Tolstoy may have been right about families – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – but the opposite of his famous first line is true when it comes to countries: The world’s disparate unhappy nations are very much alike when it comes to the causes of their unhappiness.
That’s not immediately apparent – austerity-strangled Greece, cheap-money America and military-ruled Egypt are all exhibiting quite different symptoms. But it is no accident that so many of the world’s economies are sputtering at the same time, or that so many people around the globe are angry.
One reason for the synchronized gloom, of course, is the synchronization of the global economy. But the world is suffering from more than a shared summer cold. Rather, we are all, both together and apart, trying to figure out three big questions. Our answers to them will shape the 21st century.
The first is how nation-states fit into a globalized world economy. Different countries are wrestling with different versions of this problem. Small states with their own currencies and open trade policies have just endured a version of the Asian crisis of 1998, and they have come to similar conclusions – survival requires a fortresslike national balance sheet and export-led growth. That’s why Baltic leaders, these days, sound an awful lot like Southeast Asian ones.
The rub, as Lawrence H. Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary, likes to point out, is that there are no Martians. Export-led growth can’t work as a policy for the whole world: Someone needs to be the net importer.