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Putting the Twenty-First Century Back on Track

The sense of optimism with which the West rang in the new century 20 years ago has long since been replaced by the shock of terrorist attacks, financial crashes, pandemics, and other crises. But if we broaden our perspective, we will see that none of the challenges facing us is insurmountable.

MADRID – Most readers will remember the widespread enthusiasm with which we met the arrival of the twenty-first century. It was a time of high hopes, grandiloquent editorials, and unfeigned daring on the part of the West. Yet in the blink of an eye (historically speaking), the spirit of the times shifted radically – even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. For much of the world, this century has been a period of frustration and disillusion. Many now look to the future not with confidence but with fear.

Two decades ago, the readymade answer to every policy and strategic question was more globalization. But while this was a legitimate and praiseworthy goal, we failed to build in the necessary safeguards. Disasters such as the post-2008 Great Recession and the current pandemic have shown that greater interdependence implies greater risk of contagion, be it financial or viral. Moreover, specialization and hyper-efficiency can be sources of vulnerability, as this year’s supply-chain disruptions have proven. And, of course, the political repercussions of offshoring were woefully underestimated.

In 2000, when Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign (with the Reform Party) fizzled, few would have thought that he would re-emerge in 2016 to take the reins of the Republican Party, turn it against free trade, and eventually win the presidency. Suddenly, this largely unheeded warning from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations sounded more prescient: “Each nation has been made to look with an invidious eye upon the prosperity of all the nations with which it trades, and to consider their gain as its own loss.”

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