Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

What if Russia and China don’t become more liberal?

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 28, 2012 22:10 UTC

Liberal democracy faces a new and decisive challenge – figuring out how to deal with the “post-Communist oligarchies” of Russia and China. These regimes – authoritarian, capitalist and eagerly integrated into the global economy – are without precedent. Figuring out how to deal with them is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today. How we answer it will determine the shape of the 21st century, much as the struggle with communism and fascism shaped the 20th.

This is the assertion Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian intellectual and a former leader of the Liberal Party, made in a powerful lecture in the Latvian capital, Riga, at the beginning of this month. Ignatieff’s thesis came to mind during the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, held last week as the gracious former imperial capital for which the forum is named glowed in the pure white light of the summer solstice.

Central to Ignatieff’s argument is his insistence that “history has no libretto.” It isn’t marching toward any particular destination, including liberal democracy, he said: “As late as Benedetto Croce, liberals still thought of their creed as being the wave of the future and thought of history as the story of liberty.”

When it comes to Russia and China today, we still hope we will all eventually sing along to this seductive libretto. “It is a cliché of optimistic Western discourse on Russia and China that they must evolve toward democratic liberty,” Ignatieff argued. Sadly, though, we’re wrong: “we should not assume there is any historical inevitability to liberal society.”

As Ignatieff explained to me in a telephone conversation this week: “The simple point is that we thought they were coming towards us. What if they are not?”

Barton and Kleinfeld’s tips for Uncle Sam

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:21 UTC

During the depths of the financial crisis, Alcoa announced that it would lay off 13% of its global workforce, or about 13,500 people. Since then, they have built up their presence in China and Russia, finalized a new mine in Brazil, and started construction of the world’s largest aluminum facilities in Saudi Arabia. Alcoa’s rate of job creation in its home country of the United States, however, has been rather tepid in comparison.

Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld acknowledged that prospects for his business today were better abroad than they were at home, but he did note that in the past year Alcoa hired 1,500 people in the U.S. in the automotive and aerospace industries and so long as the United States retained its sense of entrepreneurship, creativity and excellence in higher education, jobs will come.

Dominic Barton was similarly sober about the current state of the U.S. labor market, saying that it’s currently undergoing an acute phase of creative destruction. However, he urged the audience to focus on long-term job growth, citing the example of Samsung in the wake of Korea’s financial crisis in 1997:

The revolutionary significance of job growth

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:18 UTC

It was striking to hear how encouraged both Klaus Kleinfeld and Dominic Barton sounded when Chrystia asked them about the effects of the recent turmoil in the Middle East on the business environment there. Barton believed the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt were “the dawn of a new good thing that’s occurring” and noted that it is likely that new capital will come into these countries as a new leadership emerges. Kleinfeld, whose company is in the process of building the world’s largest integrated aluminum system in Saudi Arabia, said that Alcoa is still very comfortable in the region and that the only surprises with their Saudi partners have been positive surprises. For Kleinfeld, the most assured way to bring about stability in a region plagued by unrest is to have businesses come in and create jobs:

If there’s one thing that the Middle East needs particularly for the young — as well as well-educated people — it’s jobs. And it does it in a region which typically has not had much of an economic growth around Ras Azzour. So that’s all very, very good. And not just for us as a company but also for the region. And it’s gonna have a stabilizing as well as a kind of uplifting, positive element

Like Saudi Arabia, China has a large population that accepts a level of repression so long as the leadership can deliver economic growth. Barton, a China expert who headed McKinsey’s Asia operations before ascending to the consultancy’s top spot, said that he did not think that dissent in China would spillover and create a Middle-East-style uprising because the Chinese Communist Party has been able to stay on top of job growth. He had an interesting anecdote about McKinsey’s study on the effectiveness of China’s stimulus plan that illustrated the leadership’s obsession with maintaining growth:

The view from Alcoa and McKinsey

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:12 UTC

At this morning’s Newsmaker “Thriving in the New Global Economy,” Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld and McKinsey Global Managing Director Dominic Barton told Chrystia their outlook for the world economy. From his perch atop one of the world’s leading aluminum producers, Kleinfeld was “really positive” about global growth prospects. Coming off a strong year in which aluminum demand rose 13 percent, the Alcoa chief forecast that aluminum demand will grow at a slightly slower rate of 12 percent this year thanks to China’s efforts to slow down its economy:

While also bullish on global growth, Barton noted that there was a sense of fragility in the world economy that concerned him. Specifically, the McKinsey head was worried about the government’s response to looming inflation, which he predicted would rise to the range of 6 to 7 percent. Mounting government debts and the rising cost of capital, which Barton believes will be “up fairly significantly” as savings rates in the emerging markets decline, will exacerbate the inflation problem:

“We’re in a slack period if you just look at what the cost of money is. It’s an incredibly unique period. I think that’s going to go away, and that’s going to make it challenging.”

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