Thursday, October 10, 2013

New World Orders

Bill Gates has been funding research into a promising new type of nuclear reactor, but since a prototype will cost upward of $5 billion, he is looking to China to build it, the NY Times reports.  Gates must think that the U.S. doesn't have that kind of cash for such a venturesome venture anymore. He has good reason: the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that we have a $3.6 trillion infrastructure deficit (a D+ on their report card); we are just trying to manage keeping our cities from flooding, much less pursue big Eisenhower- or Kennedy-esque visionary projects.

There have been so many new world orders announced over the last decades, I suspect we are a bit inoculated to the power of the phrase.  But, whatever you want to call it, political and economic relations (and soon to follow: social and cultural relations) have undergone a sea shift in the last few years in ways we are just now starting to understand.  The heady post-Cold War, one-superpower, economic boom years provided the U.S. a false sense of security and stability (one that survived the terrorist strike of 9/11 but not the economic hit of 2008). Over the last few years, that has given way to a new and fluid role that will require a sort of collaboration that we haven't been able to fully wrap our minds or our policies around

Bill Gates looking to China for capital (not just the site of cheap production and rampant piracy), the U.S. being sidelined by Russia in dealing with the Syrian conflict, Brazil canceling a state dinner with President Obama over the NSA's spying in that country: all things that would have been unimaginable ten, or even five, years ago. But now there is a new norm.  This doesn't mean that the U.S. has fallen from its superpower status, but rather that it is operation in a different world order that will require more finesse and collaboration.

Immigration from Mexico has long meant the flow of largely unskilled and undocumented labor north to the U.S.  With the economic downturn the net-flow reversed, as immigrants saw more and better opportunities in Mexico than in the land of opportunity.  Even more remarkable: the rise of a significant, albeit modest in absolute numbers, net positive migration of professionals to Mexico (from the U.S. and elsewhere).  So now not just low-wage labor is migrating to Mexico, but affluent professional jobs as well.  I have previously written here about the dramatic rise of Mexican foreign direct investment in Tennessee     

In academia, no longer are we able to simply pluck the best researchers and ideas off from the global South. The changing economic relations, and the U.S.'s reduced role, make substantive collaborations imperative--those who are investing the capital get a real place at the table.  I was recently on a delegation for a U.S.-based professional association to China.  The goal was to further collaborations with our (state sponsored) Chinese equivalents, with the subtext that most of the bigger project planned would be funded by the Chinese. Brazil pays for almost all of our foreign students from that country, and the Sao Paulo-based Lemann Foundation is making major investments in Brazilian studies in the U.S.

The U.S. needs to figure out how to operate in this new global environment, from infrastructure investment to immigration reform to support for area studies so that we can learn about the places we need to engage.  

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