Cambridge is like a monastery. The sheer silence in Pembroke College’s chapel, accompanied only by the whir of cars outside and the tapping of my fingers on this keyboard is a testament to what it means for a place to be a temple. In this room there is oak, marble, colored glass and the enormous, and clearly capable, organ. No doubt it can rival the United States for age. The air is solemn. Great Britain of course faces the beginning of yet another decade, and with it, acknowledgment of it its new place in the world. The Empire is remembered in nostalgic contrast to China’s ascendance. Joe Nye said that at the turn of the 20th century, the U.K. kindly stepped aside for the U.S. I’m not certain he either envisions or expects the same in terms of China.
Say what you will about religion, one cannot deny the curious quality of refuge afforded by the chapels of Cambridge. This one is special because members of the public may enter; Pembroke kindly opens its doors to all. I suspect its relative remoteness allows this; although Corpus Christi does the same further along this wet, gray, cobbled street, closer to the market. Looking back at St. Catherine’s, for which I have a soft spot because of its grand use of a small plot, one sees only locked iron gates — not very welcoming and not in the spirit one might hope for from the less brash colleges here.
As grand changes happen over the next century, I hope the U.S. takes care to recede, gracefully, and in partnership with the new ascending countries. They have much to learn from us and we do from them. Bitterness won’t do. After all, their reigns will be short compared to the lifespan of this chapel.
The concerns of Cambridge are interesting too; and will be faced by an aging and mellowing United States. Here the question is how much to charge. It has become unaffordable to fund university education. The cause is rampant government waste and the total collapse of the housing price bubble, against which we backed a large portion of our private debt. An outrage? No. A calamitous mistake? Yes. Forgettable? Sadly. Taking a grander scope than just the events of the last 200 years, as this chapel begs one to do, we see that the blip that was the Great Recession, and the slightly longer blips that were British and American hegemony, don’t matter all that much.
With the U.S. economy at pre-recession levels and the Brits in dire straits, China’s premier visited Washington to say farewell and good luck. His likely successor, Xi Jinping, is an unknown quantity, but he is unlikely to show generosity to the aging West. As a civilization, it will not be allowed to enjoy “sunset industry” status — rather this sunset will be more precipitous as it makes way for a brasher and bolder return to the status of relative international multi-polarity, last seen in the 15th century. It is said that the Portuguese brought guns to the ports of the Indian Ocean, heralding colonialism and mercantilism through militant industrial domination. The Chinese investment in their navy and the Indian purchase of advanced weapons from Israel, Russia, Britain and France may only add to the unease. It won’t be the 15th century again, and it may look more like the 16th and 17th centuries with intermittent but bloody competition for the seas.
In the midst of all of this, the West will be saddling itself with whatever latest version of Christian-Democratic-market-liberal ideology is needed to pay for expensive services like a university education. Social goods — it is difficult, when economic indicators are in vogue, to explain the value of social goods. If economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing, then this task is going to have to fall to the politicians. But the vanguard in old Europe speaks economics these days —just outside Cambridge are vast tracts of forest, which could be sold off to private developers if Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government has its way.
Cost-cutting has taken us to the point where social goods must be stripped so that the West can be lean enough to compete with the East. Lost in this conclusion was a calculation of whether the Eastern model, Joshua Ramo’s Beijing Consensus, is the right mood for the 21st century. It certainly smells —literally —like London in the 18th century and that might not be a good thing. To combat that foul stench one needs trees: a lesson Great Britain itself seems to be forgetting.
Udayan Tripathi is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at [email protected] The Internationalist appears every other Monday.