August 24, 2008
Russia’s forceful return to the global stage means that the Pope’s grandchildren face a more uncertain future than their parents did.
The Pope’s Children are reproducing. The Irish birth rate has, for the first time, surpassed that of 1980,whenwe responded to Pope John Paul’s message on chastity with an orgy of fornication.
More than 72,000 babies were born in the country over the past 12 months. It has taken us nearly three decades, but we are now back to late-1970s birth rates.
The fact that the birth rate has soared 28 years after the last baby boom should not come as a surprise to anyone. Today’s babies are the demographic echo of the Pope’s Children; they are the Pope’s grandchildren. The average age for an Irishwoman to have her first child is 27, so it’s hardly a revelation that we are now seeing the baby boomers of the early 1980s having their own kids.
The real question is: given the changes we have seen in this generation, what sort of world will the Pope’s grandchildren be born into? With emigration on the rise, economic growth slowing, inflation on the up and firms closing, one could be forgiven for thinking we are back to where we started in 1980. However, we know that such comparisons are wrong.
Back then, our government was one of the most indebted in the world; now that accolade goes to us – the plain people of Ireland. Back then, our current account deficit was 6 per cent of GDP, today it is also 6 per cent. Back then, our budget was in significant deficit, as it is today. Back then, house prices, which had risen dramatically in the 1970s, were about to go into a ten-year decline. Okay, let’s stop before we get a little depressed.
There is a significant difference between the Pope’s Children and the baby boom of 2008.Today, Ireland is a rich country going backward. Back then, it was a poor country going, hesitantly, forward. More importantly, back then the world was beginning to open up, as was Ireland.
Ideologically, the 1980s was the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The era of globalization was about to begin and, most significantly, the Pope’s Children grew up in a world free of communism. The Pope and Bin Laden’s mujahedin led the charge against the Soviet Union and, with its collapse in 1989, the world changed profoundly.
More importantly for us, these global changes constituted the background noise for Ireland’s recovery in the 1990s. Without argument, had the 1990s not belonged to the Americans (who dominated an emasculated EU and a dramatically weakened Russia), Ireland would not have seen such huge US investment. The Pope’s Children were born into an American hegemony and they profited substantially from the Pax Americana.
In contrast, their children are born into a dramatically altered world. The main reason is that Russia – after 20 years in the doldrums – is back. The sight of columns of Russian tanks rolling into a country which the Russians classify as part of their ‘‘near abroad’’ is a new one for the Pope’s Children, but an eerily familiar one for those old enough to have lived through the Cold War.
Yet, whether the reaction to the invasion of Georgia was one of dÃ©jÃ vu, shock or even denial, at the end of the day, it is clear that the world order has changed.
That has implications for pretty much everyone, everywhere. All over the world, people are beginning to realise that there is an alternative to the US. Not the USSR, but rather Russia: a revisionist-imperialist entity with aggressive intentions, but without the communist ideological pretensions of the USSR, ready to block, thwart and undermine the US at every turn.
This will probably be most notable in the Middle East, where America’s enemies – Iran and Syria in particular – will welcome the resurgent Russia. Russia is their main supplier of sophisticated weapons and, increasingly, their main diplomatic protector. For other countries in the region, the return of Russia to the global and regional arena offers the prospect of an alternative to American support and protection, which have been tied to ‘subversive’ notions such as democracy and human rights.
For everyone, the period of American supremacy that stemmed from the collapse of the Soviet Union has ended. Any number of scenarios are on offer as to how the new round of rivalry might play out in Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and beyond, but the bottom line in all of them is that every area of ethnic, national or religious tension, from Kosovo to Kashmir, will become more problematic and less amenable to diplomatic resolution.
China and India – fresh from their scuppering of the WTO – will also realise that Russia, in its crudest form, is back and will thwart the US wherever it can. This will greatly change the balance of global power, because a renewed Russia will embolden others.
Who knows? This might be a good thing. However, for Ireland, the end of the era of unchallenged US power is not a positive prospect. The US is our largest trading partner and is the biggest foreign investor in the country.
Close to 80 per cent of Irish exports come from US multinationals and, for those who doubt the significance of the US in Ireland, consider the following: the combined output in Ireland of Dell, Microsoft and Intel amounts to 20 per cent of Irish GDP.
Ireland benefits hugely from a strong US. When the US is confident, it invests abroad and we get a disproportionate amount of this loot. For example, since the end of the Cold War, Ireland has received twice as much US investment as India and China combined.
Unfortunately, our new babies will be born into a world where Russia will contest America’s hegemony all over Europe. By implication, the EU – which could expand into the east under the unchallenged umbrella of America’s Nato – will be hampered. (Ironically, the Lisbon Treaty’s biggest enemy is Moscow, not Dublin.)
As a result, the 72,300 babies born in Ireland in the past 12 months face a much more uncertain global (and domestic) future than their parents, the Pope’s Children.