Crises from the EU to China to the Middle East might become opportunities for bigger wins tomorrow.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
The reason we love sports is that they create the illusion that in a world of chaos there are rules of play and clear outcomes. We choose a team with which we can identify, and we vicariously rise or fall with its wins or its defeats. It is comparatively low stakes when setbacks occur, and in the day-to-day scheme of things, this investment offers comparatively high returns. You have to look no further than the uplifting, wonderful victory of the U.S. women’s national team in this weekend’s World Cup finals.
Within the borders of the playing field or the story lines associated with these games, we also can find life lessons. In fact, almost all sports and games are to some degree designed to become microcosms for our other struggles, the bigger ones in the real world. For example, few seem quite as broadly apposite this week as the turning point a U.S. team that had been flat and unimpressive in the early rounds of the World Cup faced before its quarterfinal game with China. Two star players, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, had to sit out the game due to penalty trouble. This could have been a crisis, and for a lesser team, it likely would have been. But instead, it forced the U.S. team’s head coach, Jill Ellis, to jigger the line up in a way that forced and enabled midfielder Carli Lloyd to play further forward and the whole team to engage more aggressively on the scoring end of the field. This proved fateful. Lloyd stepped up, became the star of the tournament, and had a hat trick in the final, including her audacious strike from midfield that will almost certainly become the signature by which she is known the rest of her life.
Of course, rising to meet challenges, while summoning the best within us in the face of adversity, is one of the most common tropes associated with sports…or frankly with any form of storytelling. We love it and need it because, well, life is tough, and without the promise that we could find the wherewithal to motor through our challenges, we would probably all curl up in the fetal position and wait for the end. This is the kind of thinking that led to all the Rocky movies and former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s famous line about not letting “a good crisis go to waste.” Facing adversity forces us to do two things: to creatively search for new solutions and to summon up what is best or strongest within our character.
It is why, despite headlines to the contrary, there is something hopeful and something perhaps even constructive about the crises that are dominating world attention today — from Greece to the Chinese stock market, from Ukraine to the rise of the Islamic State.
Naturally, each of these situations is far too complex or consequential to seriously compare with an hour-and-a-half-long soccer game played at a stadium in Vancouver or anywhere else. But they do share the trait that each crisis may force the kind of rethinking and growth that could, in the end, have lasting benefits for all those involved — and, given the scope of these issues, for the world at large.
Let’s start with the most pressing: Greece. It is easy to get caught up in the blame game with the Greece crisis. It’s easy because there is so much blame to go around. The crisis is a result of economic malpractice at every level — a Greek government allergic to prudence and reform, eurozone leaders who are insensitive to the political and human consequences of their intransigent prioritization of the interests of lenders over borrowers, and bankers whose greed drove the creation of loans that they should have known could never have been paid back.
Which is why no one should have been surprised when the people of Greece — in the midst of an economic catastrophe rivaling the Great Depression — voted “no” to more austerity without some much-needed debt relief. Similarly, they shouldn’t have been too surprised that the powers that be in the eurozone (read: Germany) offered proposals that served the interests of the financial powers that be in their domestic and neighboring markets. That is what happens when power flows from democratic systems designed to serve national rather than pan-European interests.
Furthermore, the European Union is an immature concept. Though it has been percolating since the end of World War II, it is really just a couple of decades old in practice. For most of that time, it has been a theoretical concept or one untested by the extremes that reality can periodically churn up. The financial crisis of 2008 was one such test, and the EU’s response to it was exactly what should have been expected of a group that really had not done sufficient soul-searching as to what “union” meant to each state. It was also a group that was really not ready to embrace the idea essential to a functional union: that once-separate states would have to view themselves as being obligated to one another’s people in much the same way they would be to those within their borders.
It is a tough idea. It took the United States over a century and the deadliest war in U.S. history before it truly accepted the idea that national priorities trumped those of states. And plenty of recent headlines (see the reaction to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on marriage rights) underscore that a good deal of loose ends (and raging differences) remain unresolved.
The EU was born as a consequence of two conflicts — which were much bloodier than the U.S. Civil War — and a desire to avoid resorting to bloodshed to resolve disputes among the nations of the continent. But the last of those wars ended 70 years ago, and as a consequence, literally no one in power has any firsthand memory of them. The first years of the EU were also essentially an exercise in sharing prosperity with tough questions about harmonizing the union and the eurozone left to the future. (Like, how do you have a monetary union without some form of a fiscal union?)
In rapid succession, the EU faced a regionwide economic crisis due to the downturn in 2008 to 2009 and then individual national crises in some of its economically distressed southern members, not to mention a significant foreign-policy test in Ukraine. Suffice it to say, thus far, these events have in succession revealed more about where disagreements lie between member states and where institutions are fundamentally weak or deficient, than they have brought forth the strengths the EU may possess in addressing its big, real-life problems.
On Ukraine, the EU has proven it is unwilling to get tough even in the face of major provocations from an aggressor in its own neighborhood and that it will place the economic interests of its power elites before longer-term security priorities. During the first phases of the eurozone crisis, the EU proved it was slow to act, divided, and lacked key institutional provisions for dealing with crises. Once some of those problems were resolved, and Greece demonstrated an unwillingness to fully follow through on its commitment to reforms, the EU has now revealed another set of critical weaknesses all centering around the question of what the obligations, rights, and responsibilities of a union really ought to entail.
This is painful for all, especially for those in Greece and Ukraine. But in the end, rather than viewing this as “the end of the EU experiment,” or some other such dramatic overstatement of the case, this needs to be seen for what it is — a vital moment in the evolution and development of the EU. In my view, ultimately the reasons for a union were compelling and remain so. But regardless of one’s perspective, these challenges should be seen as opportunities to help clarify what the EU is to itself, what is prepared to do, and what it is not. That will be progress because it will help establish whether the EU is a real force to be reckoned with, and if so, on what terms.
We have seen hints that such progress can be made — whether the strengthening of the prerogatives of the European Central Bank in the wake of the 2008 to 2009 economic crisis, or the halting but notable steps toward better coordination and somewhat greater resolve to take collective foreign-policy action that has evolved as challenges emerged from Afghanistan, to Libya, to Ukraine, to dealing with migrants adrift in the Mediterranean. While none of it has ever been quite enough, it has hinted that within the EU, there is a going recognition that for the union to ultimately be able to function successfully, stronger central institutions will be required, including mechanisms that unify foreign-policy management to the point that unified action is possible on a timely basis. The same will be required on the economic side, but linked to a social contract recognizing the obligations of all members of the union to one another — provided all state governments play by the same basic economic rules.
As a consequence of both the gradual progress that has been made and the growing evidence that more is needed, if the countries of the EU are to gain rather than be distracted and pulled backwards by the union, my bet is that, after the turbulence, the EU emerges stronger from this. (Whether that involves Greece or not is another issue. The sad reality is that Greece would be hurt far more than the EU by a departure from the region, and the strategic argument that Greece could be co-opted by Russia or China really doesn’t stand up to analysis. After all, they can be financially co-opted by them even if they stay in the EU. My guess — a new deal will be struck, a second chance given, and it will inevitably involve some debt relief and some strict new conditionality. But again, this is peripheral to the more important question about what the EU learns from all this.)
In the same way, while the Middle East is in crisis, the countries of the region have come to a couple of important realizations. First, violent extremism is a spreading threat of an existential nature to many governments. Second, Iran is likely to emerge from current nuclear negotiations further strengthened and seeking to assert itself more actively throughout the region. And third, the United States and our EU allies are likely to do less to intervene on these fronts than they have in the past. This is a momentary crisis that has already led regional governments to recognize that they have a need to look out for their own interests and a crisis that has produced cooperation of unprecedented levels, from combatting the Islamic State, to assisting Egypt, to seeking to “stabilize” Yemen. Is the coordination effective? Adequate? Oriented in the right direction? Like the EU response to its recent crises, the deserving grade thus far would, at best, warrant an incomplete.
But the recognition of the necessity of regional powers taking more regional responsibility is not only not a bad thing, it is a practical necessity of the world in which we currently live and are likely to live in for the foreseeable future. Further, more steps in this direction seem inevitable. After all, in the wake of the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, major rebuilding will need to be done. Will the world write the big check? Will foreign powers once again seek to be the architects of Mideast “solutions”? Unlikely. And with Egypt, Palestine, and other states facing similar development issues, how long before someone puts forth the idea of a strong regional development bank funded with regional money leveraged by foreign contributions? (Now that’s an institution to which, in exchange for goodwill and stability from a region on which it is increasingly dependent, China would very likely want to write a big check.)
How China handles its first big stock market crisis of the era in which it is seen as an economic power is another challenge that contains within it the seeds of growth and strengthening of too-weak institutions. And to the long list of such problems existing in other places as well — from India’s need to address its convoluted, corrupt, and inefficient state governments to Brazil’s requirement that it fundamentally address the problems of its own corruption and inefficiency — many contain the potential for producing important moves toward reforms and growth after they produce worries and possibly crises.
Is it naive to think that all these problems will produce happy endings? It would be — if history did not suggest precisely that. Progress takes place. It often does not follow a straight line. I wouldn’t bet on a Brazilian epiphany anytime soon. Expecting material progress on anything in the Middle East is a bit of a sucker’s bet. But in the cases of the EU and China especially, these societies have shown strong signs of what is essential to any success born of difficulty — a willingness to admit error, reassess, and reinvent. And this probably won’t happen in a straight line either. Indeed, it already has taken many twists and turns. But today, the people of the EU, its leaders, investors in China, and the Chinese government all understand better what the new realities of their societies require. And that is something positive to go with all the negatives you are reading and hearing about from much of the media.
For those of us who live in the United States, this realization should provide encouragement on a couple levels. First, more progress and, ultimately, more stability from key partners for the century ahead would be a good thing. But also, all of these challenges, and the response to them, reminds the world again what really sets America apart from our friends and rivals.
We fail better than anyone else. We embrace the cycle of taking risks and learning from them without stigma better than anywhere else. We cultivate entrepreneurs not because our people are more creative, but because we know that the rent we pay for creativity comes in the form of mistakes, crazy ideas, bankruptcies, and restructurings. The fertilizer that made Silicon Valley grow was the residue of companies that had tanked. And we have, as a consequence, learned how to adapt, be more nimble, admit when we are wrong, and grow with our errors. It is one of the reasons we responded to the economic crisis of 2008 to 2009 better than Europe (or any other major economy). It is one of the reasons we still have an auto industry. It is one of the reasons we are now an energy leader. And that adaptability extends to our political system and the surpassing genius of our Constitution that is that it contains the seeds of its own reinvention.
Failure alone is, of course, not a precondition for future success. You have to learn and adjust. But a world beset by crises could do worse than look at how the United States creates, accepts, and adapts to our own.
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