Ironically, the very people from whom the political elite believed they could expect gratitude, or at least tacit support, are now taking to the streets. It's a testament to the theory of French world traveler Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in the mid-19th century that it is not the impoverished masses who bring about change, but the people who have something to lose. In India, they are protesting the construction of pollutive factories and a sluggish legal system. In China they are speaking out against toxic food and the privileges of the party elite. And in Brazil, they are protesting the lack of educational opportunities and sinfully expensive vanity projects. They have become increasingly self-confident in demanding accountability, responsibility and good governance from their politicians.
Which of the three models can best cope with the economic setbacks and react most flexibly in the interest of its citizens? Are authoritarian systems better equipped for the challenges of the future than democratic systems? Is this just a temporary economic weakness, or have the predictions for these three new powers been too euphoric all along? And what does all this mean for the United States and Europe? Will they continue to fall behind, or could the West be on the verge of a comeback?
Some experts would have us believe that we are truly ailing, while Beijing, New Delhi and Brasília merely have a slight cough. But does Germany really have to get used to rising unemployment? Or can we actually expand the edge we still have when it comes to demanding jobs and high-tech research?
Corruption Remains a Problem
A few years ago, Harvard Professor Amartya Sen, the Indian winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics who helped create the UN's Human Development Index, told me that while GDP and per-capita income are important, they are by no means the only criteria that determine quality of life. "In my view, development means material prosperity as well as access to education, basic medical care, the right to free exercise of religion, the ability to exert political influence and protection against police repression," he said.
And this is where he sees considerable deficits among the new global players. "One country's weakness is another country's strength. China has achieved greater successes in expanding basic medical care and education. Life expectancy is high and the illiteracy rate is low. India fares better when it comes to protecting civil rights. The governments must comprehend that development means freedom -- freedom from poverty and tyranny." Sen is convinced that democracy, despite many setbacks, has proved to be successful on the whole. Unlike autocracy, said Sen, democracy helps to correct extreme aberrations.
And yet Sen, 79, was overcome by rage when he spoke about his native country. He deplored India's high child mortality rate, and the lack of access to clean drinking water and toilets. There are reasonable social programs in India, he said, but the authorities have failed in terms of implementation -- unlike Brazil were, despite many problems, things are at least slowly progressing. The South American giant has surged ahead of China and India in Sen's UN index. However, all three countries fare poorly on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, with Brazil ranked 69th, China 80th, and India in last place among the three powers at 94th.
Difficult Stage Ahead for New Powers
A visit with Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore and a globally respected elder statesman of Chinese descent, provides another perspective. Even the political leadership in Beijing reveres this man who, in his 45 years as premier and senior minister, transformed the former British colony into a flourishing city-state -- and one with a largely authoritarian government. "I will cultivate an intelligent, constructive opposition," he said in 1986 during our first interview.
Lee, 90, a friend of former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, has long seen a shift in global policy in the direction of Asia. "The 21st century will be an age of competition between China and the United States. I cannot predict how long the Americans can remain ahead. China is relentlessly on its way to number one," he says. Lee sees most of the excessive human rights violations in India, not in the land of his ancestors. "However, the idea of human rights is only gradually beginning to take hold in China. The notion that the state is the supreme authority, and that it cannot be questioned, still dominates their way of thinking," he adds.
Singapore's leader was long a devotee of Confucian values, and he is pleased that the great philosopher enjoys considerable respect in the People's Republic once again, after being banned for many years. But Lee doesn't just see Confucian teachings as promoting authority. Instead, he believes that Confucius emphasized education and the government's responsibility to the people. The absence of constitutional mechanisms and Chinese culture's mistrust of a free competition of ideas is harmful in the long term, says Lee. These are astonishing words for a thinker who spent a significant portion of his life flirting with the superiority of Asian values.
Lee believes that the new Chinese leadership has recognized, under the "impressive" Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, that the system must become more open. But Lee does not feel that this will automatically lead to a Western-style multi-party system. According to Lee, a confrontation with the United States can only be prevented if Beijing interacts intensively with the West in all areas.
Nobel laureate Sen and political professional Lee agree that the West has no reason to timidly withdraw from the competition between systems. So what could the world look like in 2025? Can we combine the predictions of economists, academics and politicians and, by conducting our own research, arrive at a relatively solid prediction?
China, India and Brazil are likely to continue their unstoppable ascent in the coming decade, but at a slower pace and without achieving the record growth rates of the past. It is now a question of the next, more difficult development stage, in which the three countries will be forced to recognize that the road from the world's underclass to its middle class is easier than the road to the top. In Beijing, in particular, something called the Lewisian turning point, named after a British economist, is likely to occur. This is when low-wage farm workers, long beneficial for the economy, are increasingly absorbed into the industrial sector, where they become a burden because of rising wages and the fact that the government must now provide them with health insurance and retirement pensions. India and Brazil, which, with their high birth rates, have at least a theoretical advantage over China and the West, are exposed to another unpleasant phenomenon -- the "middle income trap," in which the rising cost of production causes rapid, relatively simple growth to stagnate.
What About Europe?
In 2025, no one will be talking about the "Chinese dream" anymore, which Communist Party leader Xi Jinping recently touted as an alternative to the American dream. By then, everyone's illusions about Beijing's brand of authoritarian state capitalism will have been shattered, much like what happened with the so-called "Washington Consensus" of market fundamentalists who advocated giving completely free rein to forces in the financial sector. China, India and Brazil will have to find the ideal development model on their own. Models that have proven to be effective in Western societies cannot necessarily be transferred to other regions, at least not directly. But in the face of pressure from their increasingly well-informed citizens, they will have to turn their attention to the environment and strengthen institutions in the next decade. Russia will likely face the most difficult path. The population is shrinking, the economy is based almost exclusively on commodities, and civic participation in government has long since fallen victim to cynicism. In international diplomacy, Moscow's clever use of tactics on the Syrian issue was nothing more than a last gasp. Russia's rival China will get the better of Moscow, from Central Asia to Africa.
Despite the tendency toward self-destruction that it has demonstrated once again with its current government shutdown in Washington, the United States has a strong economic outlook, and it can be summed up in one word: fracking. As a result of this environmentally controversial technology for extracting natural gas from substantial depths, the United States will become independent of energy imports in the coming decade and can focus on nation-building at home.
But Europe remains the big puzzle. Will the old Continent, which former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer once called a "European chicken yard," have pulled itself together by 2025, after embarrassing years of petty disputes? Berlin will play a key role in the next decade. The successors of Germany's dithering Chancellor Angela Merkel could agree to a communitization of debts through Eurobonds, under strict conditions, and the institutions in Brussels could become more effective, transparent and democratic. A banking union could become reality, and there could be a sharp decline in youth unemployment in the south. A few high-tech jobs will likely return to Germany, when it becomes apparent that conditions abroad are not as favorable as some had believed.
That's the optimistic scenario. But it's also possible that Europe will persist in its current lethargy and become a pawn in the hands of the new powers -- a cultural amusement park that will be visited and admired by the winners of globalization as something of a well-preserved museum. According to a study by the Mercer consulting firm, Vienna, Zurich, Auckland and Munich are the cities with the highest quality of life worldwide. It is up to us to decide whether they simply remain pleasant places to live or also become dynamically oriented toward the future.