How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline
By Jonathan Tepperman
307 pp. Tim Duggan Books. $28.
The timing of this book could not be better. Big Think has run into a ditch. No one appears to agree on fundamental ideas about governing anymore, and we’re not even sure what we’re arguing about. The grand ideological debates of the 20th and early 21st centuries — capitalism versus socialism, democracy versus authoritarianism — today seem too broad, tired and pointless, and little has come along to replace them. Globalization, the economic paradigm of our era, has become an epithet in the mouths of insurgent politicians exploiting middle-class discontent on both right and left (that would be you, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders). The people in power on both sides of the aisle and the Atlantic, the so-called establishment, still seem surprised by the magnitude of the backlash — by Trump, by Sanders, by Brexit, by the deepening anger — and confused about how to respond. And with no one pointing a way through the paralysis, either in Washington or Western capitals like Brussels, democracy itself has seemed to curdle, especially with the Arab Spring degenerating into something close to civilizational collapse.
We are in other words utterly adrift, ideologically speaking. It’s hardly a surprise the vacuum of ideas is being filled, in the political arena, by atavistic impulses like nationalism, racism and xenophobia.
Jonathan Tepperman’s smart and agile answer to this “gathering darkness,” as he calls it, is to take a giant step back from the larger, paralyzed debate. In “The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline,” Tepperman sets aside Big Think to serve up a smorgasbord of small think: practical, microcosmic solutions to big problems in sometimes surprising places from Brazil to Botswana to New York City. Tepperman, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, offers what he calls “a data-driven case for optimism” at a time when “most of us have glumly concluded that our governments are broken and our domestic and international problems are insurmountable.” He divides his “good news book” into chapters on what he describes as “the Terrible Ten” problems: inequality, immigration, Islamic extremism, civil war, corruption, the “resource curse,” energy, the “middle-income trap” (the difficulty countries have in making the leap from developmental success to wealthy-nation status) and two kinds of political gridlock: what’s not working worldwide, and American-style. Then he travels to 10 places around the world to highlight successful local or national solutions to these problems.
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Almost to a tale, they are stories of gutsy political pragmatism in the midst of crisis, often involving battlefield conversions by unusually adaptable and able leaders unfettered by “ideological handcuffs.” In Brazil, the business community and economists were initially horrified when Lula da Silva, a rough-hewn labor leader who had experienced extreme poverty as a child, was elected president. But the “rabble-rouser metamorphosed into the Great Conciliator,” Tepperman writes, and to address Brazil’s terrible income inequality Lula launched Bolsa Família, an innovative and relatively inexpensive cash-transfer program that didn’t just give people handouts but required “counterpart responsibilities,” including government demands to use some of the money to send one’s kids to school and ensure they are immunized and get regular checkups (along with their mothers). Lula ended up winning over even conservatives in his country and dramatically reducing poverty, leading the former World Bank expert Nancy Birdsall to conclude that Bolsa Família is “as close as you can come to a magic bullet in development.” More than 60 countries sent experts to Brazil to study the program, and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg based his Opportunity NYC program on Lula’s idea.
Tepperman devotes a separate chapter to Bloomberg’s own innovative approach to breaking through Washington gridlock to secure his prime-target city in the face of terrorist threats. Elected two months after 9/11, Bloomberg had cause to despair over Washington’s ineptitude in counterterrorism. His response was to “work around the federal government and do something no modern American city had ever attempted: try to defend itself, by itself,” Tepperman writes. Bloomberg reappointed a no-nonsense career N.Y.P.D. officer, Ray Kelly, as police commissioner, and Kelly rose to the challenge, becoming the city’s “secretary of defense, head of the C.I.A. and . . . chief architect all rolled into one,” in the words of the New York University urban studies professor Mitchell Moss. Kelly in turn hired David Cohen, a C.I.A. veteran who created a raft of new response teams and used his knowledge of Washington’s byzantine ways to force the feds into sharing intelligence. Ignoring the Justice Department’s qualms, Kelly sent officers to 11 foreign cities to foster cop-to-cop cooperation, and deployed 100 more to “muscle their way” onto the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force to demand full access to F.B.I. files.
Under Bloomberg’s brash leadership, this all happened with admirable swiftness and efficiency: By 2002 the Police Department had 60 fluent Arabic speakers on staff, almost double the number the F.B.I. could claim three years later, Tepperman writes. And by the time Bloomberg left office in 2013, the F.B.I., C.I.A., Secret Service and Defense Intelligence Agency had all asked New York for advice.
Tepperman finds successful leadership stories in some unlikely places. Among them is Mexico, which despite its reputation north of the border (especially this election season) for runaway corruption and drug violence has begun to recover under President Enrique Peña Nieto, who impressively exploited the despair of Mexico’s political elites to forge unprecedented cooperation. In just the first 18 months after his July 2012 election, Peña Nieto “managed to bust open Mexico’s smothering monopolies and antiquated energy sector, restructure the country’s education system and modernize its tax and banking laws,” Tepperman writes (though he may have lost some of that political capital after his widely criticized August meeting with Donald Trump). Across the world in Botswana, the “cleaner than a hound’s tooth” Seretse Khama lifted his country beyond its dependence on the “resource curse” of diamonds, building what was considered, for a time, one of the best-governed countries in the developing world — a system so structured against corruption that it is, for now, resisting the alleged abuses of his far less capable son, Ian Khama.
Though the book is not long, Tepperman goes into impressive detail in each case study and delivers his assessments in clear, pared-down prose, careful to describe most of his success stories as experiments that could still fail. “The Fix” is no clip job either: Tepperman spent considerable time flying around the globe for his own research, including interviews with Lula, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and other leaders.
Perhaps the biggest question about Tepperman’s thesis is one he addresses but doesn’t fully answer: whether many of these programs are readily transferable to other places, or are unique to the political culture whence they sprang. In the end, for example, Bloomberg’s version of Bolsa Família failed to gain traction in New York, and there are indications it may work better in rural than in urban areas. And it’s somewhat easier to embrace large-scale immigration if you’re Canada (another case study Tepperman looks at), and you enjoy the world’s second-largest state by landmass (after Russia) with something like one-tenth the population of the United States. Perhaps what scholars call the “Canadian exception” — its avoidance of anti-immigrant backlashes — has as much to do with these peculiar conditions as anything its leaders have done. Tepperman’s answer to the energy/climate problem is also not terribly persuasive: He cites the shale revolution as a rare American success story (these days anyway), but that seems more an example of geological luck and greed than inspired leadership. Tepperman may also be too sanguine about some of his political heroes: Brazil’s Lula is under investigation for graft, and his handpicked successor has just been impeached.
But to answer these larger questions adequately, perhaps what we need most is a renewal of Big Think — a deeper reconsideration of the outdated ideologies of our day. In the meantime, Tepperman has produced an indispensable handbook on ways to work around the problem.
Michael Hirsh is the national editor of Politico Magazine and the author of “Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street.”