The Clout of Countries

The term “soft power” was first coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye to describe a country’s ability to exercise influence abroad without the “hard power” of military force, sanctions, and the like. It is an idea I had encountered often during my undergrad studies of political science and international relations, but its inherent fuzziness made it difficult to assess and measure; you can count tanks, troops, missiles, etc., but how do you determine something as categorically intangible as “soft power”?

To address the paucity of data on the subject, in 2015 London-based PR firm Portland teamed up with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy to create an index of soft power: The Soft Power 30, the most recent update of which was released last month. Countries are ranked based on a combination of two sets of data: polls measuring how the countries are perceived abroad, and quantifiable variables such as the number of diplomatic missions abroad, the size of foreign-aid budgets, the number of intergovernmental organizations they are members of, and so on. Continue reading


Our Globally Centered Economy

Believe it or not, there is a lot to celebrate about the economy as of late, both here and elsewhere.

The U.S. stock market is going strong, with the S&P 500 at an all-time record. But the German and Japanese markets are up by more, and markets in the U.K., Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere are also seeing record growth.

While the U.S. unemployment rate is the lowest in almost two decades, Japan’s is also the lowest since then, with the U.K. and Germany seeing the lowest rate since the 1970s.

Although America’s GDP growth is above expectations this year, so is Japan‘s and the eurozone’s (the 19 European Union countries that use the euro). In fact, the eurozone grew faster than the U.S. economy, contrary to popular belief about its imminent collapse.

The point of this isn’t to make light of our well needed economic gains, but to point out that our success is part of a broader global trend, and that we depend on numerous other countries and trading blocs to stay afloat.

Without having global partners to serve as our suppliers, consumers, and labor force, we would not be doing so well, and our economy would not be as large and diversified in the first place.

Nowadays, all our biggest and most innovative companies are multinational in character, relying on talented people from across the world to design or create their products (if not run the companies entirely). In such a globalized era, diplomacy is paramount.


The World’s Most Ambitious Megaproject

China is marking its entrance onto the world stage as a great power in an unprecedented way: the $4-6 trillion One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, an extensive network of infrastructure — railways, roads, pipelines, and energy grids — that will link China with 65 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. By the time it is completed in 2049, OBOR will span 62% of the world’s population and 40% of its economic output.

china-one-belt-one-road Continue reading

Italian Firm Joins Global Effort to Develop Nuclear Fusion

Globalization at work: Italian energy company Eni — one of the “Big Six” fossil fuel companies and the eleventh largest company in the world — is working with researchers from the U.S. and worldwide to produce energy from nuclear fusion, perhaps the most promising form of energy conceivable (it is a safe, sustainable, virtually inexhaustible source of power that creates virtually no pollution or emissions).

The Italian firm is investing $50 million into a company founded by former MIT scientists to create the first commercially viable nuclear fusion plant, and is also carrying out research with MIT on plasma physics, advanced fusion, and electromagnetic technologies.

Problems this big need all the capital, resources, and talent humanity can muster. Italy is just one of several nations working towards this cause. We need more cross-border coordination of this sort.

How Global Inequality Undermines Global Democracy

Yet another massive leak of offshore banking documents has revealed the remarkable extent of the world’s “parallel economy”, in which a large and growing proportion of global wealth is secretly stashed away in a complex and opaque network of tax havens.

In addition to the obvious diversion of literally trillions of dollars of capital that could be better spent alleviating the needless suffering of billions (with plenty left over to spare), this development is arguably a threat to democratic governance the world over, as Matt Phillips at Vice argues. Continue reading

United Nations Day

On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations came into effect, establishing the U.N. as the world’s premier international organization and setting forth, for the first time in history, an aspirational global standard for human rights, international cooperation, and global security — hence the observation of United Nations Day.

The United Nations emerged during the Second World War as the formal name for the Allies that opposed the Axis powers, although the idea of creating a new world organization — to replace the moribund League of Nations that was created after WWI — was conceptualized by the U.S. State Department in 1939.  Continue reading

Progress Across Boundaries

It is telling that all the Nobel Prizes this year — as in recent years — have thus far been awarded to multiple laureates, often of different nationalities and/or for research done in a country different from their birthplace. Like so much else nowadays, science is becoming an increasingly globalized endeavor, conducted across an international network of institutes, universities, labs, and other academic and scientific organizations.

Of course, this is nothing new: almost every human achievement, regardless of time or place, can trace its origins to gradual, supplementary, or parallel developments elsewhere. Mathematical principles, political concepts, artistic expressions — all of the contributors to these and other fields built (and continue to build) upon the work of predecessors or contemporaries, adding to or refining the growing pool of ideas along the way. Thanks to advances in technology, expanding access to education of all levels (especially in the developing world), and a growing sense of global consciousness, this historical development is accelerating.

Knowledge and talent know no boundaries, whether political, linguistic, or ethnic, and the more we facilitate the exchange of ideas and the collaboration, the closer we will come to greater human progress. This is not easy, due to both practical and cultural challenges, but neither is it utopian; there is thousands of years worth of cross-cultural progress persisting to this very day proving it can be done, and the world has a lot to show for it. Given how much more needs to be done — socially, scientifically, ideologically, etc. — we have all the more reasons to keep it up.

Global STEM Leaders

STEM — short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — is all the rage these days, as economies across the world become more knowledge-based, and as humanity faces threats like climate change and resource depletion that will require creative, technological solutions.

That’s why so many nations, especially in the developing world, are trying to gain a competitive advantage by investing in STEM education and seeking to attract STEM graduates from abroad. According to Forbes, which cites a report from the World Economic Forum, these are the countries leading the way:


Unsurprisingly, with their large and youthful populations, India and China have the most graduates overall at 78 million and 77.7 million, respectively. The U.S. is in third place with 67.4 million graduates, although the quality of its degrees may be greater than that of its competitors, whose education infrastructure is younger, less developed, and less prestigious (for now).

Japan’s high ranking is not surprising given that is a well established scientific and economic powerhouse, although its aging population and low rate of immigration likely explains why it doesn’t rank higher despite a population of 126 million. Russia, Iran, and Indonesia are rarely touted as academic leaders, but each is fairly populous — at 147 million, 75 million, and 260 million respectively — and Russia and Iran in particular have a long history of scientific achievement.

However, China may soon close this gap as it continues to improve its institutions and education standards:

Some estimates see the number of Chinese graduates aged between 25 and 34 rising 300 percent up to 2030 compared to just 30 percent in the U.S. and Europe. According to the World Economic Forum, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has become a pretty big deal in China’s flourishing universities. In 2013, 40 percent of Chinese graduates finished a degree in STEM, over twice the share in American third level institutions

In an increasingly globalized world, the ability to draw and retain students and graduates from around the world will likely become a bigger consideration for more countries. For all the complexities of its visa and customs systems, the U.S. has long enjoyed an edge in this regard — for example, all six of its 2016 Nobel Prize winners were foreign-born.

But a wave of nativism and xenophobia may undercut its attractiveness as a research and academic hub, and other countries — including neighboring Canada — have begun to step up as alternative options, dangling such incentives as a path to citizenship upon graduation.

One thing is for certain. The future of a nation’s success and survival will depend on its command of technology and science. How it goes about advancing those intellectual resources is a different matter altogether. But any country’s increasing education is humanity’s gain.




Video: The Rise of Megacities and the Era of “Connectography”

Humanity’s rapid and unprecedented rate of urbanization and connectivity is leading to the emergence of a truly globalized society. Goods and services, social relations, cultural products, ideas and values, and people themselves are transcending political and geographic boundaries like never before.

Needless to say, this trend is impacting every facet of human life, portending a future in which existing national borders — the kind we’re accustomed to seeing in every map of the world — fail to capture a new pan-human community. Indeed, the nation-state as we take for granted today may not exist at all.

Granted, such claims come with plenty of caveats. The world still far from abandoning the forces of nationalism, religious extremism, ethnic chauvinism, and basic parochialism, to say nothing of the technical challenges that remains; arguably, such sentiments have only grown stronger in some parts of the world in recent years.

In any case, there is no denying that whatever challenges or reversals lie ahead, the world is not what it once was, and today’s concept of a nation-state dominated international order is longer adequate for capturing the reality of our global society. Parag Khanna brings this to light with an interesting new TED Talk that explores the emergence of megacities and the subsequent erosion of geographic and political barriers — a dramatic shift he refers to as “connectography”. Check out the twenty minute video below, or read the transcript here. Continue reading

The World’s Most Empathetic Societies

Empathy, which is broadly defined as the ability to feel or understand another person’s experience or perspective, is considered by many to be a foundational part of morality and ethics. But putting oneself in another’s position, and relating with their pain, joy, beliefs, and other mental and emotional states, one can better learn how to treat others and what constitutes positive or negative behavior.

It can thus be reasoned that individuals with a high level of empathy will most likely be kinder, more understanding, and more cooperative with others; a society composed of mostly empathetic people should similarly see higher rate of pro-social activities and values, such as more charitable giving or less crime. But only very recently has a study been done to measure which societies have the most empathy, and how or if that translates to greater societal health. Continue reading