The Editor in Chief of The Economist illuminates what global issues mattered in the last century--and how the ways in which we deal with them will shape our lives in the next
The attacks on September 11th, 2001, shook the rich West out of its complacency; suddenly, peace looked to be in peril. Even before that time prosperity was endangered, as campaigns mounted against the purported evils of capitalist globalization, such as inequality, pollution, and financial instability, and as America's high-tech stockmarket boom turned to bust. Yet, in the decade following the end of the Cold War, prospects had looked so rosy, with peace prevailing among the world's great powers, with billions of people joining the world market economy, and with great waves of technological change driving economies forwards.
What to make of such confusion and disappointment? What will the 21st century be like now? Bill Emmott, editor of the world's leading current affairs weekly, The Economist, argues that the best way to think about the future is to look back at the past, at the forces that have shaped our world and at what they tell us about the things that really matter in determining whether we are at peace or at war, in a state of liberty or repression, in a period of prosperity or of depression. From the twentieth century we can learn that two questions matter above all others: Will America continue to lead the world and to protect its peace? And will we continue to accept capitalism, with all its strengths and weaknesses, or will it be challenged once again? Bill Emmott's 20:21 Vision provides the answers that matter for all our lives in the twenty-first century.
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Bill Emmott has been the editor in chief of The Economist since 1993, having previously worked for the weekly in Brussels, London, and Tokyo. He is the author of four books, including The Sun Also Sets: Why Japan Will Not Be Number One, and Japan's Global Reach: The Influence, Strategies, and Weakness of Japan's Multinational Corporations. He lives in London and Wiltshire, England with his wife.
There are many wonderful things about being a journalist. The excitement of responding to, and trying to make sense of, the flow of news. The challenge of trying to sort out the wood from the trees, the important from the unimportant, the honest from the dishonest, the reasonable from the hyperbolic. The independence of mind and of spirit, the accompanying sense of the ridiculous, that are available to an outsider, an observer of rather than participant in events, processes and organizations. The fact that so many people read or hear what you have to say, and that some of them even pay heed to it. The privilege of being able to, and actually being paid to, write or broadcast what can fairly be described as a sort of first draft of history, albeit with all the foibles and frailties that performing that task typically implies.
Yet that is also where the limitations of journalism begin. Our perspective is always a fairly short-term one. Our readers want to know how something that happened today might be connected to something that happened yesterday, or last month. Furthermore, our preoccupations are forever vulnerable to the fads and fashions of instant hopes, fears and worries. Writing in a weekly such as The Economist, with a global, highly motivated readership and a clear analytical mission, this Journalist is insulated against some of that vulnerability. But it is still necessary to write about the issues and events that preoccupy people, even when such preoccupation is not really justified and when the journalist's main role is simply to say so. And, like all instant analysts, the journalist is constantly at risk of overinterpreting the short-term and underrating or underinterpreting the longer-term trends. Something that did not seem to matter at all yesterday becomes, tomorrow, the only thing that does seem to matter.
Thus it was that on 10 September 2001 international terrorism by religious zealots was not thought to be an especially important topic. It was just one fear among many on the standard lists of present and future threats, but not a very immediate one. After 8:46 a.m., American Eastern Daylight Time, on the following day, such terrorism was, for a time, transformed into the only topic that mattered.
That shift in perspective was entirely understandable, given the magnitude, drama and horror of the events of that day, and at the time it was also entirely appropriate. Everyone's attention was transfixed by what had happened, their minds filled with possible explanations for it and with possible ramifications. Yet the truth about that particular episode, as can already be seen with the benefit of hindsight, is that neither the view on 10 September nor that on the 12th was correct.
The threat of international terrorism by the sort of group that devastated the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, killing thousands of civilians, was already real before that infamous day. It had been the subject of many worthy reports, conference papers and articles, whether the expected terror was in the form of low-tech warfare as in those attacks or, more worrying still, in the high-tech form of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction. But, being chiefly theoretical as one danger among many, it was not given a high priority either by pundits or by policymakers, even though several attempts at such terror attacks had been thwarted already, including in the United States itself. Had these succeeded, they could have delivered a shock comparable to that of 11 September. But they did not, and so international terror was not the talk of any town.
By the same token, in the days and weeks after those attacks on ii September, and after the ensuing war in Afghanistan, the danger of international terrorism was by no means the only danger to the peace and prosperity of the West, nor was it the only important political force at work in the world. Even so, for quite a while, it was the only threat being talked of in most Western capitals and on the editorial pages of much of the Western media. On one day, furthermore, two of the world's great civilizations were assumed to be ignoring each other, living separate lives; on the very next morning, it was widely believed that those civilizations, Islam and the Judeo-Christian West, were in fact engaged in a mighty, epoch-making clash.
A very big event was thus given an even greater significance than it deserved. This was a telling example of one of journalism's biggest weaknesses, that of jumping to conclusions. The events of 11 September did have the potential to become world - shattering, era-dominating, overshadowing all other candidates for that role, yet that was only ever one possible outcome. It is unlikely that in years to come we shall see 11 September as insignificant, but nevertheless it remains far too early to say whether this will in fact be the most important occurrence during the first decade of the twenty-first century. The more common examples of this weakness, though, are of journalists allotting a misleadingly high significance to quite minor events. These may just be misjudgments, or they may be efforts to create drama and hence to sell papers, for the news media are, after all, only a branch of the entertainment industry. Whatever the reason, the draft of history that journalists write is not just frail and full of foibles but inevitably flawed.
Copyright © 2003 Bill Emmott
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