By Paul Kennedy

As I compose this piece, I am flying towards what Europeans, in their Greenwich-Meridian-centered way, have traditionally called "the Far East." The French, always inclined to exaggerate things, call this region of East Asia "the extreme Orient." (I suppose, logically, California is the "extreme Occident," which may be a fair description.)

When, many years ago, I first flew into Seoul, the capital of South Korea, I and other conference delegates were not allowed to leave our hotel because of rioting students outside. When I first flew into Tokyo, we were not allowed outside because of rioting farmers protesting the expansion of Narita Airport -- and the farmers happened to be right.

But nowadays all seems placid in the "Far East." There is, of course, the lunatic regime of North Korea, and nobody can figure out what to do with it. But China seems content with its political menu of stability, reassurance, an ever-growing economy and ever-growing military might. Japan has ceded its place as No. 2 in the world economy to China without nationalist fury, and now seeks to reconcile its impressive industrial base with its appalling demographics. Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan push on in the serious business of becoming rich -- more rich, that is. Where do sales of Bentleys go these days?

But as I fly to this arc of prosperity, my accompanying journals -- The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist -- tell me of convulsions upon convulsions across the "Middle East." The dam broke, a bit, in Tunisia. Then it collapsed in a big way in Egypt, the pivotal state of the Arab world, with reverberations shuddering through from Algeria to Yemen and Bahrain. And now comes the second big actor, Iran. The students are on the streets, the electronic networks of encouragement fill the ether, the lawyers and doctors and engineers and educated women of Persia are waiting in the wings. Outraged mullahs and their fanatical supporters call for the execution of the leading protestors. Nothing could be more stupid, which does not mean it will not happen. One hundred, perhaps even one thousand, beheaded martyrs would lead to the end of this weird 16th century-type theocracy in Iran. These days you cannot order "chop off their heads," as that awful tyrant King Henry VIII of England did so frequently.

We are, as Shakespeare might have put it (he did), in a world out of joint. In Latin America, if governments, parliaments and educated elites can grasp it, the tempting prospect of future prosperity, stability and well-being beckons. Even the poorest region by far, sub-Saharan Africa, shows some signs of promise. Australasia wallows in the profits from its exports of raw materials and foodstuffs. Europe meanders, like the lower Danube, between its Scandinavian-Bavarian prosperity and the travails of its Celtic and southern-Latinate parts -- Greece, Portugal, Ireland, perhaps even Spain and Italy.

The United States has, frankly, no idea where it is going.

It is a great military power that has the greatest budget deficits in all of history, and has put its troops in the wrong places at the wrong time. It has a fine, smart president who is screamed down every time he says something sensible, something realistic. The rise of the so-called Tea Party is not an indicator of promise, it is a harbinger of possible further stupidities by a Congress that increasingly is living in a world of its own, autistically unaware that the age of Truman and Eisenhower has passed.

In sum, the world lurches into the second decade of the 21st century with far too many signs that all is not well. Egypt may well fall into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Iran may well crash into a bloody civil war. Algeria may totter into, well, wherever Algeria may go. Of course, this may all suddenly get better. The entire Arab-Muslim world may wake up next week looking like, say, Denmark. The inhabitants of Tehran and Cairo may step onto a red double-decker bus marked "Euston Station" or "Tottenham Court Road," pay their fares and complain about the weather, as Londoners do. And pigs might fly.

In truth, there is no quick fix to these enormous contradictions.

The Chinese economy rose by a staggering 10 percent in the last quarter. The Egyptian economy, brought low by its internal political convulsions, staggered and fell. The protesters in Cairo are no longer going after the Mubarak clique, they are going after stable and cheap food prices, better wages, more jobs -- none of which, alas, a bankrupt regime can give them. The new leaders of Egypt could of course print many more of those colorful banknotes. But so did the kings of Imperial Spain, and the politicians of Weimar Germany.

I really do not know what to make of all this, and anyone who claims indisputably to know the future of the world is a charlatan; put your hand on your wallet, as George Bernard Shaw famously said, because you are about to be swindled. The nations of this Earth are headed in many different directions, as I have tried to suggest above. But, right now, the greatest gap, surely, is between the "Far East" and the "Middle East." Assuming (and perhaps that is wrong of me) that the governments of China, Russia, Japan and South Korea have the good sense to temper their disputes over maritime boundaries and World War II exchanges of territory, they all inhabit what is, essentially, a mutual-prosperity zone.

The countries of the Middle East have no such luck.

No doubt a group of serious technocrats at the World Bank or the United Nations Development Programme are preparing a fine report with a title like, say, "Reform and Recovery in the Arab World," which will stress the importance of transparency, democracy, the rule of law and the like -- the Euston Station paying-your-fare criterion. Viewed from the pleasant shores of Lake Geneva, or even from the cellar offices of Foggy Bottom, everything seems possible.

How nice it would be to think that the Middle East could, without great convulsion and bloodshed, move towards something like the Far East: politically stable, massively prosperous, grappling chiefly with its own internal tilt towards modernism. That day might come, but if I were a gambling man -- which I am -- I would put the odds heavily against. The Arab region is in for a period of turbulence, and the West may not escape the many unintended consequences. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. ... It could toll for thee.


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