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The Real Challenge of the Century

“The defining challenge of the 21st century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet,” writes Jeffrey Sachs in the current issue of Time. “We are, in short, in one another’s faces as never before, crowded into an interconnected society of global trade, migration, ideas and, yes, risk of pandemic diseases, terrorism, refugee movements and conflict.” Sachs’s essay, entitled “Common Wealth,” leads off the magazine’s cover story, “10 Ideas That Are Changing the World.”

Sachs, to his credit, wants the world to change so that humankind is free to realize its potential. Because he thinks everyone should cooperate, he needs the help of virtually every national government on the planet. Therefore, it is not surprising that the exuberant economist ignores the most destructive scourge plaguing humanity at this time: bad governance, especially totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Nowhere in his Time essay does Sachs talk about oppression as a barrier to the critical goals he lists.

That’s an enormous omission, but if I may, I’ll skip all the good words about democratic institutions and get to the point. It is not just Sachs who is naive. Americans and others in the West seem to have lost their will to oppose oppressors. The commonly held view is that, with globalization, we can all get along and work toward the same solutions. This is, after all, the guiding view of Condoleezza Rice, who seems willing to ignore most any uncooperative act committed by China or Russia these days, in the name of diplomatic amity.

So far, her approach has not resulted in making any situation better. Détente did not win the Cold War. We conducted a grim, decades-long struggle with totalitarian societies. Today, confronting authoritarianism is passé and Sachs’s one-world cooperation is fashionable.

Democracies may not always do the right thing at first about pandemic diseases, terrorism, or refugee movements, to name just some of the problems that rightly trouble Sachs, but democracy is the starting point for all enduring solutions. And he is right that we all share a single fate at this moment. That’s why everyone should have some say in what the world does to meet universal challenges. Yet many today cannot express their views while dictators, authoritarians, and rogues are allowed to determine what their subjects say, think, and do.

So, Professor Sachs, if you want to accomplish worthy goals, join us in opposing repression. It is the first order of business for humanity and the defining challenge of this century.



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