Beyond the G20: A World We Can Believe in

11/22/2010 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When the rich man's club of nations expanded from the G7 to the G20, a new element was added. Instead of being about money and trade, the G20 is about something else. I don't mean that overused word "globalization." Rather, the G20 is about aspiration. The issue facing the West, and America in particular, is how much of the world's aspirations we are willing to nurture.

Seen in economic terms, globalization was the rich nation's friend for a long time, and America was at the head of the table. We emerged from WW II with the only industrial base in the world that hadn't been destroyed. Therefore, taking General Motors and U.S. Steel around the world benefited America in a huge way. A free market meant being free to buy Coca-Cola, and one found a phenomenon unique in postwar history: Defeated nations like Japan and Germany couldn't wait to become like their conquerors. Some countries grumbled that the world was being too Americanized, but we did our best (very imperfectly) to be the altruistic superpower. We tried to bring peace and democracy packaged with Chevrolets, steel, and soft drinks.

Then globalization turned on us. As jobs began to flee overseas, "outsourcing" became a dirty word, and the rise of China and India loomed as threats. If you see these developments only in economic terms, then the U.S. is indeed threatened by a steady downward slide in its economic power. But there's another way to view the world. Since WW II the combined work force of the U.S. and Europe, amounting to 660 million workers, had an enormous advantage over the other 2.5 billion in the rest of the world. Those workers had aspirations, but now the other large economies of the world have those aspirations for the good life too and they are starting to achieve them. This is a tricky business. The tendency of any dispossessed people is to envy rich nations and therefore to imitate them. We see Indian and Chinese companies that are no longer taking their lead from American companies; they want to compete, building their own cars and electronics, and drinking their own Coca-Cola as they do so. America is having to adjust to this turn-around and it isn't comfortable. No one can predict where economic turmoil might lead.

But the rising nations around the world are also imitating bad things, such as inflated defense spending and nationalism. It was distressing but predictable that when President Obama visited India, he offered them an arms deal. The sad truth is that America makes big money selling two products abroad, Hollywood and death. We are the largest arms dealers in the world, fueling Asia's backward-looking and very fierce nationalism. Just at the point where the G7 is willing to face global issues like climate change, the expanded G20 doesn't necessarily agree with fluid borders, free trade, and democracy. The G20 runs the risk of being so economically focused, and so fixated on the rise of China, that we forget the whole point of global cooperation.

The point isn't money. The point is equality and the fulfillment of aspirations. After the 2008 elections, Obama became a worldwide symbol for those things. He made a series of talks in the Middle East that signaled openness to the Islamic world; he told Russia that a new era of cooperation was beginning. Today, however, Obama's Nobel Peace Prize looks more like the Nobel Speech Prize. Anti-progressive forces, unleashed by the recession, have resurged everywhere. We have gotten trapped in the mindset that our survival is at stake, and this quickly led to nationalistic rhetoric. No one knows what will happen next. But we can remind ourselves that globalization is pointless unless it fulfills aspirations. The West, and the U.S. in particular, can't afford to be a symbol for the richest and most selfish nations. Our survival isn't at stake. We will remain very prosperous societies. The challenge is to also be inspiring societies. The future of the world depends on it.