George Pitcher: The sun hasn’t set yet on the West, but be careful

With the US confirmed as top economic and military dog, it seems the world has settled down again. Time to make it a better place, according to George Pitcher

It was odd, over Christmas, how the uproar in Argentina seemed out of place in a world that had become strangely calm. Last year was a particularly violent one – in the US, in the Middle East and in Afghanistan – but by the Christmas season a degree of peace and goodwill appeared to have established itself.

US influence was, once more, the dominant global factor, having been badly shaken by the strikes against its authority in September.

As I said in November, the September 11 atrocities don’t matter anymore (MW November 15). By that, I don’t mean that the images of Boeings exploding in skyscrapers will lose any of their significance as symbols of the day that America lost its innocence. Nor do I mean to be disrespectful to the bereaved.

What I suggest – and what I have said by way of justification to those who were offended by my comments – was that the western world would shake itself and move on. The re-assertion of some kind of world order – albeit a US-led one – would appear to bear me out.

At Christmas, I was having a drink with a friend who had played a diplomatic role in a tour of Muslim nations whose support for the western alliance might have been a touch shaky.

His point was that Osama bin Laden had lost – and it was, for the time being at least, a complete defeat. He wasn’t just making the rather obvious point that the war in Afghanistan had gone better than anticipated, that bin Laden would probably soon be dead (if he wasn’t already) and that countries like Somalia and Yemen would not harbour fleeing al-Qaida terrorists for fear of the kind of reprisals that they had witnessed (courtesy of the infidel CNN) throughout the autumn.

Bin Laden’s propaganda videos called for Arabs to rise up against their western oppressors. September was meant to witness the dawn of a new holy war – it was a beginning, not an end in itself.

And this hasn’t happened. In short, young Muslims all over the world have been offered a choice between a radical, fundamentalist re-awakening and their Sony PlayStations. It’s with some relief that we have seen them retire to their bedrooms with Lara Croft – metaphorically speaking.

As we look forward to 2002, it’s easy to assume that – while we can continue to expect some bloody incidents and frightful suffering in parts of the world – the rule of capitalism has been preserved and the American Way has triumphed. This assumption would be a crass mistake.

Let’s leave aside any critical examination here as to whether American hegemony is desirable in itself. Let’s also steer well clear of any arguments as to whether America “had it coming” last September. Those issues only degenerate into mutual abuse between implacable hawks and doves.

Let’s stick to the practicalities, one of the greatest of which is how we intend to make the vaunted globalisation of the past decade work in the future.

Former US President Bill Clinton showed his statesmanlike side before Christmas when he gave the BBC’s Dimbleby lecture. He pointed out that half the people on earth live on less than $2 a day; 1 billion live on less than $1 a day. At the time of writing, $1 is worth about 70p. A quarter of all the people on earth never have a glass of clean water and, every minute of every day, a woman dies in childbirth. “What kind of [global] economy leaves half the people behind?” he asked.

These are the statistics that motivated the “crusties”, with their dogs on strings, to riot in Seattle and London. But not a few in the capitalist salariat think they may have a point. What last year teaches us is that world business has to take the whole world with it – otherwise the “world economy” is a sham.

That will mean aid, not merely a war on terrorism. The signs from the American and British governments are that this point is taken. But it won’t just be about governmental aid. World business as a whole will need to learn that the exploitation of nations and resources comes at a price – we need to build a truly global economy if the capitalist model is truly to succeed.

This will require a new honesty in business. Not just by recognising that capitalism is by nature exploitative and that we need to ameliorate that exploitation for the poorer nations of the world. Western business must also candidly recognise that none of us knows what is going to happen.

Analysts and economists have long made respectable livings from predicting the future, while history shows us that it’s more prudent simply to “buy the index” – in other words, simply invest in the average of what is going on.

As for business at the granular level, the shops were telling us that they were having a wonderful Christmas. We’ll see. The building societies were wildly wrong on UK house prices in 2001 and now the Nationwide tells us that we’ll avoid recession in 2002. Be afraid.

So, here’s a question: What’s the best commercial characteristic to carry into 2002? Recalling 2001, I would recommend a degree of humility.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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