The Korea Herald


Korea's place in a multipolar world

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 18, 2023 - 09:09

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Jeffrey D. Sachs Jeffrey D. Sachs

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

BELEM, Brazil – I write today from Brazil to inaugurate a new series of columns for The Korea Herald. My columns will discuss the dramatic changes underway in the world economy, and how these changes affect Korea. Most importantly, I will analyze how new forms of global cooperation, including Korea, China, the US, and the rest of the world, can be implemented to face the world’s growing crises.

Brazil is in fact an excellent place to launch the new column. At the start of the New Year, President Lula da Silva, who was an excellent president during 2003-2010, returned to office after his election victory in October. Lula will not only be an effective leader of Brasilia, but an important world leader as well. In 2024, Brazil will hold the Presidency of the Group of 20.

I was in Brasilia this week to meet his excellent new economics team. Lula’s well-wishers poured out across the country in a revival of hope for Brazil after four years of disastrous rule under his right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, who had fled Brazil for Florida on the eve of Lula’s inauguration.

Sadly, Bolsonaro also left behind a mob that rampaged government office buildings one week after President Lula’s inauguration. Around 1,500 people were arrested.

The mob tactics will not stop Lula, nor will they have a long-term effect in the US, where Donald Trump’s similar maneuvers on Jan. 6, 2021, were also shut down. In both cases, demagogic politicians used the social media to rile up a mob; in both cases, the mob was put down within the day.

The deep economic changes underway in the world can’t and won’t be stopped by mobs. Our real challenge is to understand these deeper changes so that we can manage them for the common good. Korea of course will play a very important role in leading and managing these changes, as one of the world’s leading economies and at the cutting-edge of digital technology.

The biggest global crisis today is geopolitical. We are no longer in a US-led world, or even a world divided between the US and its rival China. We have already entered a truly multipolar world, in which each region has its own issues and role in global politics. No country and no single region can or should any longer determine the fate of others. This is a complex and noisy geopolitical environment – with no country, region, or alliance in charge of the rest.

The management of a multipolar world is fraught with difficulties. We urgently need much more dialogue among nations, and to move beyond the simplistic propaganda of our own governments. In the US and Europe, we are bombarded daily with ridiculous official narratives, most originating from Washington, that Russia is pure evil, that China is the greatest threat to the world, and that only NATO can save us.

These naive stories are a great hindrance to true global problem solving. They trap us in false mindsets, and even in wars that should never have occurred. The war in Ukraine, urgently, must be stopped by negotiation rather than by military escalation.

When the major nations accept the reality of a multipolar world, we will be able to solve problems that have so far eluded us. First, we will understand that the expansion of military alliances such as NATO offer no real answers to the real challenges that we confront. Only regional dialogue and consensus building can bring about a secure peace.

In Northeast Asia, the future security and prosperity lies with cooperation, not confrontation, among China, Japan and Korea, overcoming ancient and recent enmities. The three countries working together would constitute an absolutely remarkable and world-changing center of innovation and sustainable development. Yet if the three countries remain deeply divided geopolitically, and if the US continues its provocative drumbeat against China, then the risks to all countries will rise.

The expansion of military alliances like NATO is a dangerous anachronism, not a true source of regional security. It was, after all, the US call to expand NATO to Georgia and Ukraine that did much to trigger the Russian-Georgia War in 2008 and the Russian-Ukraine War from 2014 until today. Nor did the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, the failed fifteen-year NATO mission in Afghanistan, or the NATO bombing Libya in 2011, accomplish real geopolitical objectives for the US or the world.

China, in my view, is not the grave threat that is portrayed every day by the US. China is an ancient civilization of 1.4 billion people (almost one in five in the world) that aims for high living standards and technological excellence like other successful countries. It was very badly treated by the West and Japan during the period from 1839-1949, and it still bears those memories. We will best solve our global problems not by vainly trying to “contain” China, but by cooperating, negotiating, trading, and yes, also competing economically, with China.

Other great global challenges lie elsewhere, with the deep dangers of environmental catastrophe; the rising inequalities in societies around the world; and the onrush of new technologies that threatened to disrupt the world if these technologies are not properly used and governed.

The environmental catastrophes are intensifying rapidly. These crises include human-induced climate change; the destruction of biodiversity; pollution of the land, air, and oceans; and the threats to major ecosystems such as the Amazon Rainforest, where I am today. Every region needs a pathway to zero-carbon energy, sustainable land use, and sustainable global supply chains. Solutions will require a high degree of cross-border cooperation. Asia’s new zero-carbon energy system should link together the economies and energy systems of Korea with China, Japan, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Australia and New Zealand.

The world also faces the challenge of rising inequalities. Societies are divided by class, educational attainment, and sector and type of work. The growing inequalities should be overcome through more effective systems of social protection, higher labor standards, and better educational opportunities for all.

Technological change is the deepest long-term driver of global change, and an area where Korea is, through great efforts, a world leader. We will need the new sustainable technologies to confront the crises of climate change and hunger. Yet we may also suffer from the new technologies if and when they are misused. Every day we confront the disruptions and inequalities caused by artificial intelligence, robotics, social media and the rapid change in jobs caused by technological change. We must handle these disruptions wisely and for the common good.

The pace and scale of global change – geopolitical, environment, social and technological – are unprecedented. True solutions lie in a better understanding of the forces at play, more international cooperation, and a global spirit of problem solving. A better understanding of the New World Economy, and solutions to our growing set of crises, will be the aim of my new columns in the months ahead.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a world-renowned economics professor, bestselling author, innovative educator and global leader in sustainable development. -- Ed.