Some Thoughts for This Year's World Economic Forum

01/23/2014 08:51 am ET | Updated Mar 25, 2014

The Financial Times reports that more than 2,000 delegates are attending this year's World Economic Forum, "representing more than 1,000 organizations and 100 nationalities." Here are a few scattered thoughts to mark the occasion:

The United States

As I argue in a forthcoming article for the Yale Journal of International Affairs, America's resurgence and dysfunction are both becoming more apparent. The U.S. is deleveraging, its trade agenda is gaining momentum, and it stands to accrue significant economic and strategic dividends if it harnesses the potential of the energy renaissance; toss in a favorable demographic outlook (relative to that of, say, China or Japan) and a higher-education system that continues to attract more foreign students than any other, and the declinist narrative doesn't seem as persuasive. On the other hand, income inequality is growing, social mobility is declining, and moderation has become a liability for those who seek to be elected or reelected to Congress. Francis Fukuyama believes that there are "three key structural characteristics of American political culture that... have become problematic in the present": "the judiciary and the legislature...continue to play outsized roles in American government at the expense of Executive Branch bureaucracies"; "the accretion of interest group and lobbying influences has... eroded the ability of the government to operate effectively"; and "the American system of checks and balances... has become a vetocracy."

While America's regenerative capacity has thus far allowed it to offset underperforming governance, hoping or trusting that it'll do so indefinitely doesn't seem like a smart bet. Nor will avowing its exceptionalism address its systemic challenges. Policymakers should not only mull the advice that America's Fukuyamas and George Packers have to offer. They should also consider what lessons might be gleaned from competing governance models. Two of the founders of the World Post, Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels, explore what East and West might teach one another in Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century; and Shanghai-based venture capitalist Eric X. Li argues that while China is "embracing a model of governance driven not by elections but effectiveness," "the developed world is steeped in stagnating malaise." While America's leaders may ultimately disagree with such conclusions, they do the country no favors by dismissing them outright.

The European Union

Few observers are bullish about the EU. British Chancellor George Osborne recently declared that "the failure to reform and renegotiate" "condemns the people of Europe to ongoing economic crisis and continuing decline." The European Commission's latest report on the euro area warns that on current trend lines, it will "end up in 2023 with living standards relative to the U.S. which would be lower than in the mid-1960's." Many Atlanticists worry that the relationships between the U.S. and its core European allies are becoming less central to international affairs. The finalization of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership could reinvigorate them, but it's far from a fait accompli. Even so, eulogies may be premature. Latvia recently became the 18th country to join the euro area. The EU is the world's largest agglomeration of economic power, and it remains indispensable in shaping the norms of international affairs. As Galileo might say: "Still, it moves."

The Asia-Pacific

The Asia-Pacific is home to the world's second-, third-, 12th-, and 15th-largest economies (China, Japan, Australia, and South Korea). But tensions in the region threaten its incipient efforts to develop the basis for a community. The immediate concern is escalating tension between China and Japan, but there are other worries: animosities between China, Japan, and South Korea run deep, and North Korean provocations are a reliable source of instability. And the Asia-Pacific, of course, is the locus of strategic competition between the two pillars of the international system, the U.S. and China. China's neighbors are continuously assessing the balance of power between the two, hoping that they won't be compelled to "choose" one over the other. If, by "Asian century," one means that the center of global gravity will continue to shift eastward, the term is fitting. If, however, one means that the Asia-Pacific will forge a shared strategic agenda, it's dubious.

The Middle East and North Africa

The beginning and end of every year witness incessant prognostication about the world to come. As a general rule, the more sweeping one's prediction, the more skeptically it should be regarded. Nowhere is this caution more relevant than in the Middle East and North Africa. On November 17, 2010, could even the most seasoned Arabist have imagined that the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor one month later would catalyze the unrest that continues to roil the region? Soon after Syria descended into chaos, many observers concluded that Bashar al-Assad's ouster was a given. Today, however, he remains in power (if uncomfortably). Writing in the New York Times a month ago, Ryan Crocker urged the international community "to consider a future for Syria without Assad's ouster, because it is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be." While Turkey and Lebanon appeared to have emerged unscathed from the initial convulsions, they're now experiencing tumult of their own. As K. N. Al-Sabah's brilliant letter to the Financial Times last August suggests, it's impossible to know how the region's myriad fault lines will resolve themselves.

Africa

The pessimism that often marks discussions of Africa seems to be giving way. The Economist's 5/13/00 cover famously called it "[t]he hopeless continent." At the end of 2011, the magazine called it "[t]he hopeful continent." Violence in the Central African Republic and the world's newest country, South Sudan, is a sobering reminder of its past, and the familiar litany of struggles -- poverty, hunger, and AIDS -- remains. Development is also highly uneven across the continent, hence the need to treat the "Africa rising" narrative with caution. Regardless, there are no laws of international relations that consign countries, regions, or continents to misery; nor any, of course, that assure them of prosperity.

Anniversaries

2014 marks some important anniversaries:

January 1, 1994: The North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. What impact have it and other regional trade pacts had?

April 6, 1994: 100 days of carnage began in Rwanda. President Clinton has often said that his greatest regret is not doing more to halt the genocide there. Is the "responsibility to protect" (often dubbed R2P) still a viable concept?

February 4, 2004: Facebook was founded. Today, it has some 1.2 billion users, or roughly a sixth of the world's population. How have social media affected our lives for the better and the worse?

December 26, 2004: A devastating earthquake struck the Indian Ocean, triggering a tsunami that killed some 230,000 and displaced another 1.7 million across 14 countries. How much better prepared are those countries today for such an event?