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Friday, 9 September 2011

Twin Towers a blip on global radar amid economic shift

Over the coming week we're going to see a lot of images like this. It's sort of comforting in a perverse way. It's comforting because not only are such images now plain fare for media consumers, but because they recall a moment of common purpose. Nine-eleven is a historical moment most of us can share. Those excluded - the very young - can refer to their parents' or relatives' memories and the emotions that are connected to them. The memories attached to such images must take into account a striking reality - office workers falling from a high-rise building, passenger planes colliding with buildings, a pall of grey smoke running away across the sharp New York skyline - and also the underlying reality embodied in the hatred that unleashed this quantity of violence against a symbol - for most in the West - not of oppression but of progress and prosperity.

Since nine-eleven al Qaeda has changed although its ultimate goals may not have. The overthrow of America and the establishment of a pan-national Islamic state were concepts hard enough to accept in 2001 for most Westerners, but we learned. The movement tried a few more things but since 2005 there have been few serious incidents. The official response led to a number of new laws and new protocols at airport security points, but these changes are no longer overly irksome for most people. A number of al Qaeda leaders have been eliminated, anti-terror authorities have thwarted a number of new attacks before they could be carried out, and we are left to contemplate those memorable images in relative peace.

The sleeping giant in the new post-nine-eleven world is, of course, China. The bulk of economic growth, says Angus Taylor, an economist with Port Jackson Partners, a Sydney consulting firm, has been since 2003 outside the developed world. The video is on today's The Australian website.
What we've seen in the global economy in the last 10 years has been an extraordinary flip, where if you looked prior to 2003 or so, about two-thirds of economic growth was coming from the developed world and one-third from the developing world. What happened from about 2003 is that turned on its head, so that you're seeing now about two-thirds of economic growth coming from the developing world and one-third from the developed world.
The reason that matters so much for us is that those people in the developing world are poorer and what they want as their economies grow is not so much plasma TVs or cars, but the basic infrastructure and food, fibre. [It's a] transition into the middle class.
The price of food has been named as one of the reasons for social unrest this year in the Middle East that has led to the overthrow of three governments - in Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia - rather than an al Quaeda-led shift away from the notion of the sovereign state to a multinational Islamic regime. Corruption and wealth disparities are matters of as much concern to average residents of such countries as the issue of Israel and the struggles of the Palestinians. The grievances of an organised militant operation are of less moment than the aspirations of a nominal mass of people who want the same things that Westerners have taken for granted for at least two generations.

Chinese people also want these things but the difference here is that China also stands as a destabilising influence on a global scale in a way that no country has done since the Soviet Union collapsed, starting in 1989. Nine-eleven was a blip on the radar within a 14-year hiatus during which China reconfigured itself to emerge as a major player on the global political stage. The rise of the developing world is a fact of far greater import to the West than al Qaeda's theatrical coup amid the high-priced real estate of downtown New York City.

What al Qaeda represents in a wider frame of reference, however, is a matter of identity, of status. The attacks on the Twin Towers were a visible statement that said, 'We're as good as you. Don't underestimate us.' It also pointed to the use of religion in Islamic countries as a means of stabilising personal and community identity within an environment of shifting priorities and values. As these countries have grown economically and, in many ways, begun to emulate the West, something other was needed - on both a personal and a community level - to offset the stresses of change. New commodities, new priorities, new ways of looking at the future - possibly even the idea of "the future" itself - have led to a new way of framing the world. The most obvious tool for use in this quest was, of course, religion.

'We are as good as you. In fact, we're better than you,' has been the tone of this historical moment. More wealth and persistent corruption have meant that people are looking for a way to compete on the global stage with those they are coming to rival. But in Indonesia and China the way people are working out these problems, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, is not through regime change. There are opportunities here for Westerners to capitalise on these changes. Instead of looking at images of planes flying into buildings, we should be looking at how these countries are expressing their aspirations, and not just reporting the stories that demonstrate that we are, still, in some way better than them.

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