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Coda: No Longer the Gold Standard

(Subscribe to World Policy Journal through SAGE)

From the Summer 2012 Games People Play issue

By David A. Andelman

Will McAvoy, a primetime cable news anchor and Aaron Sorkin’s lead character in his new HBO primetime series “The Newsroom,” pushed to the limits in the series pilot, blurts out in a public forum that the United States is no longer the world leader in any important metric. “We are seventh in literacy, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports,” McAvoy shouts. “So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Needless to say, Sorkin’s loud-mouthed anchor runs into a mess of trouble as a result of his outburst.

When I first began traveling the world for The New York Times in the 1970s and CBS News a decade later, the United States was pretty much perceived as the gold standard by just about every metric. But Sorkin’s anchor is right. Today, we are no longer the greatest country in the world or even a model others seek to emulate. In our spring issue of World Policy Journal, I explored the standards for constitutional and elective government and discovered that much of the world chooses to imitate Canada when they draft their constitutions—including the emerging democracies of the Arab Spring and the newly minted nations of Eastern Europe and Central Asia who are still experimenting with their own homegrown democratic models.

In terms of health care, social and economic values (equities and inequities), culture, and the human condition, much of the world has surpassed the United States. Somehow the social compact between the haves and have-nots in America and much of the rest of the world has been broken. After World War I, the United States had gradually emerged as the leading power. We saved the world for democracy, which we then proceeded to define in our own image. We bankrolled a prostrate Europe under the Marshall Plan, and we stood as the bulwark against the pernicious spread of communism, ultimately bringing this dictatorship of the human spirit to an ignominious end.

This is history. Yet we must live in the present and look to the future. Sadly, we may have fallen even further than may be apparent at first glance. Even the Will McAvoy character overestimates America, by quite a lot in some cases. In literacy, the United States is tied for 21st—not seventh—outdone by such nations as Russia, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Barbados. The most literate nation in the world is Georgia, which according to UNDP figures boasts 100 percent literacy.

The “22nd in science” is more difficult to quantify. One metric might be the number of researchers for every one million inhabitants. By this standard, according to UNESCO, the United States is number 10, just behind Luxembourg, with 4,663 researchers per million people. Finland tops the list with 7,707, followed closely by Iceland and Singapore. Indeed, in our Innovation issue last fall, World Policy Journal singled out Finland, Singapore, and Israel as three of the most innovative nations, based on the number of patents. Israel does not appear on the census of researchers compiled by UNESCO.

As for life expectancy, the UN Development Program reports that the United States, which spends more per person on health than any other country, has a life expectancy of 78.3 years, or 36th in the world (better than McAvoy’s 49th, but still more than four years shorter than Japan—the global leader). By contrast, Mozambique, where AIDS has decimated the population, finds the average citizen dying at 39.2 years—the world’s worst record. With respect to infant mortality, the number is far better than McAvoy’s 178th, but still dismal. The United States records 7.07 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births—34th in the world. Better, certainly than Afghanistan (the world’s worst) with 144.1 for every 1,000 births or Sierra Leone’s 134.57, but still a lot worse than 2.60 in Singapore (the world’s best) or Japan with 3.14.

In terms of median household income, we do considerably better—indeed number two in the world (just behind Luxembourg) at $31,111. But if we look at the world through the prism of per capita GDP (gross domestic product), the United States falls to number 11 with $48,100, far behind Liechtenstein’s per capita $141,100, according to the CIA World Factbook.


More telling, however, are some metrics omitted by Sorkin, via his mouthpiece McAvoy. Topping any such list has to be income disparity. Indeed, income inequality is correlated with a poor showing in all of Sorkin’s metrics and can corrode a society and its most fundamental values. Here, while the United States is far from the world’s worst, among developed countries, America’s showing is an embarrassment. Wealth inequality is no longer the domain of corrupt countries far from home. Forbes reported last December that the six members of the Walton family who founded Wal-Mart, have more wealth than the bottom 30 percent of all Americans—that’s more than 94 million people. Such anecdotal evidence is compelling, but the most valuable, though alas largely unattainable, measure is how the top 1 percent lives, or even more dramatically, how the top 0.1 percent live compared with the bottom 99.9 percent.

Sadly, the United States has joined so many other countries atop the pyramid of income disparities—even further removed from the shining model to which it still aspires. We’ve seen what inequality in wealth or income can do to other countries. It can lead to populist, often violent, uprisings or societal malaise—widespread discontent, even violent efforts to overthrow governments perceived as perpetuating an unequal status quo. Certainly, this was the case in several nations of the Arab Spring—especially Egypt.

Even back in Soviet times, Russians knew there was an elite of apparatchiki. While few ever saw them shopping in their special stores, having their special food packets delivered to their lavish apartments, spending weekends in their sprawling country dachas, sunning themselves in exclusive Black Sea resorts, or entertaining themselves in special Kremlin performances, there was other evidence of their perks that placed them all but totally out of reach of the people they ruled. There were broad central lanes down the sweeping boulevards of Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) where their black Zil limousines screamed at top speeds, the “militsia” clearing a path as they sped from homes to offices or lunch. I once had a chance for a fleeting glance inside one of these Zils—paneled in the rarest of lush hardwood, hand-made Persian carpets on the floor, bottled water and vodka at their elbow with the finest crystal to fill and re-fill.

Russia has hardly been the exception. In Manila, Bangkok, and a host of other Asian capitals, the wealthy live lives of extraordinary privilege. In Bangkok, one wealthy businessman invited me to his second floor and threw open the door to a room nearly a block long with an enormous mahogany table stretching to the end. On the table lay a magnificent collection of carved jade dishes, platters, and serving pieces. “This is the entire dinner set from one of the Ming emperors,” he smiled proudly. “The Chinese National Museum in Taipei has two candlesticks from this service. This is all the rest.” It was truly sumptuous. We headed downstairs and out to his car for dinner. A second car, filled with armed guards, followed at a hardly discrete distance. “I don’t invite any Thais to see what I’ve showed you,” he smiled thinly. “I trust no one. They would never understand.”


What seems increasingly prevalent across the developing world is a crisis of rising expectations, just as much of the developed world is being forced to lower their expectations, tightening their belts as austerity bites across Europe and much of America. Until quite recently, there was simply broad acceptance of the status quo in a host of countries. The ruling class will profit from the work of the masses. There is virtually no middle class. Historically, a thriving middle class is essential for a true economic revolution to take place—and succeed.

The reason is quite simple. With an apparently unbridgeable gap between a vast underclass and a tiny ruling class, and by ruling I mean economically as well as politically, there is little hope for a grand leap across a gulf. Vast masses of the developing world were living in a form of serfdom not substantially different from what existed across much of Europe throughout the Middle Ages, when farm laborers were effectively enslaved to their feudal overlords. Such a practice continued in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe and Eurasia until the arrival of communism before or just after World War I. But in Africa and vast stretches of Asia, serfdom effectively persisted well into the 20th century and even persists today. Wide stretches of inland China—still outside the monetized economy—remain a challenge for the nation’s rulers in Beijing. Equally in parts of Africa, many interior tribal regions continue as areas where farm workers are effectively indentured.

That such practices will continue to fade is a tribute, largely, to the rapid spread of communications and transparency all but unimaginable in previous history. When I first arrived in Cambodia in December 1974, there was no television. Electricity was spotty. Radio was equally rare, and it took us days to book a telephone call through to the West from the PTT—a rambling, two-story wooden building in Phnom Penh that dated back to the French colonial period. Even if successful, the call, when it went through, was all but unintelligible. The next three years I spent in Bangkok and the following three years in Belgrade were similarly bleak. Television provided only the rarest glimpses of the world beyond the nation’s borders, while telephone calls were wildly impractical luxuries.

Across much of urban Southeast Asia, the evidence of substantial wealth in those days was not often begrudged. In Thailand, His Majesty the King lived like—well, a king. Few Thais questioned this lifestyle. He was, after all, worshipped by his people. When he traveled in his custom Range Rover in the most remote jungle villages, families lined the road for hours awaiting his arrival in worshipful silence. In the capital, those close to the royal family and other leading business families lived in lavish compounds, their high walls concealing Olympic-sized pools or even artificial lakes, patrolled by swans and tended by servants who each night went back to their own squalid huts. There was no thought of any rebellion that might send them back to their villages deep in the jungle where their families lived lives of quiet desperation, hovering between survival and hunger. Above all, there was no sense that banding together would have any impact approaching the demands of those like the Red Shirts who converged on Bangkok in the last several years, seeking better lives, or at least a return to power of politicians—themselves wealthy beyond imagination—who promised a better future and upward mobility. While reverence for the monarchy remains a constant, today the most remote villager can increasingly see and experience the wealth of the few—especially ironic is their champion, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, himself a media magnate, installed the very capacity that’s transformed the rural landscape.

The question, of course, is whether this new power—released in a host of nations after pent up decades of frustration and penury and enabled by the communications revolution of the 21st century—would do anything but propel to power a new ruling class that would then seek in turn to enrich itself. That, indeed, is a cycle long familiar to the developing world—whether autocratic in nature or democratic by declaration. Bernard Lewis, the Middle Eastern scholar, points out in his autobiography, Notes on a Century, that in Turkey, 1950 “was the time when the Turkish government held a free and genuinely fair election—in which it was defeated. Even more remarkably, the government then quietly and decently withdrew and handed over power to the victorious opposition. This was a totally new experience for the people of Turkey or indeed of any Muslim country. … What followed I can only describe as catastrophic. Adnan Menderes, the leader of the party which won the election, soon made it perfectly clear that he had no intention whatever of leaving by the same route by which he had come. He regarded this as a change of regime and had no respect at all for the electoral process.” As it happens, Menderes managed to retain power for 10 years. Ousted finally by a military coup in 1960, he was hanged by the new ruling junta, but eventually became one of three secular leaders of the Turkish Republic—the others being Atatürk (the founder of modern Turkey) and Turkut Özal—to have mausoleums built in their honor. 

The moral here is that even individuals who pay little more than lip service to democracy, or come to power by democratic means that they quickly pervert, can retain the respect, even the admiration of the people they rule or repress. One Turkish professor told Professor Lewis barely a year after Menderes took power that he believed the newly elected leader was “the father of democracy in Turkey.” When Lewis and several other professors within earshot expressed their astonishment, their colleague responded, “Well, he screwed the mother of democracy.”


It is all but impossible for the truly democratic nations to understand the dynamics in vast regions of the world that have never known such concepts. In 1984, with rumors running wild that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was about to launch a southerly invasion into Chad, I paid a visit to Chad’s capital, Ndjamena. It was a tense period. Chad was hardly a paragon of democracy—then or now—but it certainly was a far cry from the vindictive dictatorship practiced by Qaddafi. Indeed the French Foreign Legion had even flown in a contingent from its nearest base in Gabon to dissuade the Libyan leader from embarking on such a misguided adventure. But what most struck me was how quickly a neighboring dictator swung into action and how quickly “the people” could be mobilized in adoring support.

Mobutu Sese-Seko served as ruler of the Democratic Republic of Congo, known then and for much of his nearly 32-year reign as Zaire. By the time I ran across him, he was at the height of his powers—the very model of a modern autocrat (and as venal as they came), well on the way to amassing a personal fortune that amounted to at least $5 billion by 1984 ($11 billion in today’s dollars). At the same time, he rarely hesitated to execute potential opponents, authors of a coup, or any others who might pose even a remote risk to his unfettered, corrupt reign.

At that moment, in 1984, Mobutu decided it was the right thing to hustle over to Chad from his home in Kinshasa on his private plane and demonstrate his support for the embattled government of his neighbor. At more than 905,000 square miles, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) is the second largest nation in Africa, larger than the combined territories of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway. It is also nearly twice the size of Chad, an impoverished and mineral-poor territory straddling the Saharan desert and sub-Saharan jungle. 

We were tipped off late to his arrival and managed to hustle our camera crew out to the small airstrip on the fringes of the decaying capital of Ndjamena just in time to watch Mobutu hoist himself into the largest custom Jeep I’d ever seen. The tires came up roughly to eye level with our cameraman who had to tilt up to capture Mobutu, towering above him. The vehicle, in olive green, was open on the top and sides. Mobutu stood in the back, planting his feet firmly on the floorboard. Standing at least 6 feet 2 inches, he was clad head-to-toe in leopard skin—including his trademark hat—and was clutching in his left hand a giant, jewel-topped staff. But all of this was just the trappings. What was most riveting, as his Jeep pulled off (and which got us on the CBS Evening News that night) was the tens of thousands of Chadians who ran in front, around the sides and behind him. They were jumping and clapping, chanting at the top of their voices: “Mo-BU-to, Mo-BU-to, Mo-BU-to.” It was a rhythmic and utterly hypnotic sound to the deep, powerful beat of scores of drums as the entire entourage moved in a stately pace down the road toward the old presidential palace (a sorry French-colonial leave-behind) in downtown Ndjamena.

Rent-a-crowds like this were hardly a new phenomenon to me. But they were, largely, the trappings of regimes that had all but totally lost touch with their people. The gap was as much political as economic, their hold on power cemented through forces of security and the intimidation they wielded all but indiscriminately. If there was ever social or political compacts between such nations and their leaders, it had long ago fractured. How it might ever be restored is doubtless a long process of healing deep wounds and changing ancestral practices and ways of life.

Unequal societies are inherently fragile, forcing the ruling class to rely on some combination of strongarm tactics and a cult of personality to stay in power. In October 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat paid a visit to Romania’s communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, who had told Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin, as a thumb-in-the-eye gesture to the Soviet leadership which had broken all diplomatic relations with Israel, that he’d be happy to mediate between Sadat and Begin. To make sure his role had maximum impact, there was an elaborate farewell ceremony for Sadat at the Bucharest Airport. I arrived hours before the ceremony, in time to spot an immense cavalcade of buses pulling up behind the terminal building. Out of the bus poured hordes of workers, swept up from their factories in and around the capital, some trucked in from hundreds of miles away, to form an enormous and carefully programmed crowd to greet the two national leaders. Ceausescu was anxious to make certain that the extent of the welcome was visible to the Kremlin leadership. And Ceausescu rarely disappointed when it came to making points publicly. What he’d arranged was a truly overwhelming show of support—cheers rolling across the tarmac; flowers tossed at the leaders; sheer, unadulterated, and clearly staged joy by people who had little or no choice and whose enthusiasm would be carefully noted—certainly any lack thereof becoming an important part of the dossier kept meticulously on virtually every citizen from cradle to grave in this paragon of a police state. When Sadat’s plane had lifted off and turned out of sight, the crowds—their faces again grim and silent—were herded back on their buses, back to the factory floors.

As an aside, the only person who turned out to be at all surprised was Sadat himself, but not for anything Ceausescu had ginned up. Just as he was about to bolt up the stairs to his plane, I managed to make my way to his side. I identified myself. Sadat turned, shocked that a New York Times correspondent had found him there, then leapt up the stairs. It was only years later that I learned Sadat had chosen Ceausescu’s closed, carefully controlled Romania as the perfect hidden venue for the secret talks that would eventually lead to the Camp David accords—the Begin-Sadat summit that President Jimmy Carter hosted in September 1978.


If there were ever haves and have-nots in this world, it was in many of these communist-era dictatorships. Without question, vestiges of this gap remain and are likely to do so for some time, especially in the descendant states of the former Soviet Union. From Belarus to the vast bulk of the Central Asian republics that are still controlled by the same families that held sway under Kremlin rule to huge swaths of Africa and Latin America, much of the world—some 2.5 billion people, according to Freedom House—is still ruled by autocratic oligarchies. In some nations, the gaps between these rulers and their wealthy backers are wider than others. In such oil rich nations as Kazakhstan, rulers may have managed to stave off gap-based rebellion longer than others where thievery is more blatant and the resources to bribe the populace into submission less readily available. Middle East oil producers like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, ruled by closed, hereditary monarchies, have managed to keep the aspirations of even their most deprived citizens in check by maintaining ways of life that are all but unheard of in much of the rest of the world. Think gas at 49 cents a gallon in Saudi Arabia, 85 cents in Kuwait. Still, even gas at $1.17 a gallon in Cairo wasn’t enough to stave off a rebellion born of historic inequities and repression.

For the moment, the bulk of these haves will manage to retain power. But many of the same forces that led to the fall of regime after totalitarian, kleptocratic regime across the Middle East are building across other parts of the world. Last fall in Moscow, more than six months after the debut of the Arab Spring, the question on the tips of virtually every tongue was, “When might it happen here?” Certainly, the masters of the Kremlin must be living in fear of a no longer far-fetched scenario. If the likes of a Mubarak, Qaddafi, even potentially an Assad can be toppled, can Putin be far behind? Indeed, these days there is considerably less wiggle-room than ever for the Kremlin to buy off its critics or its growing and increasingly vocal middle class. With crude prices hovering at barely $100 a barrel and production flat in vast stretches of Russian oil fields, without an enormous catastrophe in the Middle East that would make Russian oil and gas the only game in town, new and expensive Russian subsidies to bribe voters into silence are unrealistic. Little wonder the Kremlin is nervous—or that is prepared to do what it can to help neighboring Iran and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad wreak havoc. Unrest in the oil belt is only likely to keep prices at levels elevated by traders fearing disruptions to Middle East oil output.

One Russian interpreter told me as we were strolling past some packed shop windows, with empty aisles that “there is one big difference between now and when you were coming here in the 1980s. Back then, we had plenty of money and there was nothing to buy. Today, we have no money and the shops are stocked.”  In the final years of the Soviet kleptocracy, the only individuals who lived unfailingly well were the families of the nomenklatura—those who were privileged to shop in state stores or, because of their authorized, foreign earnings were allowed the privilege of shopping in beriozkas, dollar stores that catered to tourists and those favored Russians with sources of hard currency. Here, mountains of vacuum-packed jars of caviar and smoked sturgeon were stocked next to the finest silk scarves. Down the block, long lines formed on rumors of a shipment of vodka about to arrive at a state liquor store, or some cheap cuts of real beef at a butcher, whose shelves were otherwise quite bare.

Today, there are still too many with their noses pressed against the glass. But now, these $10,000 Paris couture originals, the $30,000 Swiss watches, the Porsches, Audis, and Mercedes, not to mention the increasingly frequent Ferraris or Bentleys, are everywhere. In the old Gum department store across Red Square from the Kremlin, the only vestige of the old prices are on the very top floor in a cafeteria designed to mimic the old days, but which is packed with those unable to afford the plush street-level cafes where a small bowl of borscht can go for $25.


There is little the West can do to narrow these vast gaps in wealth and privilege. Certainly, removing the causes of revolution is equally far beyond the capacity of any forces from the West, no matter how well they might be funded. But once efforts are launched from within, by forces of democracy and freedom seeking to overturn the status quo, there’s much that can be done.

The revolutionaries of Syria, and earlier, Libya would have us intervene, massively, then step aside. That has had a mixed track record in the past and holds little promise for the future. What’s clearly quite vital is that we become a model, rather than a facilitator or conspirator. With the West boasting gaps between rich and poor that are only widening, when rioting youths pour into the streets from Athens to Madrid, enraged by the more than 20 percent unemployment—or indeed 50 percent in their age group—while governments insist on riddling social safety nets with even more holes, it’s difficult to counsel patience and austerity elsewhere. Social and economic balance is needed while damaged economies are given the time to heal themselves. At a time of shrinking resources, it is not only America’s social compact that needs redrafting. Unlike our constitution and the accompanying chest-thumping rhetoric, which seems to be in all but regressive disfavor across the world, we do have the ability, with our enormous resources, to offer a new vision of an economic and social construct that can improve lives and help bridge the rich-poor gulf.

Where unrest turns to outright rebellion, different strategies are necessary. It is difficult to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of those prepared to fight for their freedom from autocrats and oligarchs. Arming rebels, or providing safe havens—as Turkey is doing so admirably for the refugees fleeing the violence in neighboring Syria—is a vital basis for future regional harmony once the fighting stops. By that time, new leaderships will unquestionably emerge. Monitored closely by those willing to risk their lives to install these new leaders into power, this may truly be the beginning of a new world order. And, soon, we may find that some of these nations have begun to rise to the top of the very metrics Will McAvoy holds so dear in “The Newsroom”—offering a challenge to the rest of us to catch up with them.



David A. Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal.

[Photo of Boat: Pawel Wewiorski]

[Cartoon: Damien Glez]

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Anonymous's picture
The Gap....widens

Thank you for the insights and vivid scenes retold. As a growing population of the world's have nots envision the consumptions and freedoms of the haves, i am reminded of the ancient Greek word plexonia: To want more than one needs. The Euro zone conundrums matched with the convultions of other nations indicates a profound and persistent imbalance of desires and productivity that underlies human conflicts. May some balance be found in a tumultuos world! Doing my local best, Richard Hayman Pomona NY


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