Why Big Nations Turn Inward

It's the best of times, worst of times - still. The world has a hard time shaking Dickens's aphorism.

Overall, in terms of the average human being's condition, life is improving. In the past half century the great expansion of prosperity-bringing world trade, the demise of colonialism, and the gradual spread of democracy, information, and a bigger economic pie have all brought a feeling of hope to billions of individuals.

But there are setbacks.

Exhibit A: economic declines in Asia after years of vast growth.

Exhibit B: recent reverses in the struggle to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Exhibit C: Continuing environmental worries over climate change, population growth, waste disposal, and rainforest and species depletion.

Despite the seeming enormity of these problems, none is insoluble. None justifies panic. Each will respond to concerted and persistent public and private efforts.

But at the moment many major nations face internal problems that divert them from full attention to international problems. The European Union, China, Japan, Russia, India, and Indonesia are dealing with major economic and/or organizational difficulties. These involve changes in daily life. Governments must devote major attention to selling their respective publics on necessary belt-tightening or unpopular changes in the way economic life is organized.

Europeans face a need to shrink welfare states and use unfamiliar money in the interest of providing more growth and jobs. Tens of millions of Chinese will have to seek new jobs as badly run state industries are privatized. Indonesians will hardly get to give one cheer for change before facing more belt tightening. Japanese will have to learn new ways to save for retirement. Indian pride in big-power military status will be eroded by economic costs. Russian relief at the return of economic growth is already undermined by sliding oil export revenue and capital flight that threaten a further delay of regular paychecks.

No one can fault governments that turn inward to fix their systems' flaws. But the US, relatively free of these worries for now, must take the lead in getting those nations to allot time for joint efforts on the big worldwide economic, military, and environment problems. Nations that ignore Exhibits A, B, and C risk the undoing of their internal progress. Jointly, they can make sure that doesn't happen.

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