The Whole World -- Seen Whole

September 08, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

PONT VIEUX, FRANCE — Pont Vieux, France. -- "Around the World in 30 Days'' was the idea. But actually it took the Reeves family -- parents, four children, a son-in-law and a new grandson -- 36 days to get from New York to Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Denpasar, Yogyakarta, Jakarta, Singapore, Katmandu, New Delhi, Islamabad, Dubai, Cairo, Jerusalem, Berlin and Paris -- and then to this crossroads village in Normandy for rest and recollection.

All of this was made possible by the greatest travel bargain in the global village, around-the-world tickets costing in the range of $2,500 that allow a passenger to take any number of flights as long as he flies in the same direction.

We took 25 flights, which works out to about $100 a trip. In addition to family-bonding, seeing many of the wonders of the old world and having one hell of a good time, my wife and I stopped by to talk with various prime ministers, ambassadors, editors and such to check on what they thought was happening in their neighborhoods.

There were times I thought I saw the world whole. Words and hopes, problems and solutions heard and observed in very different places seemed to come together for a moment or two. These are some of those thoughts:

* One way to look at the world these days is as 3,000 nations (peoples) arguing or fighting over who runs 200 countries (land) -- or gets a new one for themselves. Peoples everywhere identified themselves as nations defined by religion or language or even old tribal ties. All want to redraw maps to create or destroy countries that match the history and hatreds in their own minds.

It is not just Rwanda, Algeria, Israel and what used to be Yugoslavia. For better or worse, we always seemed to be a day ahead of or behind nationalist demonstrations, threats, bombs and murders on the West Bank, in Karachi, Kashmir and even in Paris.

* Generational changes are creating new tensions in situations that seemed to be relatively stable since the days after World War II. Bosnia, of course. But also in Taiwan, which China has claimed as an illegal runaway province since 1949, and Kashmir, claimed by both India and Pakistan since 1947.

In both those places, new-generation leaders are talking not about union or reunion with their old countries; they are talking about independence, their own country -- and the old countries, China, India and Pakistan, seem prepared for war before separation.

* Religion is on the move almost everywhere. Our children, with casual American religious loyalties, were astounded by the power of worship and tradition as a unifying and divisive force in country after country. At one point, our 10-year-old daughter, Fiona, asked me to write out the words to the Roman Catholic and Protestant versions of the Lord's Prayer, just to see the small differences that could ignite a place like Ireland.

* International dialogue has almost totally changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of the United States. National security is now discussed as a matter of economics. ''Trade . . . opening markets . . . privatization . . . competitiveness . . . productivity . . . real wages . . . investment, investment, investment'' -- the world sounds like a Harvard Business School reunion.

* Much of the world economic talk -- ''global economy'' to begin with -- is cover and rationale for a frenzied search for cheap labor. China and India are the hot topics now (the economic possibilities of both may be being grossly oversold), and I would not be surprised if one day not so far away the attention of a productivity-crazed world turned to the lost continent, Africa.

* The Asian tilt is getting steeper and steeper right now. The economic statistic of the year, I think, is that there was more foreign investment in Malaysia last year than in all of Eastern Europe combined.

* There is something that might be called a ''Revolution of Fulfilled Expectations.'' The complaining about the way the world is going is loudest in the richest countries. The United States, Japan, Germany and France are putting enormous energy into whining with every fluctuation in the day's dose of new economic statistics. The banks are failing; the sky is falling.

The poorer countries, Egypt and India, for example, and those just muddling through seem far more optimistic about the future.

* Some countries are not going to make it. Among the over-hyped may be China and India. I would emphasize the ''potential'' in ''market potential.'' China has no real legal system and seems to be ignorant still of how the world works -- at least that is my impression after two visits in a year and watching the World Conference on Women fiasco. India is still whatever we call Third World countries now; it still does not have ''systems'' more advanced than a helpful ''I'll take care of that; follow me.''

* The United States has essentially taken over the security role envisioned for the U.N. 50 years ago. When things go wrong, when peace or survival is at stake, when countries need a face-saving way out of escalating threats or actual fighting, they turn to Washington, telling the Americans to ''do something!'' Sometimes things work out; other times troubles continue, but the Americans can be blamed for lack of leadership, bungling or whatever else comes to mind.

And now it is time to go home and take my share of the blame.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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