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Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009

Seven topics for a summer day


LONDON — As Japanese lawmakers campaign for the Aug. 30 Lower House election, British members of Parliament are in recess and Prime Minister Gordon Brown is on holiday. Papers and weeklies are scraping the barrel for something to write about. Many fill their columns with so much sports that foreign readers might begin to think that British life revolves around football and cricket.

Perhaps we and the media should be giving more serious thought to the major challenges facing us as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Here are seven challenges to provide food for thought over the summer holidays:

The huge change in Europe's political structure since communism ended as a political force. The symbol of this change was the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. Countries in Central Europe have joined the European Union, which itself has changed significantly. But much remains to be done in Europe to make certain that peace and prosperity can be maintained within a democratic framework.

Stabilization of relations between the EU and Russia. The Russian autocracy is in a truculent mood. Russian supplies of oil and gas give it a strong hand, but Russia also needs the European market.

The challenge to Europe, America and the developed world from terrorism and militant elements of Islam. The idea of an Islamic world caliphate is absurd; yet some young men and women are so indoctrinated that they are willing to destroy themselves, other innocent Muslims and followers of other religions in jihads against the West.

We may have made some progress in exposing the myths, but we have a long way to go before we can be confident that terrorism has been reduced to a containable nuisance.

Afghanistan is not the only source of terrorism. As Lord Malloch-Brown, who recently resigned from the government, reminded us, the threat of terrorism in Pakistan and Somalia is as great as, if not greater than, that from the Taliban in Afghanistan's Helmand province, where British forces have in the past month suffered the largest number of deaths and serious injuries in decades.

The unprecedented financial crisis of the past two years. Unemployment in developed countries continues to grow. Bank lending has not yet recovered and demand remains weak. Some lessons seem to have been learned about the origins of the crisis, but few believe that the controls being refined are adequate enough yet to prevent a financial relapse. We certainly have not eradicated the fundamental threat stemming from human greed.

The danger to our civilization from climate change. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one of the first politicians to see it. For too long, wishful thinking and prejudice were allowed to dominate policymaking. Now, under President Barack Obama, it looks as though opinion in the United States is at last becoming more farsighted.

Still, the debate on what steps should be taken to deal with the growing threat of global warming often seems dominated by squabbles about who was responsible for past failures. Too little thought is given to finding solutions, which must include helping developing countries reduce their carbon emissions.

Demographic changes complicate the challenge from global warming. In developed countries, birthrates have fallen while life expectancy has grown dramatically as a result of improved living standards and advanced medical procedures. Populations in all developed countries are aging and, in some, already declining, thus placing increased burdens on working-age people.

Climate change will increase pressures to migrate to developed countries in temperate climatic zones. The extent to which immigration should be permitted is a highly charged political issue in many developed countries, but the pressures of those seeking asylum from corrupt and autocratic regimes or just seeking a better life free of the grinding poverty prevailing in the least developed countries will only grow.

Grants of development assistance are not just acts of charity; they serve real national interests. Governments in developed countries must persuade their electorates of the need to maintain and increase development assistance.

Ethical issues raised by medical and scientific breakthroughs, as in genome research. How far should cloning research go? Another issue, which is quite topical in Britain now, is to what extent assistance should be lent to those wishing to end their lives because of pain and suffering.

Dangers of child pornography and fraud on the Internet, despite the immeasurable benefits to mankind from information technology such as faster and easier communication. Authoritarian regimes such as China's and Iran's have tried to impose restrictions and censorship, fortunately, with only partial success.

Tackling these seven major challenges requires intelligent dialogue that can be successfully developed only among an intelligent and well-informed electorate. This in turn depends on improving our educational systems where weaknesses are only too apparent.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan (1980-1984).


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