struggle—over the cancer of inflation. Thirty-five years ago, much of the world was plagued by high inflation, with deep social and political consequences. Severe inflation can be far more disruptive than a recession, because while recessions rob you of better jobs and wages that you might have had in the future, inflation robs you of what you have now by destroying your savings. In many countries in the 1970s, hyperinflation led to the destruction of the middle class, which was the background condition for many of the political dramas of the era—coups in Latin America, the suspension of democracy in India, the overthrow of the shah in Iran. But then in 1979, the tide began to turn when Paul Volcker took over the U.S. Federal Reserve and waged war against inflation. Over two decades, central banks managed to decisively beat down the beast. At this point, only one country in the world suffers from -hyperinflation: Zimbabwe. Low inflation allows people, businesses, and governments to plan for the future, a key precondition for stability.

Political and economic stability have each reinforced the other. And the third force that has underpinned the resilience of the global system is technological connectivity. Globalization has always existed in a sense in the modern world, but until recently its contours were mostly limited to trade: countries made goods and sold them abroad. Today the information revolution has created a much more deeply connected global system.

Managers in Arkansas can work with suppliers in Beijing on a real-time basis. The production of almost every complex manufactured product now involves input from a dozen countries in a tight global supply chain. And the consequences of connectivity go well beyond economics. Women in rural India have learned through satellite television about the independence of women in more modern countries. Citizens in Iran have used cell phones and the Internet to connect to their well-wishers beyond their borders. Globalization today is fundamentally about knowledge being dispersed across our world.

This diffusion of knowledge may actually be the most important reason for the stability of the current system. The majority of the world's nations have learned some basic lessons about political well-being and wealth creation. They have taken advantage of the opportunities provided by peace, low inflation, and technology to plug in to the global system. And they have seen the indisputable results. Despite all the turmoil of the past year, it's important to remember that more people have been lifted out of poverty over the last two decades than in the preceding 10. Clear-thinking citizens around the world are determined not to lose these gains by falling for some ideological chimera, or searching for a worker's utopia. They are even cautious about the appeals of hypernationalism and war. Most have been there, done that. And they know the price.

In fact, the most remarkable development in the last few years has been the way China, India, Brazil, and other emerging markets have managed their affairs prudently, taming growth by keeping interest rates up and restricting credit in the middle of the bubble—just as an economics textbook (and common sense) would advise. Instead it was the advanced industrial world, which had always lectured everyone else about good political and economic management, that handled its affairs poorly, fueling bubble after bubble, being undisciplined in the boom, and now suffering most during the bust. The data reflect this new reality. By 2014 the debt of the rich countries in the G20 will be 120 percent of GDP, three times the level of debt in the big emerging-market countries. The students of the global system are now doing better than their teachers.

Among the many realities that have become apparent in the last year, this is perhaps the most consequential. People in the West were quick to write off the developing nations after the crash, sure that they could not survive a recession in the centers of the global economy. But the strongest of the emerging markets have actually emerged. They have become large, mature, and connected enough that while affected by the West, their fortunes are not entirely dependent on it.

There is now significant domestic demand in countries like India. The government has massive resources in China. And these nations now trade a great deal with each other. China has overtaken the United States as India's largest trading partner. This power shift may prove the longest-lasting legacy of the crisis of 2008. How the established countries deal with it, and how they handle their own economic woes in the midst of many competing economic centers, will be their primary challenge in the next decade. If they cannot adjust, then the world might not remain so stable after all.