I was changing planes at the new airport in Jakarta the other day, on the way to Stockholm from Vladivostok. Three young Bangladeshi boys sat in the passenger lounge, watching The Power Rangers on satellite TV. Their mother--garbed in the traditional sari--talked to her cousin, a migrant worker who sold German-designed Walkman knockoffs in Hong Kong, on a shiny new Samsung cell phone. Sitting to one side of them was a young Chinese émigré on his way to Toronto to work for a software company, and on the other a business-suited Rastafarian making a connection to Bratislava. Meanwhile, a couple of Tuareg tribesmen sat cross-legged in front of the ticket counter, cooking yams over a flaming mound of ticket stubs.
What's my point? I don't actually have one--but opening my columns with strings of clichéd cultural juxtapositions really cuts down my workload. You see, since the Cold War ended, we've gone from superpowers to spreadsheets, Pershings to Pentiums, the Berlin Wall to suburban sprawl, olive trees to Lexuses. Are you ready? Because the whole world is changing. Unless you are one of the eight-tenths of humanity who at this moment are either hungry, illiterate, or field-stripping an AK-47, in which case I'll get back to you in some future column.
Nothing is local anymore. It's all global because the Internet makes everything local, which is the same as everything being global, because nothing has to be local when everything's global. Especially the local. For instance, I was talking to the guy who cleaned the toilets in my suite at the Bombay Hilton, and he told me, "If only I had a computer! You see, toilet-scrubbing in Bombay is really a local business, but with a laptop and a modem, I could maybe branch out into e-commerce services."
He gets it. He knows how the world works. Other people who understand how the world works are my good friends Ehud Barak, Haydar Aliyev--you know Haydar, the president of Azerbaijan?--Vladimir Putin, Kofi Annan, my book club, Strobe, Jim Baker, and the rest. I'd quote one of these guys here, but everyone's over at the Trilateral Commission's annual in London. (Did I mention I'm a member?)
But there are still many people who just don't seem to get it--and not just those stupid hippies in Seattle and D.C. For instance, I was recently on an author tour in Botswana promoting the Bantu-language version of my new book, having just returned from Uzbekistan via Khartoum. They had built a huge stage for me in the stadium at Gaborone, set up with lots of audio equipment and what looked to be a drum kit. There was a crowd of thousands, and they all kept shouting "Thrill-her! Thrill-her!" and "Mike-all!", which I believe is Bantu for "We love Freetrademan." (As my friend Nelson Mandela always likes to say, those crazy Botswana!)
Anyway, I picked up a microphone and explained why global free trade would eventually make everyone better off, even if some people would suffer in the short term. But they just looked confused. Eventually some husky men in SECURITY T-shirts escorted me back to my limo. Such are the forces aligned against progress.
But that was months ago. And in this ultrafast, hyperlinked, World-Wide-Webbed world of ours, that may as well be decades. When the speed of computer processors doubles every 18 months, old ideas and ideologies can become obsolete in weeks, even days. For instance, I once made up something called "The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention," which held that no two countries that have a McDonald's franchise have ever gone to war. Then the USAF bombed Belgrade. Oops!
But that just proves my point; like an inefficient Korean chaebol, I was forced to come up with a new theory. It's called "The Post-1989 Western Democracy Theory of Conflict Prevention," which holds that no two industrialized democracies in Western Europe and North America have ever gone to war since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And if that one fails, there's always my "Post-Hapsburg Lichtenstein-Morocco Theory of Conflict Prevention," which holds that no two remnant European city-states have ever gone to war since the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Anyway, the world out there is changing fast. We have to change with it--whether we are ready or not. But imagine the world as it could be if we finally tore down those walls. We could have a computer in every home, an Internet connection in every classroom, a Big Mac in every stomach, tortured metaphors in every paragraph--and a brilliant, free-trading, celebrity foreign affairs columnist in every newspaper.
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