The World Challenge.
by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber.
Translated by Martin Sokolinsky, Elizabeth Bartelme, and Leon King. Simon & Schuster. 280 pp. $14.95.
Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber is a French futurist, carrying on a profession that got off the ground when Joseph accurately forecast the course of fourteen years of the Egyptian economy. Though related, futurism is not to be confused with simple fortune-telling; in our time it has become considerably more respectable, engaging the talents of some of our cleverest contemporaries, including Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute, Wolf Häfele of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Isaac Asimov, an independent and witty peerer into the future of television screens and computers, and Alvin Toffler, whose specialty is theorizing about the psychic effects of rapid technological and cultural change.
Of course all related professions have their secrets. Fortune-tellers protect themselves against palpable error by couching their predictions in such mystic and ambiguous language that their clients are unable to tell for certain whether the predictions came true. Futurists also protect themselves, usually by looking so far ahead that they can be reasonably certain the lifetime of their readers will not be long enough to put their choices to the test of reality.
Not so with Servan-Schreiber of ten years or so ago. With Gallic élan, he made sure that his earlier book, The American Challenge, was clear and precise in its discussion of the world economy. In that volume, the author simply said that American mastery of industrial management was so complete and advanced that America was about to assert its unquestionable economic control of the whole world. People had only to survive The American Challenge by a few years to find out that, in fact, the Japanese were on the verge of taking American mastery of management to bits, and reducing the American challenge to the size of a peashooter.
Perhaps sobered by this experience, Servan-Schreiber has been more careful in his new book, The World Challenge, to make somewhat vaguer his prophecy of what is going to happen. Rather than pure futurism, the book is a warning to the nations of the North to share their technology—whatever those words may mean in general—with the poorer nations of the South. Something very bad will happen if the Northerners refuse, though just what, Servan-Schreiber doesn’t say, not even in his capacity as head of a mysterious collection of world intellectual leaders called the Paris Group.
In fact, the reader is left in the dark about what will happen if the North balks. He is also not told what good things will follow upon acquiescence, except that the world will be New and One. Presumably, the North will also cease to be guilty. For it has, among other acts of heinous selfishness, been stealing the resources of Saudi Arabia and other deserving poor folk in the Third World and (until recently) giving them ludicrously low prices in return.
A truly cantankerous reviewer might argue the opposite, suggesting that the countries of the South have wealth and power today only because smart folks in the now industrialized nations invented a little number called the internal combustion engine. That, in turn, created a market for the dirty black stuff that had been lying unused and unnoticed in the sands below the Southern feet. The low price was not a steal, but nothing more than a market price determined by the balance of supply and demand, and that, again in turn, was largely determined by the very similar price at which America, nearer to the market demanders, was willing to sell its own oil.
Nor could an ill-tempered reviewer accept the notion that the North held back its technology. Without, indeed, having made immense use of that technology in the South, the North would have found no way to remove the oil from its resting place. In fact, it is precisely because the North is not now transferring its oil-extracting technology to the Russians that it is rapped across the knuckles several times in Servan-Schreiber’s book, particularly by quotations attributed, accurately I believe, to the American businessman Samuel Pisar, one of the few Americans to be referred to in glowing terms throughout. But if the North is to be damned for not using its technology to aid Russian oil extraction, surely it should be praised for having made the same science abundantly available to those in the South who had been unable to devise it for themselves.
The real proof adduced by Servan-Schreiber for Northern unworthiness does not, however, lie in any such specific acts of malfeasance. The North is found wanting on the moral plane, in comparison with the statesmen of the South. The author tells us that the leaders of OPEC raised their prices to levels that menace the world economy not from greed, and certainly not from any desire to live in the grandiose, materialistic manner of the North. Instead, in a manner wholly foreign to the shopkeeper mentality, they want to sell their oil in order to pass the proceeds along to the poor nations of the South that unfortunately have no oil of their own.
All this has been established beyond cavil, writes Servan-Schreiber, in the Taif agreement, a document penned by the OPEC ministers and their staffs in a mountain village of that name in Saudi Arabia. In luminous prose, the ministers agreed: “With the other developing countries, we will shape a common, overall program for a new world order, to be negotiated with the industrialized nations.” Beside such prose, deeds fade.
Still, some of those developing nations, grossly in debt to Northern banks and to the International Monetary Fund, all their economies slammed in the face by the rocketing rise in OPEC’s energy prices, even if the latter have been impelled by OPEC’s altruism, must ask themselves if they can use copies of the Taif agreement to pay their bills. Servan-Schreiber does not seek to bolster the Taif case by reciting the contributions, if any, made to Tanzania, or Somalia, or even any help given to Afghanistan with which its resistance movement might be armed against the new colonial oppressor from the North. No mention is made either of the disappointing results of Israel’s strenuous efforts to share its technology with underdeveloped African and Asian countries.
In fact, the major references to Israel are found in a discussion of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Without citing the sources of his information, Servan-Schreiber assures us that Kissinger knew in advance of the forthcoming Egyptian attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, 1973. Further, he told Golda Meir and other Israeli leaders about it. In doing so, however, he made them pledge to do nothing to resist the attack by a preemptive strike because the “geopolitical situation” of 1973 was inhospitable. Those words, we are informed, were used to hide a plot so complicated that one quails at retelling it, but in broad outline, the purpose was to allow the Shah of Iran to raise his oil prices so that he would become a friend of America, while frightening (how?) the Saudi Arabians into a more complaisant attitude on oil prices charged to the United States.
Lacking his own anonymous sources in the Middle East, this reviewer is unable to refute Servan-Schreiber’s facts and theories. They bear, in sum, a curious resemblance to the global conspiracies that were common in the detective stories of the late Edgar Wallace, and seem to come similarly untied at the end. In any case, while the rest of us were sitting at home, believing what we read in the newspapers or our favorite magazines, Servan-Schreiber was traveling around the world gathering the facts with which he regales us here. When the oil ministers went to Taif to endorse their monumentally moral position, Servan-Schreiber was there. He tells us: “In the calm atmosphere of Taif, the oil ministers are unpacking their bags. Each man’s briefcase contains a personal [sic] copy of a secret report on which they have labored for two years.” He must also have been present in London when the young and future Colonel Qaddafi, then training with the British, visited Les Ambassadeurs for a night on the town. There, disgusted by the spectacle of English people of both sexes playing roulette with a Greek shipowner who was a friend of the then king of Libya, the colonel-to-be underwent a moment of intense religious experience.
Even more impressively, Servan-Schreiber penetrated to the very heart of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence apparatus, headed by Turki Feisal, second son of that nation’s monarch. This person is described in the glowing terms reserved by the author for Southern leaders: “Turki Feisal can work without being disturbed. . . . Turki Faisal has a warm personality; his manners are simple, straightforward. Interested in everything, he keeps abreast by endless reading. He clearly believes that Saudi Arabia is the guardian of a world and that its responsibilities grow with each passing day.” Others who win the accolade of Servan-Schreiber’s mellifluous prose include a Kuwaiti protégé of Sheikh Yamani, the famed Saudi oil minister: “Kuwait’s leaders sent Sheikh Ali to California before he was twenty. He returned home confident, sensing the world’s economic future. Ali came back with one dominant concern: to build a new economic system that would replace the old one—and to build it fast, to avert collapse. Sheik Ali believed that ‘industries of the future’ had to be created as soon as inventions emerged from the laboratories.” (It is not clear whose laboratories he was talking about, but there is no evidence they were in Kuwait.)
The scene shifts to Japan. Now homage is paid to Soichiro Honda, the man who made the motorcycle famous. Mr. Honda’s “little place in Tokyo’s green suburb looks like a dollhouse” to Servan-Schreiber, who continues: “. . . there are never more than five or six people around his table. He himself composes the menu. . . . All during the meal he gives a running comment on the dishes. He talks about several things at once, without losing the thread of any of them. Conversation with him is dazzling.” Precisely.
It turns out that many of these praiseworthy characters, including Samuel Pisar, are members of Servan-Schreiber’s Paris Group (how Edgar Wallace would have loved that name). Its purpose, the leader tells us, is to form “a team of men methodically seeking a new direction for a world paralyzed by fear.”
All this grandiosity leaves the reader agog while he wonders what direction the new direction is. What does the author mean? How will it work? We dart around history at the same breakneck speed with which Servan-Schreiber circles the globe, spinning from vignettes of the sinking of the American destroyer Reuben James in 1941 to the 1980 meeting of the Paris Group at which Professor Herbert Giersh, president of the Kiel Institute, tells the members that “only a public from whom one hides nothing of the truth will be capable of gathering the courage and will to act to pave the way for the renaissance of a unified world” (emphasis in original).
These are the lines that stir Servan-Schreiber’s soul, and keep him from being specific about what he recommends. Gradually, the reader comes to feel that the Paris Group expects some future American Secretary of State to develop a new Marshall plan that will send micro-processing computers to the South. What the South will do with them remains obscure, despite Servan-Schreiber’s thumbnail biography of Leibniz, his description of the origins of calculus, and his exposure of the secrets of binary arithmetic. There is a hint that computers will enable Indians to predict the onset of the monsoon with pinpoint accuracy, putting to shame the underequipped television weathermen of the North who make such a hash of the following day’s climate. But aside from the monsoon prediction, which through some mysterious communications miracle will permit hundreds of millions of Indians to get their seeds into the ground at the very right moment, it is not clear what the South will do with all the other electrically-powered machinery. Maybe it can be stored somewhere in Dr. Schweitzer’s old hospital at Lambaréné
Possibly, however, Servan-Schreiber understands, like Samuel Pisar, that the immediate beneficiary of the micro-processing Marshall plan will be the Soviet Union. Its Siberian oil will flow like a spring. There is just a hint of another immediate benefaction to the Soviet Union in a manifesto from the Paris Group: “The wrong target, remilitarization instead of computerization, will inevitably lead to weakness instead of the new creative power for which America, more than any other nation, has the adequate scientific potential and social resources” (entire passage emphasized). It does seem strange that while the Paris Group urges the United States not to catch up with Russia’s military expansion, the South, of which Saudi Arabia is a case in point, is seeking not micro-computers but maxi-AWACS. Perhaps in his next book’ Servan-Schreiber will explain that too.