Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It's a great time to be an expat

Get out there and explore the damned world already!
Photo by Hartwig HKD
Note: Today's post is more of a philosophical ramble of ideas that have been crossing my mind. It probably won't do a damn thing to help you become an expat.

Despite my writing about the doom and gloom that is the impact of the poorly thought out FATCA law, it's a fascinating time to be an expat, particularly one from the US. While times might seem hard right now, adventures are things that we often don't appreciate while they're happening, but create great stories to share after the pain has faded. And the world is going through a grand adventure right now and I fully believe that whatever emerges isn't going to be what was. The reason for this is simple: the world is finally reacting to a uni-polar world. The following will seem like a strange ramble, unrelated to expats, but bear with me.

In international politics, there is a theory that a bi-polar world, a world with two superpowers balancing each other, is more stable than a multi- or uni-polar world. In a multi-polar world, you have a world with many great powers vying for supremacy, such as the world in the century prior to WWII. Alliances, broken promises, and a constant jousting for position allegedly lead to a fragile, conflict-ridden state of international politics, while a bi-polar world is one where each superpower has states who follow it and the gulf is so wide that states generally do not cross from one side to the other. Thus, the bi-polar world is viewed as stable.

Well today, we live in the uni-polar world of American hegemony. There is simply no competition. China quietly advances, deliberately limiting their presence on the world stage. The EU has no common foreign policy and their lack of fiscal union has led to the instability of the Euro (and the Eurozone). Russia has tried repeatedly to put themselves back on the world stage, but it's clear they are not the superpower that the USSR was. There was even strange talk about the rise of Brazil, but current Brazilian woes have put an end to that. India? Not likely. Though they're growing fast, they have enough local problems that asserting themselves on the world stage isn't likely any time soon.

So the US stands as the lone world superpower. In fact, some argue that because there is no serious contender as an alternate superpower, US dominion will continue, but they've overlooked the one nation that has the might to threaten the standing of the US: the US itself. With no significant check on US power, the US is looking inward and not doing a great job working with the rest of the world.

In this 2003 interview with Kenneth Waltz, a professor emeritus of political science at UC Berkely, when asked about the danger of a unipolar world, said (emphasis mine):
The greatest danger was described very well by a French cleric, who died in 1713, who was also a counselor to rulers, who said: I have never known a country disposing of overwhelming power to behave with forbearance and moderation for more than a very short period of time. And we've seen this over and over again. It illustrates nicely how states fail to learn from history, from other countries' experiences. Time and time again, countries that dispose of overwhelming power, as we now do, have abused their power. The key characteristic of a unipolar world is that there are no checks and balances against that power, so it's free to follow its fancy, it's free to act on its whims. Since there are very minor, very weak external constraints, everything depends on the internal politics of the country in question.
Now look at where we've come. By the late 1990s, the US had balanced their budget, was paying down the debt, was widely respected, if not liked, and while the seeds of political contention were strong (who can forget the waste of time that was the Whitewater debacle?), things were generally going well. And then 9/11 happened.

The "coalition of the willing"
prior to the last Iraq war.
Though the world was behind the US invasion of Afghanistan, by the time the US was beating the drums of war for Iraq, the coalition of the willing was an embarrassing hodgepodge of countries with many US allies missing from said list.

Fast forward to 2013.

The US is struggling to maintain influence in South America, the threat of a US military assault is becoming less likely and the real threat of a US default on its debt is becoming increasingly likely.

So what does this mean for expats? On a day to day basis, it really doesn't mean much. However, over the long term, I think this is an incredibly fascinating time to explore the world. We don't know what's going to happen, but many agree that the uni-polar model of American hegemony can't last. I don't know if it will end from the US loss of influence of the rise of the influence of rivals (or a combination), but the world is changing radically right now. History is going to look back at this time as a phase change in the world political structure that started with 9/11, though the seeds were planted long before that.

More and more Americans are leaving the US. More scientists are contemplating leaving the US (and believe me, other countries will happily snap them up). The burgeoning cloud computing industry in the US is facing billions of dollars in losses over the PRISM scandal and these repercussions are being felt throughout the IT industry. Most new US jobs in the "recovery" are part-time jobs, helping to obscure the high unemployment rates. The US manufacturing base is shrinking. And while everyone was paying attention to the Detroit bankruptcy, they were ignoring the fact that cities and municipalities across the US are declaring bankruptcy. Though my fellow Americans may hate me for calling a spade a spade, I cannot help but think that this is just the beginning.

So get off your butt. Get your TEFL certification. Prep your CV. Read about the European Blue Card. The world is changing and you can either sit at home and read about it, or get on a plane and experience it.

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