Look West Not East: an intelligence² debate

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first ever intelligence² event: a debate on the motion, “South America will be the next century’s superpower”. The format of such a debate is quite interesting: as you walk in, you’re given a ballot paper which splits in half, so that your FOR or AGAINST motion can be registered in the vote at the end of the debate. You’re also canvassed for your preliminary thoughts as you enter the auditorium, to allow the organisers to compare how influential their speakers have been one way or another.

Jonathan Freedland was an assured, even-handed and good-humoured chair, explaining at the beginning of the debate that he would be strict with timings, and during the opening arguments clinking his glass twice when the speaker had two minutes left. He ad-libbed some nice jokes, set the right tone, and kept track of both speaker’s arguments and audience questions with an effortless grace that I quite envied.

The arguments were all well thought-out, and often persuasive. Several speakers, and several arguments, of course stood out.

The first speaker, the charismatic and vehement Parag Khanna, laid out a convincing set of thoughts for the motion. Obama, he argued, has laid out plans to forge a new alliance with the Americas; Latin America currently boasts booming exports to China; Brazil has emerged as its leader,  negotiating with Iran and trading with China; the economy of South America is the same size as China’s with half the population; it has relatively few countries within it – all of which share a strong and rich cultural heritage. Triumphantly, with the audience now eating out of his hand, Khanna ended on a high: South America is geographically isolated from geopolitical threats.

Bill Emmott, former editor of the Economist, brought us crashing back to reality with the first speech against the motion. He pointed out that in the next century, we shouldn’t and probably won’t be looking in one direction or another; this is a century in which there will not be one single superpower. “Competition is a positive thing”. Progress in Brazil over the last twenty years, both democratically and economically, has been spectacular. However the rest of the continent lets it down: Argentina, in Emmott’s words, “is usually one president away from its next default, Mexico has the world’s murder record, and Venezuela… Hugo Chavez”. In summary, they are not together a unified or well-integrated part of the world.

The Financial Times’ foreign affairs correspondent, Gideon Rachman, also spoke against the motion, although from his opening remarks you might not have known. Brazil, he asserted, is soon to be the world’s 5th largest economy; it has falling inequality; its currency is strong; rents are higher in Sao Paolo at the moment than they are in New York. The Olympics are coming, the World Cup is coming, continent-wide it is a conflict-free zone. But South America is just too small to be the next century’s superpower: at just under 600 million, it’s half that of China alone. Brazil is fifty-third out of 62 for reading and maths education, and there are no Latin universities in the top 100 either.

Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford and presenter of Radio 4’s Nightwaves, added his voice to the against team, arguing that the cultural impact of both Bollywood and Manga prove how influential the East is, and how its ideas are spreading across the world.

But the most powerful argument of the night, for me, was what Mitter said next: that the superpower of the next century will be dominated in virtual reality – cyberspace. And the development of the internet is currently being discussed with Beijing. The language being used most frequently on the internet, after English, is Mandarin.

Next, we moved onto questions. Of the various points to emerge, here are some highlights:

  1. One of the most interesting stories of the next few years will be the Hispanization of the United States
  2. Brazil gave up on nuclear power twenty years ago
  3. China will have to develop domestic consumerism to ensure continued economic growth – they’re not spending enough
  4. South America has: 30% of the global resources of fresh water,59% of coffee, 13% of oil, 34% of copper (unless I mis-scribbled any of these stats)

Bill Emmott: “The 21st century is not all about us. It should revolve around a hell of a lot of countries in the world.” And as Asia contains more than half the world’s population, you can do the rest of that train of thought for yourself.

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Look West Not East: an intelligence² debate